Interview by: Madeleine Gefke
September 18, 2017
Jody L. Kerchner is Professor of Music Education and Director of the Pedagogy/Advocacy/Community Engagement (PACE) Division at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. She is the founder and conductor of the Oberlin Music at Grafton (OMAG) Prison Choir and provides college students with the opportunity to sing as choir members alongside the men at Grafton. A few years ago, Jody received a stuffed animal squirrel as a gift from her choristers, because she often compares them to squirrels when they chat too much.
Q: What do you think you’ve gained or learned from your experiences in the Grafton Prison community that has impacted your life or your perspective?
A: I imagined that because these men were going to be performing at a lower musical level than what I was experiencing at the Conservatory, it wouldn’t be as satisfying as it is. [Yet] I find that I’m learning so much about the social justice issues and the need for reform of our penal system. I’ve learned to be a better teacher, because I have to be really specific and I can’t take anything for granted, as many of the singers are starting from scratch in terms of their musical knowledge. It’s joyful to bring students with me as assistants. It’s joyful to see the men feeling accomplished and the self-esteem that they’re gaining through music. It’s taken me in a totally different direction than I ever would’ve imagined in terms of my professional life.
"I’ve learned to be a better teacher, because I can’t take anything for granted."
Q: You also work with student volunteers from the College and the Conservatory. What do you think keeps them coming back?
A: Initially, it is the intrigue [of] music in prison [that interests the students]. They keep coming back because they put names and faces to the word prisoner. [We create] musical relationships and build a community of learners through music. It is the strong relationships and the reciprocal learning, where the men are learning from the students, and the students are learning about life, privilege, mistakes, and forgiveness from the residents, that keeps students coming back.
" [We create] musical relationships and build a community of learners through music."
Q: How have you and your student volunteers impacted the Grafton community?
A: For the ninety minutes of our rehearsal, the singers have reported that they can be their vulnerable selves, open to artistic processes. The prisoners often comment that they have two selves. One [“self”] is within our choir space, [where] we aim for a safe space [in which] every voice is heard, acknowledged, and honored in decision making. But the residents also have this other self that is outside, where no emotion is showed and where people make the choices for them. The men also talk about interacting with people on the outside, because they don’t often get that socialization. Also in terms of impact, we have done a lot to build relationships where the prison officials are seeing us differently and we’re starting to see them as people, instead of those who are doing bad things to prisoners. In seeing different sides of each other, we’re coming to understand the complexity of the person, rather than slapping a stereotype onto a person.
Q: What has been your favorite part of working with the Grafton community?
A: We just have fun and that fun comes from learning. Sometimes I’ll laugh because they get so frustrated with themselves in learning music. Sometimes we just laugh at each other because the sounds we make are really pretty ugly. Sometimes we flop and we can laugh at that, excuse that, and then problem solve on how to go about relearning and approaching music. It is great fun to be around them and I never thought I would be saying that, but it is a highlight of my week. There is that music and humanity [in this community], and I just really enjoy that.