Violin and Yoga in Jail

“You’re lucky to play the violin.” I paused from playing “Edelweiss “ and laid my violin in my lap. I sat in a chair by the bedside of the veteran at Walter Reed Medical Center. Nurses peered into the room to see my violin. I watched as the veteran struggled to sit himself upright, as he slowly stretched his hands out in front of him and shared how envious he was that I could play the violin.

He must have noticed the puzzled looked on my face because he went on to share how he had watched my fingers dance on the fingerboard as I had played some of his favorite music. He continued and said that his cancer had begun to diminish his ability to move his fingers without pain.

Before I left, he thanked me for sitting down and spending time sharing music and triggering old memories… I thought about that moment as I stood next to the yoga instructor in front of the security checkpoint in the jail. I felt anxious as the alarm buzzed and gate slowly opened, as the chains grated against the gears. I silently told myself bringing this combination of yoga and violin music for the inmates would create a positive impact.



The instructor and I had worked together providing music and yoga for gym members and one evening discussed the idea of starting a program in jail for female inmates. The yoga instructor and I navigated through various checkpoints, and we waited by our designated room while a Bible study continued. As time ticked closer to our reservation, the Bible study leader indicated that he had the room booked for another hour.

My heart sank, and I began to wonder if we would be able to hold the session at all due to the jail’s strict rules. Our yoga mats were in the corner of the room on a cart, and the floor looked clean enough to eat dinner from, but we couldn’t use the room. We made our way back to the control center and explained our dilemma to the officer on duty and were then offered to utilize an empty unit. We grabbed the cart carrying the yoga mats and walked towards our new destination. While we waited for the officer to usher the female inmates into the hallway by the empty unit I couldn’t help but smile. This was finally happening. After months of planning, I would have the opportunity to use music to help people in a unique way.

The class size was maxed at 12 ladies, and everyone seemed eager to begin. After the officer unlocked the unit I began to wonder how we could use this space to hold the session. The air smelled stale, and I noticed dust particles floating by the ceiling lights. The empty unit had a big open area with high ceilings and cells on one side and stairs leading to a second level of cells. Tables were scattered in the center of the room, and I saw bugs crawling on the floor.

However, within minutes, the ladies began pushing tables towards the empty cells and sweeping the floor. The empty unit reminded me of the Correctional Facility used in the 3rd season of The Walking Dead, but fortunately in our case, we didn’t encounter zombies.

As the yoga instructor began the session I took a deep breath and sought to transform the unit’s aura with music. I thought of warm colors as my vibrato carried the overtones throughout the unit.

I watched as the women laughed while trying new poses and testing their balance. I changed the music in response to floor exercises and standing poses. When the women were asked to quickly exhale and create an odd facial expression, I accented notes at the end of their breath while adding a harmonic to supplement the motions.

I noticed people soften and show vulnerability through laughter and curse words in response to poses that required more balance and coordination. They encouraged one another to keep trying and be respectful of the instructor. As we approached the meditation portion of the session, I felt calm. The space which initially had seemed unsavory for yoga because of the bugs crawling by the ladies’ yoga mats had transformed into a warm safe space.

The ladies were asked to lay a washcloth over their eyes and initiate the Savasana pose. In that moment, I stood by the instructor once more and felt goosebumps along my arms. I dug deeper into my strings, unearthing richer sounds from my violin in hopes of the music reaching the hearts of the women. I could hear the echo of my violin as the sounds bounced off the walls of the empty cells in the unit.

The instructor prior to the session shared that she also specializes in Reiki and will often utilize it during the meditation portion of her classes for members in hopes of helping them find balance and restoration. I watched as the instructor moved closer towards the women and spread her hands to share her energy with the class.

After the session, a woman approached me and shared with me and her new friends that because of anxiety she hadn’t been able to sleep since getting locked up. She then said that the yoga and music was not only soothing but helped her feel relaxed for the first time since becoming an inmate and that she would finally be able to sleep. All the written feedback from the evaluation forms were positive!

“I liked the fact that I got a decent workout that was not strenuous! It was very soothing. I also liked the Violin! It put an extra sense of peace to the class and workout!” “I loved it! I can’t wait for the class to come back. It made me feel better mentally and physically.” “I enjoyed the yoga class so much. Please have them return. I know I personally enjoyed it and it really helped clear my mind. Thank you for allowing them to come.”

