The artistic director of the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center women's string orchestra speaks about the impact of music on prisoners at the facility
The following is an edited interview with Gabrielle Whitfield, who teaches at Northwood Elementary School in Anchorage. She is the artistic director of the women’s string orchestra at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center. She’s been with the program for nine years and is excited about the upcoming 10-year anniversary of the prison’s annual Holiday Concert. There’s only one orchestra member who has been in the program longer than her: Tamara Riley, who has performed at each of the concerts. Riley is one of the most dedicated orchestra members. She said it helps her cope with her 99-year-sentence. Riley has served about a third of that time and will be eligible for parole in three years.
KTVA: So just how dedicated is Tamara Riley?
Gabrielle Whitfield: She’s our only one left. Our only kind of pioneer that was with us in that founding group. I can’t even count on one hand the amount of rehearsals she’s missed over the last nine years since I’ve been here.
KTVA: What has the program meant to people like Tamara?
Gabrielle Whitfield: It’s revolutionized her life. I can’t think of what her life would have been like, being here 10 years and not having had music.
KTVA: What have you noticed in Tamara over 10 years?
Gabrielle Whitfield: When I first came here, Tamara and other women were very protective of their feelings and a little more guarded around me. Year after year, she gets more and more relaxed. And it just seems like it’s so much more joyful for her. How can you be joyful in prison? But she has so much joy, and I think the violin has had a lot to do with that.
KTVA: Do you think there’s something about music that helps rewire the brain? Is something being redirected?
Gabrielle Whitfield: Sometimes I get people coming in my class and you can tell that their brain is damaged, I think from drug and alcohol use — and it has to be, because it’s just that the connections don’t come. But the more that they’re in class, those connections slowly start happening for reading music.
And with some people it takes longer than others, but I really do feel it’s got to be healing for things that are going on in their brain and definitely healing them socially.
KTVA: Is there any way to know what kind of impact the Hiland Orchestra has had on the women after they leave prison?
Gabrielle Whitfield: Some of them write me sometimes. I’ll get random letters, and they’ll say they’re playing music with their child. They’re playing for their child. They’re encouraging their child in music, because of what they did here.
You know you can’t be dysfunctional when you’re in an orchestra –and I hope that some of the function that they learn in my group of how to work with people and be responsible rubs off when they get back with their own families. They realize, “Oh, yeah. I have responsibilities.”
KTVA: So when someone leaves prison, how does it affect the orchestra?
Gabrielle Whitfield: It’s like a mixture of being super sad that now we don’t have a violist, or we don’t have a bassist, but so happy that they finally made it to the end of their time here. So it kind of goes in cycles, people coming and going. And with recidivism, which is a terrible thing, you get people that come back to jail and they come back to the orchestra.
KTVA: What have been some of your high points over these last nine years?
Gabrielle Whitfield: I just never expected it to go this far. We have had have all these incredible musicians perform, and I was making this collage of all the guests that have come over the past 10 years. I couldn’t even remember them all. There have been so many. It’s just the outpouring of support from musicians from all over Alaska and throughout the country. And I have hardly heard a negative word whenever I mention this program to somebody. They say, “Oh, that is the greatest thing. How can I become involved with that? ”
It’s created a much stronger community in here (Hiland), and it’s also created all these ties toward the community that’s living outside of Hiland and kind of brought everybody together through this orchestra.
KTVA: And what does it mean for the orchestra to be reaching this 10-year anniversary?
Gabrielle Whitfield: The women, they always tell me the hardest thing for them is sticking with stuff. They just say that over and over again. Like I tried something. I’ve quit every time, everything I’ve ever tried. The violin isn’t easy. It can be excruciating when you’re a beginner. And that they have stuck with this, and some of them have stuck with it for a whole decade, I mean that is quite unbelievable. It says a lot about them. They have grown since being in here.
Man, it is a powerful experience, having learned that there’s so many different sides to one person – and one crime does not necessarily define a person. And hopefully that’s what they’re taking away from this too, not to let this crime define them — and to not focus on the past but focus on the future.
This year’s Holiday Concert at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center will be held on Saturday, Dec. 7. Among the featured guest performers: violinist Linda Rosenthal and jazz artist Diane Monroe. There are two afternoon performances, one at 12:30 p.m. and another at 3:30 p.m. Tickets must be purchased before Friday. For more information, go to the “Arts on the Edge” website: www.artsontheedge.org