Cellist Shares Performing at Men's Central Jail

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Cellist Shares Performing at Men's Central Jail

(photo credit: Cooper Bates)

There’s a phenomenon that continually surprises and fascinates me: the act of giving and how it can actually be an equal exchange of gifts, rather than a one-way transaction. You can help a stranger find the nearest bus stop, and they might thank you, and you walk away with an inexplicable lightness and warmth. Why? I think that comes from the act of giving – which is inherently spiritual and human. I sincerely believe that helping, giving, offering – these are things that will uplift and nourish the giver. And we are all givers and recipients at various points in our life.

On Tuesday, November 10th, I, along with my wonderful colleagues, violinists Mitchell Newman and Niv Ashkenasi, pianist Joanne Pearce Martin and tenor Daniel Chaney played a short concert at the Men’s Central Jail in downtown LA. It was my first time in the MCJ, and I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid that the inmates would get bored, or make fun of us, or demand some “real music like hip-hop” or the like. Well, I was blown away at how genuine, patient, respectful, and sweet the men were.

They were inquisitive, curious, open-minded, and deeply respectful. They listened attentively throughout our program of Handel and Bach – even though music of this kind might’ve been foreign to them. Any fears or preconceived notions of “criminals” and jail inmates dissolved in that room. We were just sharing some music, opening up to each other about music and about each other, and connecting. Which is what music ultimately does.

I don’t know what these mens’ individual stories are – I don’t know my colleagues, or the police officials, or even some of my friends’ stories really reveal. We all have our own stories. And we can choose to judge and condemn, and categorize and separate and delineate. But for that short time in that room in the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, we forgot all those lines and just saw the simpler and yet bigger picture – that we are all humans that have hearts and the capacity for love and goodness.

One of my favorite moments of the day was when one inmate raised his hand and tried to articulate why he liked the Bach. “It felt somehow ’emotional’ but I’m not sure why.” I relate to that utterly, and that hard-to-grasp quality of art is one of the reasons why I love it. It also speaks to its visceral power to touch and communicate. I’m so extremely grateful for the opportunity to have played some music for these men. I feel like I experienced something holy. Of course, I feel an incredible sense of powerful emotion and enlightenment from the “giving”, but mostly, I feel like I was actually mostly “given” so richly today.

This human interaction of exchange is a beautiful phenomenon, designed not to be a mathematical or self-serving transaction, but a necessary and nurturing human necessity, as well as part of the cycle of life.

Joy Song Cellist, Street Symphony