I’m thankful that the session turned out well regardless of the changes and space. I look forward to returning to share music for a community experiencing a difficult time in their lives.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Days like today reminded me why it was important I leave my job and dedicate time to music. I went to the hospital to play for patients and hoped I would be able to find patients that would allow me to perform a few songs. The staff on the oncology units have come to know me well and anticipate Violin music whenever they see my Captain America shield backpack and Batman symbol on my violin case. One of the nurses at the station exclaimed “Hooray! Entertainment.” I chuckled to myself and readied my violin to greet patients and families. I felt good today and prepared to play different songs for patients.

I knocked on a patient's door and saw a young woman lying in bed who appeared shocked to see someone enter with a violin. She smiled and slowly sat upright while I told her I was there to play music. She nodded and said that she was the only one in the room but I replied by saying that I’m here to play for you. She relaxed her body and eased her head into the pillow while waiting for me to begin. I started with A Thousand Years by Christina Perri while taking my time with the melody and allowing the notes to ring throughout the room and hallway. I watched as tears welled in her eyes so I slowed the tempo and widened my vibrato. After a few songs, I played Somewhere Over the Rainbow and saw her cover her face with the bed sheet. I kept repeating the melody and watched as she audibly cried in her bed. I continued through more songs and after performing Canon in D I used the D as a transition note to return to Somewhere Over the Rainbow in a brighter key. I normally perform the song in the Key of C major for a mellow color but I felt I needed to reprise the song with a stronger color. This time she smiled and after I had finished she continued smiling.

The woman asked how I picked those songs and I told her that my grandmother has Alzheimer’s so I try to pick songs she recognizes and can sing along to as I play. The woman then said that 5 years ago she had arranged for A Thousand Years and Somewhere Over the Rainbow to be played at her husband’s funeral. She took a deep breath and said that next week would have been his birthday and she’s sad because no one talks about him anymore. Then she shared the music reminded her of the time they spent together and that she wants to take her children to more concerts.

I’m thankful I could be there and look forward to sharing music again at the hospital this week. I’ve performed Somewhere Over the Rainbow countless times but today made it special and I hope I can continue to make a positive impact on the patients and staff.

A Day In Walter Reed

Since leaving my job I’ve had to embrace dedicating more time and energy into not only being a musician and trainer but accepting that I have to believe in myself. Today I went to Walter Reed to play for patients and families after my lesson. I got on the elevator and already waiting to reach his destination was Hospital cleaning staff. We ascended one floor and then a woman in her 50s or 60s came onboard and asked to hit the button where she wanted to exit. The button would not light but the staff member assured her that the elevator would still let her off on the right floor. She responded in a rude manner and continued hitting the button herself and said a not so pleasant comment to the worker before getting off on the same floor I had planned to go. I smiled and thanked the gentleman for his patience and walked the opposite section of the woman to begin finding patients to visit.

I was fortunate to be welcomed by different patients and play without any issues and while I played I felt someone from outside the door watching…I turned around to see one of the nurses smiling with her eyes closed listening so I continued playing until the end of the session. As I was jotting down notes she approached me with a somewhat frazzled and forced smile on her face. I could tell she seemed stress while trying to maintain composure in the environment. She asked if I would play Amazing Grace for her and I said of course. So, by the nurse’s station, I stood and played Amazing Grace. To my surprise, I saw a change in not only her mood but those nearby. An elderly woman with a wristband that read ‘surgery’ slowly walked towards the station with the assistance of her cane. I looked around to see people coming to the station to just stop and listen. Families stepped outside the rooms of their loved ones to hear the music. That’s one of the things I love about performing music. I can control the timing of phrases while watching people’s responses in real time. I also have no idea how many people can hear the music in the environment because the sound leaks into rooms. When I finished playing the nurse thanked me and said it was hard not to cry but she smiled and went about tending to a patient.

I wanted to play for one more room so I knocked and asked patients to play but some were with family or hoping to rest. I knocked on a patient’s door to hear CNN on blast but didn’t see anyone initially because it was a shared room. I continued walking in and saw an elderly woman lying in bed relaxed yet curious as to why I had a violin in my hands. She told me she had difficulty hearing but wanted to watch me play so I turned off the tv and began with Edelweiss. After the 2nd song, a woman walked into the room with ice cream in her hands and I struggled to resist from laughing. It was the woman from the elevator was short with the hospital staff. She allowed me to finish playing and shared how much she appreciated me playing for her mom. She asked about my work and if I considered joining the National Symphony Orchestra. I smiled and wanted to ask if she was high because folks who could play circles around me fly from around the world to compete for one spot. I of course politely told her I’m focused on outreach. Anyway, she and her mom were both kind and encouraged me to continue playing and using music in the community. 
Today I felt more encouraged to play violin with a smile on my face because I had amazing encounters too numerous to share and difficult to properly convey. I realize that while some days are filled with praying I play in tune and building technique, I have moments that change lives through a willing spirit and violin.

