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From cells to cellos: Music program has Utah inmates singing a new tune

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During their performance last Saturday, the men of the Wasatch Music Education Program sounded remarkably like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

They harmonized almost as sweetly as the world-renowned choir does. They rehearsed in a chapel. They began and ended the performance with a prayer. They were even trained by Mack Wilberg, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s current director.

True, the performers may wear prison uniforms and reside in Draper’s detention facilities, but the artistry — and spirituality — of their singing was undeniable. And, according to music program director David Aguirre, choir conductor Wilberg and some of the inmates themselves, it’s been sort of a saving grace.

“The thing that’s great about singing together is it’s a great way of bringing people together,” Wilberg said. “I think music — it sounds cliché — but music can be very healing. And just coming together and singing and starting to sound cohesive and like a real ensemble — I think there’s something great about it. … It can be very special.”

The volunteer-led Wasatch Music Education Program began in 2006. Originally, the program provided resources for inmates to learn either piano, voice or guitar. In 2008, it was close to eliminating some of its offerings due to a lack of volunteers.

Aguirre first attended one of the prison’s music recitals as a volunteer with his church’s family home evening program. When he heard from then-director Ken Green about the program’s lack of resources, he decided to get involved.

With the help of Aguirre and his wife, Mary, the music program expanded. The pair brought in more instruments, like woodwinds and strings, and developed relationships with nearby music stores to get discounts for sheet music and other essentials.

The program really took off, though, when inmates like Roland Pitt began getting involved. Pitt, with a Ph.D.-level education in classical piano performance, was well-equipped to teach music lessons to interested students. Pitt views the program as an opportunity for participants to practice working toward goals and develop pro-social attitudes.

“One of the things we emphasize is that to develop a skill, you have to develop a determination,” Pitt said. “You have to set goals, you have to support one another. If you don’t show up, the other people don’t learn as much. … A lot of these people haven’t had that type of experience in life. It really helps guys get out of their element on the block that’s not really conducive to progress. I think it’s a really positive benefit for the guys.”

Pitt was partially responsible for bringing Wilberg to the prison. Together, Aguirre and Pitt developed a “master’s program” to find and recruit musical “masters” throughout the community to come to the prison and teach the inmates. Pitt was familiar with Wilberg because they were musical competitors in college, but Aguirre was shocked when Wilberg called to say he was interested in attending weekly choir rehearsals.

“I dropped my phone,” Aguirre said. “It was just so exciting. … It’s just been phenomenal, the results he has. The men just respond to him. He has such a humble greatness about him. … And that’s good for the men to see.”

Ron Kelly, an inmate who has been in the Utah State Prison for about 35 years now, considers himself a main recruiter for the music program.

“It’s really been a lifesaver,” Kelly said. “This is what I do. For lack of better terms, I’m kind of the pimp of the music school. I’m out there asking people, ‘Hey, have you ever played an instrument?’ … We want this to be a place where people can escape and have peace.”

Music programs like those at the Utah State Prison are gaining more supporters who agree that “finding peace” can be very positive for prisoners. A 2001 study confirmed that music education programs in prisons contribute to reducing risk factors like aggression and stress and promoting improved coping skills. The Prison Arts Coalition is a national network that advocates for the formation and maintenance of such programs. Proponents say that arts programs reduce disciplinary issues in prisons and enable inmates to engage in healthy self-expression.

If the Wasatch Music Education Program is anything to judge by, those proponents are right — Saturday’s concert was a show of enthusiasm and spirit. Inmates were highly supportive of one another’s varied performances. Some performers played more traditional instrumental music, some sang country, others engaged the audience with classic rock. It was a feat accomplished only through teamwork, discipline and some impressive musical ability.

Aguirre hopes that more people will be able to see the performers’ dedication — both to music and to self-improvement.

“We will invite people from the neighborhood to come out and see a recital and meet some of these men, and their first response is, ‘It wasn’t at all what I expected,’” Aguirre said. “Our school has inmates that range from what the public would consider very minor crimes to … major crimes. But they have found men who are trying to change their lives and are willing to learn and willing to listen. … These are good men that have made some serious mistakes. And yeah, many of them deserve to be here. Most of them deserve to be here. But they’re trying to make a better world for themselves and be better men.”