Musicambia has inmates at Sing Sing prison using music as rehabilitation

The men exchange high-fives and fist bumps and the only thing that really stands out from the hundreds of other rehearsals I’ve observed is that the musicians are wearing prison uniforms. Not a guard is in sight in the crowded room (they are stationed in the hallways), and while the windows are frosted and barred, the rehearsal space doesn’t seem so different from many New York City public school classrooms. However, most NYC public schools don’t require extensive security clearance to enter the building, nor do you have to spend over an hour waiting to be screened and searched and then led to the classroom. Although the familiarity of attending a rehearsal and working with a roomful of musicians puts me at ease, the irony is not lost on me: I’m planning to spend my beautiful day locked inside Sing Sing Correctional Facility, one of America’s most famous maximum-security prisons. And I’m here to observe a new music program—one dedicated to changing inmates into artists.

Built in 1826 and located in the rural upstate hamlet of Ossining, New York, on the scenic banks of the Hudson River, Sing Sing holds 1,700 prisoners. Over the years, it has housed some of New York’s most notorious criminals. Before the US Supreme Court temporarily halted executions in 1972, 614 men and women were put to death in the prison’s electric chair, dubbed “Old Sparky.” Those included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed on the same day in 1953 for passing nuclear bomb secrets to the Soviets.

In 1996, the prison started its Rehabilitation Through the Arts program, which has reduced the recidivism rate. The prison continues to advocate educational reform.

Currently in its first year, Musicambia is a New York–based initiative that plans to establish similar programs in correctional facilities across the United States. The initiative was inspired by the Venezuelan El Sistema music-education program and orchestra, and its emphasis on both independent musical study, as well as ensemble performances. The pilot program had been planned for 16 participants, but when 28 showed interest, Musicambia founder and director Nathan Schram couldn’t turn anyone away. A cellist in the program, who asked to be identified only as “Joe,” says that many of the participants meet to help each other: “We’ve all become close friends. And people don’t have friends [at Sing Sing], not really,” he says, speaking softly and slowly, as if thinking carefully about each idea, but also with a certain power or force behind his words. His arms are tattooed with flames. “Prison is a hard place,” he continues, “but for people who realize that the prison lifestyle isn’t something they want to bring back home—the music gives us hope.”

Though it’s been less than a year, the program already has a waiting list with many men clamoring for spots. “Other men see the camaraderie we have now—the friendships, the smiles, the positive energy, the way we talk about the program and the way we seek each other out and support each other—they see us walking and talking with people we wouldn’t normally be walking and talking with—and they want in. They see how music is changing us,” says Joe, holding my gaze intently.

Nathan Schram music director

Nathan Schram

Musicambia founding director Nathan Schram.

Schram—a professional violist—started to think about the powerful role that music could play in prisons after he performed at Rikers Island with Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble ACJW, a fellowship program jointly operated by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School, and the Weill Music Institute, in conjunction with the New York Department of Education. “I felt like this was the most useful my music had ever been,” he recalls. “I realized that these people really need music, more than anyone else I’d ever played for.”

Encouraged to dream big by his mentor Eric Booth, a leader in the United States chapter of El Sistema, Schram started thinking about how he could be a part of bringing music into prisons. Schram discovered that the original El Sistema had started work in a few prisons in Venezuela. Booth, who is currently writing a book documenting El Sistema models around the globe, helped Schram to organize a trip to South America. In October of 2013, one year before he launched Musicambia, Schram became the first American to observe El Sistema at work in Venezuelan prisons. The experience was life-changing, he says.

“These are some of the most dangerous prisons in the world, and each [prison I visited] was similar—heavy atmosphere, rough facilities, very hostile environment. But then when I entered the music rooms—they all had separate music facilities—there was a different kind of energy there. Like something right was happening . . . . It didn’t feel like prison anymore, it felt like school—everyone working and learning together. [The women at one facility] go back home—most were serving for two years or fewer—and they are pariahs. They have to live with that burden. But now they have something else—they have music.”

The visit inspired Schram, but he felt a burden, too, like there was much work to be done—and it was up to him to accomplish it. Upon returning to the States, Schram blogged about each of his prison visits, posting pictures of what he had seen and talking to as many people as he could, building support and raising awareness and brainstorming about what a similar program could look like in his own country—a country that has more prisoners per capita than almost any other in the world. Schram wanted to play a role in transforming our correctional system.

Musicambia was born.

“The majority of the people we work with [in prison] will be getting out sooner or later,” he says. “Regardless of whether they deserve the punishment they are receiving, would it not be best for them to have the best possible opportunity to discover themselves and learn to re-examine the decisions they make? We shouldn’t define people by the worst thing they’ve ever done. We should define them by what they do, and at the core of Musicambia is the truth that becoming an artist changes you. Offering this opportunity to people that are sincerely looking for change is the most purposeful application of art that I have seen.”

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Musicambia faculty visit Sing Sing several times a month, teaching theory, ear training, and music reading for the first session of the day. The second session is dedicated to instrumental study—every participant is required to choose a “major”—and teachers work with small groups of strings, brass, voice, and piano students before everyone comes together for a large ensemble jam at the end of the day. Because of the emphasis on daily, individual practice, every participant receives his own instrument (string instruments were generously donated by Classics for Kids, classicsforkids.com).

Instruments and program participation are major incentives for participants to maintain good behavior—one infraction and they lose their instrument and the privilege of being in the program. Many of the inmates spoke to me about this, as did the education supervisor at Sing Sing, Olga Marchese.

