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Inmates get music training from world renowned choir director

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UTAH STATE PRISON – Some inmates at the Utah State Prison are getting an opportunity few will ever encounter.  They’re getting musical training from the highest of levels, and they’re not taking the experience for granted.

Normally, you can see Mack Wilberg conducting the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  But on this occasion, he wasn’t directing a typical choir.  After all, it wasn’t a typical concert venue.

Wilberg wasn’t there in his official role as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir Director.   He’s volunteers at the prison in his free time.  Wilberg first came to the prison to consult inmates on how to put a choir together, and was hooked after that.  He says, “I just saw the looks on their faces as we worked together and I thought, ‘One can make a difference here.’”  So, he trained the inmates, every Wednesday for up to an hour and a half.  He says there was no questioning their determination.  “I would say they work just as hard as the [Mormon] Tabernacle Choir.”

Wilberg first came to the prison to consult inmates on how to put a choir together, and was hooked after that.

“I just saw the looks on their faces as we worked together and I thought, ‘One can make a difference here,’” he says.

So, he trained the inmates, every Wednesday for up to an hour and a half.  He says there was no questioning their determination.  “I would say they work just as hard as the [Mormon] Tabernacle Choir.”

This was part of the Wasatch Music Education Program Spring Recital at the prison.  They showcased musicians of all stages, from the absolute beginners to the very advanced.  He is one of many volunteers at the prison who had the chance to see the music class concert.  Inmates say the volunteers hold a crucial role in helping them improve their lives.  For instance, inmate Ron Kelly doesn’t let people speak ill of the volunteers, and gets emotional when he thinks about how important it was for Wilberg to volunteer.

Kelly says, “There you go.  You do this to me.  These people don’t have to come here.  They choose to come here and they choose to come and help us be better.”

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The inmates in the class are also encouraged to write and create their own music.  James Torres, for example, wrote a song called, “Stuck in Tomorrow’s Yesterday,” which talks about how he feels he will always be known as the mistake he made.

“I’d grown so much.  But, someone had said, ‘He looks the same.  He hasn’t changed at all.  He still looks the same as back then,’” he says.

Inmate Roland Pitt is classically trained as a pianist, and, he’s never getting out of prison.  For a few years, he wasn’t allowed to practice his music.  He believes shows and music classes like this can sometimes be the only way an inmate can try to better himself.

“It’s a way to pay back.  For some of these guys, it’s the only way they can.  They can make some kind of restitution by helping other guys by singing, enjoying themselves and learning a skill,” Pitt says.

As for Wilberg, he says he plans to spend more time in prison as a volunteer.

“As I drive home every week, I really feel uplifted from my experience here.”