Nursing homes, hospitals and churches are popular locations for St. Olaf students to share their musical talent off the Hill, but two Oles are adding an unexpected and underserved location to that list: prisons.
In the last week, cellist Liam John ’16 and violinist Anna Wolle ’18 have completed two of their three self-planned stops on a musical tour of Southern Minnesota correctional facilities. John said the idea for the performance series arose from a previous prison tour he participated in after his senior year of high school in his home state of Vermont.
John and Wolle launched their Minnesota tour on Saturday, April 30, in Shakopee, Minn. at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Shakopee, the state’s only women’s prison. They performed a second concert at Minnesota Correctional Facility – Redwing, a juvenile detention center in Redwing, Minn. on Monday, May 2. Their last stop is scheduled at the Minnestoa Correctional Facility – Faribault, a medium security men’s prison in Faribault, Minn. on Saturday, May 7.
The duo acknowledged the stereotypes and stigmas associated with prisons when preparing their musical tour.
“You have these preconceived notions about what a prison is going to be like based on its appearance and security. It’s not the logical first thing people think of when they want to provide a service for somebody,” John said.
“But it’s still needed,” Wolle said.
John and Wolle, who performed together at St. Olaf earlier this fall, said they planned this concert with the intent of entering into communication with the audience.
“We approached the program like a conversation,” Wolle said. “We started off by introducing ourselves, but then we asked them what types of music they listened and talked about our own music interests. People could raise their hands to ask questions, and they did that during every concert. There was a really great response. For each of the concerts, there was definitely a progression to how people warmed up to the music. Our program has stretched to an hour each time, even though our music length is probably a half hour,” Wolle said.
John said he has enjoyed not only the range of audience members that they have reached, but also the range of responses that have resulted from the concerts.
“It’s special because every person who comes to listen to us will get something different out of it. Each person has their own background in music and interest in music and people learn different things. They’re learning things from us and we’re able to learn from them. What’s nice is that it changes,” John said.
Although every listener has a different experience, Wolle described a unifying factor within the music. This element allowed her to connect with the audience as a performer.
“Performing is so cool because you share the space, you share the acoustics, and you all hear things in different ways, but you all are presented with the same thing that is to be heard. But you create a different world together. The sound itself has a telos. It has that purpose that is achieved, but you have to enter into that musical conversation to achieve it,” Wolle said.
Encountering the diversity of genders, age groups, and background stories among inmates at the correctional facilities has presented an interesting learning experience for the musical duo. Ultimately, these factors have shown the pair that music’s relatability truly transcends demographic differences.
“Before doing this tour, I liked to think I thought of music as a universal language, but I realized afterward that I still had my reservations and preconceived notions. Those were totally turned on their heads after the first performance. Everyone really can listen to music and it is universal. I shouldn’t go into any concert with preconceived notions because music is a form of communication with everyone,” Wolle said.