Music Transcends

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

At the Prison

    The Nazareth group gave shirts to the musician inmates.
    Hiland Orchestra Director Kathryn Hoffer, Gilleran, Nadrich, Strelau.
    Inmates in Hiland Orchestra rehearse with Nazareth group.
    Nancy Strelau conducts at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center.


      Nazareth College Chamber Orchestra rehearses the piece

      by Joanie Eppinga and Chris Farnum

      Nazareth Orchestra Conductor Nancy Strelau surprised two student musicians with an invitation: Want to go to a women's prison in Alaska for a musical experience? Strelau was planning a trip to conduct inmates in rehearsing a prison-experience piece she'd composed.

      Music education majors Tyler Nadrich '21 and Heather Gilleran '21 said yes to the 5-day summer trip — and to what became yet another unforgettable experience in just their first year of college.

      The prison connection started at a 2017 music conference, where Strelau discovered that inmates at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Anchorage were learning to play stringed instruments. "I thought it was very inspiring, and I decided to write a piece for them," says Strelau, who's also Nazareth's auditions and instrumental coordinator and who mentors incoming music majors.

      Stages of Prison Life

      She asked the women, long-distance, about their preferences. They wanted four sections that related to the stages of prison life: incarceration, coming to terms with imprisonment, self-redemption, and release from jail.

      Strelau couldn't make the piece too difficult, because the women play at a basic level. "Fortunately," she says, "limitations make you creative." Strelau started with a simple melody, "to speak to all of us," she says. From a quiet start, the composition builds tension and physicality.

      Strelau had Nazareth's student chamber orchestra play it on campus in fall 2017, to send a recording to the prison, which included then-freshmen Nadrich and Gilleran.

      How People Can Change

      "The first time we played it in a rehearsal, I just felt emotionally connected to it," says Gilleran, a violist. Someone Gilleran cares about was once incarcerated, and reflecting on that person as she played affected her deeply. "The piece itself is beautiful."

      Gilleran believes she was well prepared for the August 2018 trip to Alaska after going on a Nazareth study abroad trip to Germany and Poland to study the Holocaust. She learned and thought about what makes a person good or bad, and whether people can change.

      "One decision can literally shape somebody's life," Gilleran says. "One decision could lead to something like going to prison," or to helping or hurting a persecuted person, as Germans did. People make decisions without always knowing what they'll lead to, she observed.

      For her classmate Nadrich, life lessons from Alaska came when she tried to reconcile her interactions with the friendly, welcoming inmates with learning afterward that they were sentenced for crimes as serious as homicide. "They're incredibly sweet people who are trying to change themselves," says Nadrich.

      She also took to heart something the prison's orchestra conductor cautioned them about before they went past the barbed wire: Be careful what you say, because some people don't take correction well. "I'd never thought of that," says Nadrich, but she recognized it's a good lesson for any future music teacher. In summer 2019, she'll be going to Spain for an internship teaching music.

      Connecting Through Music

      Strelau's music had connected with the inmates even before they excitedly got to meet the composer. The power of her 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."

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

      Relating with the inmates was enlightening for her students, Strelau says, because it gave them a chance to see how modeling and mentoring can be part of good teaching.

      The trip reminded Gilleran what music really is, she says: "something that unites those of us from different backgrounds and allows us to work through our emotions."

      The inmates agree. "Music is important for the human spirit," wrote an inmate named Sarah. "It changes the environment inside us and among us."

      Joanie Eppinga is a writer and editor in Madison, Wisc.; Chris Farnum is a Nazareth College writer and associate director of marketing.

      Tyler Nadrich and Heather Gilleran with instruments

      Tyler Nadrich and Heather Gilleran, music education majors

      What's Next

      To build on the connection, Nazareth is exploring the possibility of publishing "The Journey" and starting a Hiland String Orchestra Concert Series, with Nazareth College music/business students potentially publishing, marketing, distributing, and developing new works. 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.

      Unexpected Experiences

      • The prison inmates were welcoming and recommended things to do while in Alaska. One said, "You've got to get a reindeer hotdog," recalls Nazareth student Tyler Nadrich. So she did. "It tasted like Italian sausage, kind of. But it was more flavorful."
      • The Nazareth group visited an Iditarod competitor who taught them the syllables and kissing sounds that direct his excited sled dogs.
      • Nadrich and Prof. Strelau hiked up a mountain in Alaska — a challenging scramble up rocky boulders to reach a summit with an American flag surrounded by clouds. "That was stunning," says Nadrich.