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The gift of music: Teaching piano in a women's correctional institution

The gift of music: Teaching piano in a women's correctional institution

"Most people take piano lessons as a child, not as a middle-aged woman in prison." These words, spoken by a piano student at the Goodman Correctional Institution in Columbia, South Carolina are true. This truth is a part of the reason why I began a small program for piano study at the prison two years ago. My research while a student at the University of South Carolina showed that educational opportunities in piano were being offered seldom (if at all) in correctional institutions. My love of music and teaching has always been coupled with a very strong sense, as I've looked at the world around us, of how important it is for each of us to do our parts to make our world better. I decided that if prisons needed music education, then prisons were where I would go.

Changing hearts and minds

I contacted the volunteer coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Corrections about my interest in teaching piano. She put me in contact with the chaplains of the two female institutions, and Chaplain Bennie Colclough of Goodman was excited at the prospect. As Goodman's chaplain, he has a sincere and passionate commitment to providing incarcerated women with opportunities to learn, develop skills and tools, and change their lives for the better in ways they can utilize when returning home. Piano lesson offerings at Goodman go a long way in, as he says, "changing hearts and minds one life at a time." My proposal for the program was approved, and I began teaching less than two months later.

As a volunteer at the institution, I was given a background check and attended an orientation meeting outlining guidelines and procedures. These included regulations on appropriate dress, demeanor, physical contact, and materials brought into and out of the institution. All I bring in are my car keys and a driver's license. I cannot bring my purse or phone. I cannot take materials from the inmates or bring materials in to them (excluding approved educational materials). To enter the institution, I first must be approved at the entrance gate, and then at a guard's booth where I sign in and trade my driver's license for an ID badge. Each week, an activity form is provided that is signed by myself and all participating students.

At the start of the program, thirty-seven women signed up for piano lessons, and there were four lesson time slots available. The four students were chosen by the chaplain and warden, and it was decided that women with longer remaining sentence times would benefit from lessons and be able to share what they learned with other inmates. Lessons are held in the chapel where an upright piano is available. Any educational materials I wish to bring in must be approved by the chaplain a week in advance. The small piano library we use includes method series books, collections by current pedagogical composers, standard repertoire collections, and sheet music. Many of the books I purchased or provided from my own home library. Books and piano tuning have also been donated by Rice Music House of Columbia. An unexpected donation to the library came from the family of a student in the program. They were so supportive of her piano study that they purchased a book for her to use, and she donated it to the library to share with other students. Each student also has a folder that includes weekly assignments, staff paper, and other educational sheets. 

Although the environment at Goodman is quite different from the setting of a typical piano lesson, the lessons themselves are very much the same. They include the study of technique, music theory, music history, musical concepts and reinforcement, repertoire study, duets, improvisation, and practice techniques. Each student participating in the piano program has a thirty-minute lesson once each week and a one-hour practice session once a week. This amount of practice may seem sparse compared to what we require of many students, but it is twice as much practice time as allotted when the program began. Extra practice is done away from the piano. Students use flashcards, may practice rhythms or singing, do physical exercises to develop finger and coordination skills, and do mental practice.

Creative practicing

I am impressed by the great resourcefulness of the women in this program. One student told me how she practices scale fingerings while waiting in line at the prison, another showed great hand position improvement and finger dexterity from practicing finger exercises away from the piano, and a third created flashcards to practice note recognition, adding beautifully ornate, hand-drawn pictures to each card. Students in the program have told me numerous times of the ways they practice piano and the pieces they are playing in their minds. For example, a student was assigned her first piece that de-manded hands-together playing. In the lesson, we were only able to work for a few minutes, determining key elements and challenges of the piece. I was very surprised when, the following week, I heard the student play the entire piece almost flawlessly. I expressed my amazement and asked, "How did you master this piece after only one practice session?" She responded that she had been practicing the piece in her mind. The evening prior to her lesson she had played the piece many times in her head. In addition to mental practice, students also learn techniques for making the best use of limited practice time.

Piano students in the chapel where lessons are held at the Goodman Correctional Institution.

A wealth of benefits

There is so much to be gained from piano and music study, not the least of which is an appreciation for beauty. Through music, we not only become capable of creating beauty, but also more able to see beauty in the world around us. This is important for everyone, but it takes on an added importance for the women in this environment. Music making is also an outlet for self-expression, and this can come in many forms. One student in the program told me that she had made up many songs that she sings and would love to be able to play piano with them. She has since composed and performed her own songs at the institution. The study and practice of music develops skills of discipline and organization, improves the recognition of process and pattern, and expands historical perspective. I love to tell historical stories about composers and the music they've written. One student shared with me that she likes these stories so much that she tells them to other inmates.

Through the study of music, an individual may develop self-esteem and pride. Learning to work through musical challenges with persistence helps to develop tools that are applicable in many areas of life. As one student said with a bright smile, "I feel I am doing something worthwhile. It gives me a more positive outlook on life—I believe I can do anything now! This is a rewarding challenge. To learn piano is just priceless." I have seen so much growth in the women in this piano program, in their musical understanding, in their self-confidence, and in their own personal ownership of the learning process and pride in their accomplishments.

Piano study gives an individual a sense of hope, purpose, and goals. One student told me, "Being where I am can be so tough at times, with few pleasures or joys. It is easy to give up, to stop caring. But my faith helps me face each day with confidence. Taking piano lessons is more than just learning how to play for my own enjoyment. Maybe one day I can take what I have learned and give back to others." Students in this piano program have plans to continue playing piano when they are home, and some hope to have jobs as church pianists or even as teachers. The study of music allows individuals to work towards and achieve numerous short- and long-term goals.

Music study helps provide these women with a new perspective on themselves and on the world around them, and it fosters a sense of community as they work together. Outside of lessons they talk about musical elements, hand coordination, and personal challenges while they share experiences and answer each other's questions. They are very supportive of one another. Students have performed in two piano recitals since the beginning of the program, and these were attended by a supportive and proud audience including volunteers and employees, the chaplain, and the warden.

The song in one's heart

The piano program at Goodman is small, but the benefit of the relationship and sharing that is built between student and teacher over the course of many weekly one-to-one lessons is large. I have gained so much as a teacher, musician, and as a person working with these women in this environment. To use the words of one student in the program when asked what she has gained from piano study, "I have gained a knowledge that the song in one's heart that is played the loudest is the one that is given away." This is so true, and I have become poignantly aware that the music, skills, and knowledge we possess are precious, and that they are greatly enhanced when they are shared. The same student said, "I never knew I could have a chance like this in a place like this, and we all really want to learn. We are hungry for it. We are thirsty for it. To learn to play piano is a life-changing experience for the better."

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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