When the Saints Go Marching In

There are times where I go to play in Hospice and some families would prefer to spend time with their loved ones without hearing music or feel satisfied with a few minutes of a song. I’m glad I can make a difference either way. At Hospice, I am fortunate that my violin carries throughout the hallway into different rooms. Honestly, I feel as if my violin was made to play in that environment. I go to Hospice and Walter Reed to play for patients and every note rings…it feels important.

Today I remember going into a room and started to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow for a patient. Her son’s phone rang and he responded to the person on the phone that he was in the room watching his mom die. I wanted to stop playing and say I was sorry for him having to go through this or invading their space. I kept playing for a few more minutes to find myself playing softer and softer as he talked on the phone. My tempo began to crawl and I knew it was time for me to go. I thanked them for my time. I really meant it.

I went into the room of another patient behind the nurse as she administered medication. I stood there with a weary smile as I thought about my experience hearing the son talk on the phone about his mother. I forced myself to be present mentally and to my surprise, the patient seemed vibrant and cheerful. She shared with me her fondness for music and how she loved listening to the violin. I wanted to take advantage of the room’s acoustics so I played Summertime from Porgy and Bess. I love playing this piece on my violin because the major third D to F sharp on the A string have a youthful color and vibrancy to them that I felt at the time would match the woman’s mood and personality. I played two times through then an octave higher. She stopped me after the song and asked what I do for a living. I responded in saying…this. I use my violin to play all over and in daycare for kids and gym classes. She said that God must have given me this talent because people don’t play the way I do for no reason. I asked if I could play one more song and she said of course and that she could just cry…I thought to myself wondering what should I play? When the Saints Go Marching In came to mind. I played two voices at once with double stops and mimicked the range of a male and female voice. I remember smiling as I played and taking care of each note because I wanted to play my best. I wanted that song to matter and to be an important everlasting memory. I’m sure the meds had kicked in because the woman said she wanted to stay awake but now she could sleep. Or maybe that was the music too? What I really remember though was her saying that she would pray for me and the work I do. It hit me then. All I could muster was a thank you and say that I’m coming back to play soon.

I hope she’s still there so I can share more music with her next time.

Violin Concert in Jail

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to be able to give a Violin Concert at the Ordnance Correctional Facility for the inmates and staff. I couldn’t help but feel excited as security checked my equipment and allowed me to wheel my violin on a cart through the checkpoints. As the Lieutenant and Activity Coordinator escorted me, I continued to debate in my mind which piece to begin the concert.

We entered the gymnasium and I only had a few minutes to tune and set up before the inmates entered the room. As I tuned my violin and saw people come in I couldn’t help but crack a smile because I’ve always wanted to play in a Jail. I love bringing music to people. Especially in Nursing Homes, Hospice, Hospitals, and Gyms because I feel as musicians we can make a positive impact through sharing our talents.

The Activity Coordinator told me that male and female inmates are not often allowed in the same room so it was a treat for everyone to be together. After everyone sat down I introduced myself and said that I would play a variety of music ranging from Disney’s Frozen to Queen’s We Are the Champions. I began the concert with Summertime from Porgy and Bess and could feel the atmosphere in the room change as it does in Nursing Homes and Hospitals. Initially, I felt anxious yet in that moment I felt peace and warmth.

As the concert continued I could hear people singing as I played Take Me Out to The Ballgame and applause as I announced that I would play Hey Jude from the Beatles. I remember laughing at one point from the surprised looks I received after I said I would play Free Bird. Yesterday was truly a joy and an experience I’ll never forget. I’m only one person with an acoustic violin yet the entire room sang and stomped their feet to the familiarity of songs from their past. Some of the inmates appreciated Disney’s Frozen because their family would watch the movie together and did not hesitate to belt out the lyrics and dance in their seats.

I shared that my grandmother inspires me to continue playing music in the community and performing familiar songs. She struggles in her journey with Alzheimer’s and can no longer remember anything that happens short-term but can still recall all the words to her favorite hymns such as How Great Thou Art or music from her past.

At the end of the concert, one of the inmates told me her mother had Alzheimer’s and believed music could help families reconnect. Another inmate said she was glad I played music from Charlie Brown and said she had a great time. One inmate shared that he loved Free Bird and that it was one of his favorite songs growing up.

Maybe next time I can come back with a bigger band or actually play The Devil Went Down to Georgia but I learned how much of an impact I can make with my violin and a willing spirit.