From Musicambia: Lessons from Teaching Music in Prisons

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From Musicambia: Lessons from Teaching Music in Prisons

Nathan Schram, Founder and Artistic Director, Musicambia


Performance at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 2020.

In 2015, Musicambia was just planting our first seeds as an organization, teaching music at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York. I was fresh off a life-altering trip to Venezuela, where I’d seen firsthand the power of music education in a carceral setting. Happily, we have only grown since then, expanding into nine facilities across six states over the last six  years. Our curriculum has been adapted, our faculty diversified, and our team increased to include standout leaders such as our full-time Executive Director Jessie Kilguss.

When the world first shut down in March 2020, volunteer programs were suspended at all our facilities across the country. Like many organizations, we quickly adjusted course. We created video tutorials that covered topics from percussion to folk and hip-hop songwriting. Having been moved and invigorated by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a 12-week self-guided course designed to help learners find their artistic voices, we decided to send a copy to each of our incarcerated students nationwide. We continued our programming where we could, teaching our curriculum at Sing Sing entirely through the U.S. Postal Service. And, eventually, we found ways to restart in person—including a brand-new program in Kansas City, our first year-round program since beginning at Sing Sing all those years ago.

Just as I had observed in Venezuela way back then, teaching music in prisons is about doing the most with the resources you have. And everywhere we teach, we learn something new from our collaborating musicians; in many ways, we learn as much from our experiences as our students do. In the spirit of reflection and new beginnings, I want to share a few of the lessons that have shaped our work over the past seven years.

Music is the ultimate community-builder. From the beginning, our goal has not been to create professional musicians but to create new musical communities. Music brings people together in ways unlike any other. It helps people find friendships, look inward, and celebrate together. It helps people deal with their struggles and share their accomplishments. It brings us to our common denominators so that we can rejoice with others regardless of race, religion, or age. In prison, where these types of communities are systematically discouraged, this is the scarcest commodity that music can provide.

Music in a carceral setting, Barinas, Venezuela, 2013.

America’s mass incarceration system is broken. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that Musicambia is a bandage over a cancer. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, at a moment when our prison population is at its lowest in 20 years. Of the 2,068,800 people imprisoned, people of color are persecuted at far greater rates than white people are. Over and over, our prison industrial complex demonstrates itself to be a “comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow,” as put by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Music is powerful, and I am proud of all our teachers and collaborators, but more must be done to fix the systemic issues of the American prison industrial complex. We must do our part to change the future course of incarceration in this county. In these efforts, I would encourage all of us to support some of the other organizations doing powerful work in this field—organizations such as Abolition Democracy Lab, Abolitionist Law Center, and Critical Resistance.

Music is better than no music. Whenever I have doubts about whether Musicambia is doing enough, or doing things the “right way,” I am brought back to the transformations I have witnessed at every facility. A change happens in rooms where music is played that could not happen otherwise. Often, I assess our work’s value through what I see in people’s eyes. When a participant has reached an emotional low, a dullness appears in their eyes (and this is just as true outside of incarcerated communities). But when the music starts—even if that music is a simply designed songwriting exercise—I see those eyes come to life. As music realizes itself in us, we are illuminated. This change is hard to describe, but many will recognize it in their own experiences. It’s why I want to share music with others.

Nobody “brings” music—it has always been there. In speaking to people about Musicambia, I began to realize that some of the language I had been using wasn’t entirely accurate. I have long shared my elevator pitch that “Musicambia is an organization that brings music into prisons and jails.” And then one day I realized that I had never visited a facility where music wasn’t already present. Everywhere I went, there were songs being written, lyrics being constructed, melodies being created. Music isn’t for me, or anyone else, to give. It is and always has been all around us. Musicambia doesn’t “give” music to anyone; we advocate for music to have a place to grow, and for a community and family to grow around it.

After a decade of this work and a lifetime of playing, one can still learn music’s simple truths. As Musicambia continues to carve our spaces where art and community can flourish in incarcerated settings, I look forward to whatever lessons come next—and to seeing more eyes brightened by music’s light.


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