Arts and Culture

Putting life's lessons in song

Grant fuels project pairing students with former inmates

by Eric Gorton

2017 Stringham grant 1

SUMMARY: Music professors David Stringham and Jesse Rathgeber started the program this fall along with social work professor Cindy Hunter after getting a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The idea of working with formerly incarcerated individuals who are adjusting to life outside prison was, at first, a little intimidating.

But Lily Gates, a sophomore majoring in public policy, is finding the experience truly rewarding. "I look forward to this every week," she said recently after finishing a session helping men put their life stories to music.

Gates, a classically trained violinist who also plays a number of other instruments and who started at JMU as a social work major, is one of seven students working with the men who take part in programs at Gemeinschaft House, a residential, transitional facility for individuals who have been released or diverted from incarceration and who may have a probation obligation with the Virginia Department of Corrections.

Music professors David Stringham and Jesse Rathgeber started the program this fall along with social work professor Cindy Hunter after getting a $20,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to study the impact of an interdisciplinary, arts-based project on formerly incarcerated persons, pre-service professionals and community members. The goal is to use music and storytelling as therapeutic outlets, not only for the men who are participating, but in the spring for members of the community who attend a concert where the men may choose to be involved in performing what they have created. Stringham said focus groups will be organized following the concert to gauge whether experiencing these performances changes people's perceptions about formerly incarcerated individuals. Those perceptions will be compared to results from a survey being done this year in collaboration with faculty and students in the Institute for Constructive Advocacy and Dialogue.

Gracie Cuevas, a senior majoring in social work and Spanish, said she has been surprised by how the men have opened up and discussed their lives, breaking the stereotype of the macho male who keeps everything inside.

a student on drums and another with a guitar work with a Gemeinschaft resident who is also seated with his back to the camera.

Maggie Rabe, a senior majoring in music education, also has been surprised by the openness of the men. And while some have been more hesitant than others at venturing into singing and playing instruments, she thinks they are coming around. "Making music is for everybody," she said. "It's not for an elite group of trained individuals. I think everyone has more music making skills than they give themselves credit for."

Hunter said the social work students "are building social work and music education skills by bringing their classroom education into planning and facilitating groups at Gemeinschaft. They have conducted literature reviews to inform their understanding of the population, strengths and challenges these men bring and the potential for the arts to influence successful reintegration. It is a perfect example of engaged learning."

Sydney Seed, a junior who is studying music education and doing a family studies minor in social work, said the experience has opened her eyes to what she will be able to do as a music teacher. "I started the family studies minor because I wanted to be a better K-12 teacher," she said. "I want to reach children through music and I thought if I could better understand family systems and better understand problems at home and how that impacts children, I can more effectively use music as a tool to help them. Never had I ever considered that I could use this curriculum for something like this project. So just opening my mind to the endless possibilities that exist for social work and music and all of the lives that I could help through that knowledge has changed my life."

The project involves a series of seven-week classes where the Gemeinschaft residents first talk with students about their life experiences to come up with ideas for lyrics. After coming up with ideas they start learning to write lyrics and then move into learning how to play instruments and sing. Most of the NEA grant was used to purchase instruments and recording equipment that will remain at Gemeinschaft after the program ends.

Two more seven-week classes are scheduled for the spring semester before the final performance, which will be held in the Forbes Center concert hall.

a professor and a student with guitars work with a Gemeinschaft resident around a red pool table.

Stringham said the project is addressing a gray area between often discretely-defined disciplines of music education and music therapy. "What we're going out there to do is not what some may see as mainstream music education. We're not primarily concerned with these guys developing a sense of tonality or a sense of meter. Will they develop their musicianship through doing this? Sure. Will they probably also experience some sort of non-musical benefit from processing their story through these arts-based lenses? Absolutely."

Rathgeber noted, "These areas between disciplines are often where practitioners, participants and communities can interact in deeply meaningful ways. And that's really the point here: to contextualize art—and music specifically—as a tool for knowing oneself, others and the world. We hope to highlight that all people are creatively musical, and musics they create can convey stories that, when shared, can help foster more empathic and caring communities."

Madison Scholar logo that links to the Madison Scholar website.

Published: Monday, December 11, 2017

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Back to Top

Related Articles