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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

OK, to Alaska now, where there is an orchestra unlike any other in the world. It's made up of a group of women who perform music at mostly an amateur level, and yet they sell out every one of their concerts. They also happen to live together in one big house. From Alaska Public Radio, David Shurtleff reports.

DAVID SHURTLEFF: Inside an old auditorium north of Anchorage, 11 women are tuning and warming up. In just an hour, this empty room will be packed with a large and uniquely appreciative audience. Viola Player Sara Jane Kaufman (ph) explains.

Ms. SARA JANE KAUFMAN (Viola Player and Inmate): You know they're comfortable with us, and that's really cool. You don't get that weird vibe from them, like, uhh these are criminals.

SHURTLEFF: Yes, she said criminals, as in felons or prisoners, and that's because all of the musicians in the orchestra are inmates inside Highland Mountain Correctional Facility. Like Sara, the women tend to be middle-aged and unexpectedly pretty. People you'd be more likely to find at a PTA meeting than a penitentiary. But all of them have been convicted of serious crimes, ranging from drug possession to murder. The only requirement to join is serving a long enough sentence to learn how to play. Patti Croffit (ph) created the program and runs a nonprofit, called Arts on the Edge, to fund it.

Ms. PATTI CROFFIT (Director, Arts on the Edge): Stringed instruments are really hard. We were out of pitch for a good year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SHURTLEFF: And sometimes they still are. But the struggle with scales, staffs, and sonatas is only a fraction of the problem. When Croffit first started the orchestra five years ago, challenges included everything from collecting donated instruments, to getting the prison superintendent to let them ditch their prison-issued yellow uniforms for their live shows.

Ms. CROFFIT: The first concert was in June in Alaska which, you know, in June in Alaska the sun is up most of the time. And it was really funny, because when he was contemplating the black outfits he said, I don't know I think it's against prison regulations, because they could kind of like steal away into the night. And I said, Dean, it's June, the sun's not going to go down. And he says, OK, you can get the black outfits.

SHURTLEFF: And there have been other times that prison rules have slowed down the orchestra, like the time the two key musicians nearly missed the show because they were in solitary confinement. But despite everything that can and does go wrong, the prison orchestra appears to be teaching some valuable lessons. Take viola player, Jackie Bennett, for example. She's scheduled to be released later this summer, after serving a five year sentence.

Ms. JACKIE BENNET (Viola Player and Inmate): You've got to be able to come together, teamwork. I mean those are all skills that you're going to need wherever you go, you know, and you learned them in orchestra. I've learned so much from it besides just playing an instrument and just being blessed with that.

SHURTLEFF: And that's exactly what creator Patti Croffit had in mind when she started the orchestra.

Mr. CROFFIT: A lot of the girls have told me it's the one time in the week where they forget they were incarcerated. We're just a group of friends that play music together.

(Soundbite of music)

SHURTLEFF: And for the next hour they are the Highland Mountain Correctional Orchestra, playing today's concert to a room packed full of fellow inmates; they are simply 11 women dressed in concert black, performing for a sea of prison yellow.

(Soundbite of music)

For NPR News, I'm David Shurtleff in Anchorage.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick.

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