The Journey

A composition for a women's prison orchestra inspires both inmates and music education students.

by Joanie Eppinga

violinist at sunrise

Imagine the extreme emotional pain that accompanies years of incarceration. The shame, fear, and boredom are impossible to escape, and most prisoners have no healthy outlets to express these feelings.

Music professor Nancy Strelau has helped to change that for the women at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Anchorage, Alaska. Strelau—Nazareth’s music auditions and instrumental coordinator, associate professor in professional practice, and orchestra conductor—composed a piece representing inmates’ experiences, thereby offering them a chance to communicate the pain of incarceration and the pride of redemption through music.

The idea came to Strelau at a conference last year after she spoke with the orchestra director at Hiland, who told her that women in the prison were learning stringed instruments.

“I thought it was very inspiring,” says Strelau, “and I decided to write a piece for them.”

She asked the women, long-distance, about their preferences. They told her they wanted the music to have four sections that corresponded with the four stages of prison life: incarceration, coming to terms with imprisonment, self-redemption, and release from jail. But the women play at a basic level.

“I knew the piece couldn’t be too complex,” Strelau says. She asked herself: How do you make something beautiful that can’t be that difficult to play? “Fortunately,” she says, “limitations make you creative.” Strelau chose to start with a simple melody, “to speak to all of us,” she says. The composition starts quietly before building into tension and physicality. “At one point the music stops,” Strelau explains, “and for four beats there’s just quiet singing.”

The power of the piece, titled “The Journey,” astounded its subjects.

“She gets it!” one inmate exclaimed. “She understands me!” Another wrote a letter of appreciation. “Ms. Strelau has never been through my exact journey,” it read, “yet her soul knows the soundtrack to the universal longings of the human condition.”

Sensing a kinship with these women she’d never met, Strelau went to Hiland to conduct the piece with them. She took along two music education majors: Tyler Nadrich ’21 and Heather Gilleran ’21. Strelau, the students, and the inmates created beautiful music for nearly three hours.

“You could’ve heard a pin drop in there the whole time,” says Strelau. “And the three of us made an immediate connection with these ladies who are passionate about playing music.”

Relating with the inmates was enlightening for her students, Strelau says, because it gave them a chance to see how they can be good teachers in the world: through modeling, mentoring, and instructing. She notes that when these students take conducting, their experience at Hiland will be an excellent starting point. Furthermore, she adds, it will be a good resume-builder.

The trip was productive in many ways, Gilleran agrees. Playing with the inmates made her remember what music really is, she says: “something that unites those of us from different backgrounds and allows us to work through our emotions.”

The release the women felt as they played the piece together was profound, according to the denizens of Hiland. “Music is important for the human spirit,” wrote an inmate named Sarah. “It changes the environment inside us and among us.”

“The piece is a gift for the women,” Strelau says, “and their response is a gift to us.”

To build on that initial excellent experience, Nazareth is exploring the possibility of publishing “The Journey” and starting the Hiland String Orchestra Concert Series, with Nazareth College music/business students publishing, marketing, distributing, and developing this publishing entity. Furthermore, Gilleran and Nadrich will be working on a music certificate program for adult beginner musicians, administered through the Nazareth College community music program. Strelau says the program will allow area adult musicians, as well as offsite musicians like those at Hiland Correctional Facility, to work through a music achievement program as they progress technically and musically on their instrument.

Joanie Eppinga is a writer and editor in Madison, Wisc.

Nancy and students at women's prison

L to R: Hiland orchestra director Kathryn Hoffer, Gilleran, Nadrich, Strelau.

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Listen to The Journey

    Prof. Nancy Strelau conducts Nazareth's Chamber Orchestra, playing her piece.