“This program has been so amazing. It’s great to see the growth and change in the guys . . . the change in maturity. Men who used to be disheveled all the time are now well-kempt and responsible; men who would never have spoken to each other are coming out of their shells and helping each other and working together,” she says. “And their behavior is better now—they can’t screw up, and they know it. The program really helps us, too.”

When I arrive with a photographer to visit the program at Sing Sing, the men are shy until asked about Musicambia and the role music is playing in their lives. Then their eyes light up and the words tumble out. Mike, a violist, says that he lost everything following his conviction—when he gets out of Sing Sing, he wants to be able to bring something back to his family. “I don’t just want to be the same old dad,” he says with a hint of a Bronx accent. He’s an older gentleman, bespectacled, with short graying hair, and a mustache. His frame is small, wiry, with hands that shake as he plays. “I want to show my wife and kids that I’ve started over—I’m starting over with music. I’m a violist now. I’m excited to play for them and show them that I’ve learned something good from this experience. I feel awful when I think about all that I’ve lost—but it’s music that helps to keep me going. It’s keeping me sane in an insane world.”

 

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Many Musicambia participants speak of the difficulties of the culture at Sing Sing. “The prison environment is very peculiar,” says Jason, a violinist. He’s clean-cut, his brown hair worn in a crew cut, his yellow shirt tucked into his belted, prison-regulation trousers. He speaks fast and expresses a lot of passion for the program and music. “To be able to come together and collaborate and work together and bring smiles to each other’s faces, it’s unlike anything else that goes on here . . . . The musical community is so much better than the normal environment here—the drugs, the violence, the gangs . . . . It’s difficult to go back to your cell after a Musicambia day, a day that feels more ‘normal’ because you can have conversations and express yourself and feel supported and safe. We don’t do that anywhere else. Looking forward to Saturdays helps us all get through the week.”

When asked about the impact of the program, Schram recounts the story of Flacco, a Musicambia violinist who had only been playing for a few months before performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in front of a huge crowd at Sing Sing. Flacco is a big guy, a bit overweight, and very quiet, though obviously proud of his work on the violin and very determined, with a quick and genuine smile. “I was so proud of him, it brought tears to my eyes,” Schram says of Flacco’s performance. “It was this incredible moment for all of us—to see what hard work can do.”

On the day of my visit, I meet with the star-spangled violinist, after listening to him practice a transcription of a Bach Invention (No. 4 in D minor, BWV 775). Flacco is humble and soft-spoken, but obviously proud, too, of his dedication these past five months. I ask him about his experience starting the violin and he laughs.

“Well, it was rough at first, with my neighbors. I practice every day after I get off work and all day on Saturdays, but when they heard how fast I got better and saw how far I’ve come—and realized that I’d never played before, that I’d just started from scratch through this program—they all want in now!” he says. “And it’s been amazing for me, because I’m learning something and doing something with my time—I’m out in the yard less, so I stay out of trouble.”

Joe, the cellist, agrees. “It’s a real motivation and incentive to stay clean,” he says. “It’s like we’re growing up all over again while we’re here, but this time we understand what can be taken away from us, and so we’re making better decisions. The program means so much to all of us, and it keeps us out of trouble.

“I’ve got 12 years left here, and that’s a long time. I don’t want to lose this. We come [to the Musicambia program] and we work and have a good time and share our feelings and express ourselves openly without being condemned or afraid. That doesn’t happen anywhere else here. And everyone else sees it now, too—they’re all asking how they can get in.”

In addition to providing a safe space to express emotion and form friendships within the prison, the Musicambia environment also provides necessary skills for life after prison, Jason says. “You get to try your hand at socializing during Musicambia—we don’t really socialize or build relationships here—but that’s what will save us when we get out. The music teaches us how to come together, how to work together. The relationships and the community teach us how to be a part of the world again.”

Schram agrees, although his understanding is more nuanced. “The focus of Musicambia is on being an artist and the metamorphosis it can put you through—and for many of these guys, when they finally get out, that’s the biggest transition they are ever going to go through. And so for them to continue playing, and continue the consistency of something they have started in prison is really important. Music doesn’t care what the walls that surround it are—it crosses boundaries and grounds you in the present.

“Growing up, music grounded me. We moved every two years because my dad was in the military, and the first thing we always did was find a private teacher and a youth orchestra for me. It didn’t matter where I was coming from or where I was going next. And it’s the same for these guys.
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“Music is the constant.”

Schram is eager for the future of Musicambia at Sing Sing, as well as at other facilities. The organization is awaiting 501(c)(3) nonprofit approval and is in conversations with staff at Rikers Island to pilot a program there in 2016.

And beyond that?

“I’d like to see Musicambia in every state,” Schram says. “Music can change the culture of a place, and these places are desperately in need of change.”

As we speak, the large ensemble is rehearsing Duke Ellington’s “It’s Freedom,” which the men are playing in a concert that’s part of Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program at Sing Sing.

The men count their way through the piece and the room resonates with tapping feet and “ba’s” and “da’s” as they recite the unfamiliar jazz rhythms, counting the beats and bars under their breath.

Finally the chorus comes around: “Freedom, it’s what you’ve got to have. Freedom.” The word echoes throughout the room. Surely the irony isn’t lost on the men, but neither does it seem to bother them.

For now, music is their freedom.

Learn more about the Musicambia initiative at musicambia.org.

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