Nathan Schram, director of Musicambia, first identified classical music as a tool for inmate rehabilitation while performing for incarcerated men at Rikers Island Correctional Facility. As he started to play, it was impossible to ignore the powerful impact that his music had on the inmates in the audience. The atmosphere of the room warmed up almost immediately as the men allowed themselves to enjoy the experience. After witnessing the overwhelmingly positive response to his concert, the follow-up question was obvious: What effects could we have on these men if a program existed that made musical experiences part of their everyday lives?
Nathan is finding the answer to his question through Musicambia – an arts organization working to establish a network of creative music schools in correctional facilities across the United States. Currently, operating at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, NY, Musicambia is one of the few programs in America providing weekly training on a variety of musical instruments to incarcerated individuals. The program syllabus combines instrumental music and collaborative work skills to help inmates cope with life in and out of prison.
In a typical day at Musicambia, a duo of violinists collaborate on the proper way to count the complicated rhythms of a Bach invention arranged by the Musicambia faculty for their ensemble. In the same room, a more advanced violinist works with a beginner level violist and a faculty member on improving his left hand technique. Across the hall, a larger group of inmates explore a variety of Jazz chords until the sounds merge into a clear and impressive run of Chameleon by Herbie Hancock. The jam session continues as inmates improvise their own melodies over Hancock’s bass line. Those who prefer to focus their session on individual training work in the remaining rooms with faculty one-on-one to discuss their new compositions or master new techniques for their instruments. Students move freely around the classrooms, and while walking the hallways it’s impossible to ignore the fact that for just these few hours, the atmosphere of Sing Sing’s education building resembles a lively music school rather than a maximum security prison.
Plans are in the works to expand this incredible program well beyond the walls of Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and the timing couldn’t be better. According to the NAACP, America’s prison population has quadrupled since 1980 making 1 in every 100 adults incarcerated. Many of these individuals will re-enter the communities we live in, and very few programs exist to help them build the communicative and collaborative skills needed to ensure a smooth transition back home. Now more than ever, it’s necessary to bring rehabilitative programs to this community so desperately in need of a second chance.
Curious about how Musicambia got started?