Project Imagine: A Musical Oasis for Incarcerated Youth


L to R: Moni Simeonov, Rebecca Jackson, Tiffany Richardson, and Frederic Rosselet

Project Imagine: A Musical Oasis for Incarcerated Youth 

The inaugural PROJECT IMAGINE residency (September 29 – October 2, 2015) consisted of three two-hour sessions where members of the string quartet performed duos, trios and quartets. This blog has 3 parts: team members reflect on this very special journey, project sponsor David Kaun describes his experience attending the final session of our residency, and the youth express their thanks.

by Rebecca Jackson 

Following a summer of preparing the curriculum for our 3-day residency, I set up a meeting to go over the content with Jennifer and the teachers. We wanted their guidance and feedback, especially regarding the interactive activities. I found out that a seemingly simple act of sharing or trading papers for writing assignments would not work well in this environment where intricate boundaries, alliances, and rivalries exist. The Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall separates the youth population into two units and rarely are they combined. In order to give them all the opportunity to enjoy the music program, an exception was made. Another activity that we suggested was to select a youth volunteer to receive a mini violin lesson from me using my violin. Thought was given to which kid might be willing to step out in front of all his peers – one of the boys came to mind. I joined Jennifer for lunch with the youth and she asked the boy to sit next to us. She asked, “Do you remember Rebecca and the music program?” He nodded yes. After a bit of conversation, she asked, “For the program next week, would you be willing to have a violin lesson from Rebecca – and you don’t have to answer now. You can think about it.” Almost without missing a beat and with a bright smile, he said “Yes, I’ll do it.” Jennifer said that on a couple of occasions leading up to our first visit, he pulled her aside to remind her not to forget that he’d like to have a violin lesson.

On our first day, tables lined up in the center of the room separated the units and they were brought in methodically, row by row, sometimes individual by individual. There were shifty glances, some with a closed off body language, others came in with a more confident demeanor, many smiles and greetings were exchanged. The Imagine quartet’s attire was purposely Santa Cruz casual: T-shirts, tanks, and jeans. We launched into our program and soon it was time for me to call upon my “volunteer” to demonstrate the basic skill and coordination it takes to hold a violin and bow to play just one note. The boy jumped up. He listened to my step by step instructions very carefully and in a matter of minutes very impressively played my violin. I will never forget his bright and contagious smile.

Shmuel Thaler – Santa Cruz Sentinel

This experience was very emotionally challenging – a reason why our performances within those walls were so powerful. One of the final events was the quartet surrounding the youth from the four corners of the room to perform Barber’s Adagio. In that transforming moment of performance, I felt overcome by seemingly endless tragedies in our world as well as gratitude for this gift of music which allows profound expression and connection even when realities exceed comprehension. 

by Moni Simeonov

The first thing that struck me was how supportive the staff and teachers were in giving the kids’ education equal or better than the one waiting for them on the outside. From the powerful murals, to the chess boards and library, the atmosphere suggested thoughtfulness and commitment.

Some kids came into the room willing to connect, others unsure of what we were, and a few were there out of boredom. By the end of the first day, the contagion of interest had spread thoroughly. The interest may have been in us, our weird looking instruments, strange sounding accents, but it didn’t matter. What they ended up with were lessons in music and compassion.

There were long stretches of time when the kids were more active in the presentation than us, the presenters. They played, composed, wrote, read, asked and answered questions. But most of all, sat for two hours at a time, and asked for more.

Thinking about what we did and how we felt is irrelevant because the kids were ready to respond the way they did. We just happened to provide a stimulus this time.


Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel

by Frederic Rosselet

Even though most of the kids were new to classical music, I was amazed and happy to see them so eager to learn about it and tap into their creative minds in response to it. From their writings, I found interesting to see how music affected them in different ways, and how some drew their inspiration from past experiences while others were guided by their imagination.

Their willingness to participate grew stronger every moment of the residency. By the end of the third day they had many questions for us and were very eager to compose music for us to play. Those kids are the most enthusiastic, open-minded and responsive audience one could ever hope for and playing for them was an incredibly rewarding experience.

by Tiffany Richardson

Our time at juvenile hall was truly a gift, a great reminder that we are all just ordinary people, and we can all connect through a shared experience, such as music. It was such a memorable experience, starting off with some slight hesitation from the youth, and ending in an energetic dialogue at the end of the third day. One of my favorite moments was when the youth had the opportunity to “compose” music, by rearranging notes into unique melodies on a magnetic board. They lit up hearing how their notes created beautiful musical lines. Some of the youth had some exposure to a musical instrument and studies, but this was the first time they had the opportunity to explore music as a form of communication, and see the intricacies and possibilities between musicians. Hearing the poetry some youth wrote was an incredible experience, surprising that they chose to be vulnerable not only in front of us, but amongst their peers as well.  The highlight was the final session and culminating performance, the youth reading while we provided a musical backdrop. Even Assistant Director Jennifer Buesing remarked “it feels like Christmas!” The enthusiasm in the room was palpable, and I look forward to our next opportunity to visit the youth. 

By David Kaun [Sponsor of Project Imagine], Comments on a Simple Afternoon

I was asked to let you know about my thoughts regarding this afternoon’s Juvy Hall gig.   Actually, it’s close to impossible to do so….words can’t really describe the feeling I experienced during the two hours earlier today: how about #$%^^^^&*^#*%&(++@######$%.  Clear enough?

But just in case, let me try the impossible.

For starters, let me repeat what I said to you as we left Juvy Hall.  I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such deep and conflicting emotions simultaneously.  The beauty of your music and its so obvious impact on the Juvy kids was really a treasure.  I was sitting just a bit off to the side of the older group, and could see both their rapt attention and their instantaneous and honest enthusiastic response to each piece.  No question, they were soaking up the beauty and joy of what you were imparting.  And just as clearly, I was aware of the fact that these totally handsome young men were soon to return to their normal life.  Essentially a life in prison.  How can that be?

One additional thought.  Most if not all of these kids really never had a chance.  They came from broken homes, parents whose life experience more than likely also began in the juvy halls of their communities, and associating with equally disadvantaged youth.  From day one, their life trajectory was set…with Juvy Hall one of the stops on the way to their own personal hell.

But not every kid.

For some, probably a minority alas, someone or thing—an experience of real love or beauty—will intrude in a way that changes their direction for the better.  There’s no doubt in my mind but that your three day visit to the hall did and will have such an impact. The joy and happiness that you brought to those kids was vividly evident.   And the impact will be both lasting and life changing…for some.

Shmuel Thaler — Santa Cruz Sentinel

Thank you letters from the youth:

“Thank you for coming and sharing your music with us. You guys played really well. I never thought I would enjoy classical music this much. I hope your program continues because I know many others will enjoy it like we did. Hope to see you guys again soon!”

“I am grateful for having all of you guys come and perform here in my new home, the Juvy Hall. I am grateful that you guys came here on your own time to play for us and make the hall feel alive rather than dead…”

“It was pretty funny the way all of you would move around – it made me giggle a little. But like I said, all 4 of you are really, really talented. The way all 4 of you would play your music would make me feel good inside, made me feel like I had more peace in my life.”

For a link to the feature article “The Sound Inside” about Project Imagine in the Santa Cruz Sentinel click HERE

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