inmate musicians

Musicambia participants Jeremy, Jesse, Jeremy and Darryl (from far left, clockwise) pose after their final concert given as part of the workshop put on in collaboration with Putnamville Correctional Facility and DePauw University.

The Case for Pop-Up Conservatories in Prisons

Most people have a story about a song or a piece of music that carried them through a dark point in their lives. For those who sing or play an instrument, that life-affirming connection with music can be even stronger, lending strength and purpose to their days.

Student and inmate musicians cheer

Inmates at Putnamville Correctional Facilities pose with musicians from DePauw during a four-day workshop put on by Musicambia.

Musicambia participants Isaac and Derek (left to right) pose after their final concert given as part of the workshop put on in collaboration with Putnamville Correctional Facility and DePauw University.

a letter from inmate Jesse

Jesse, one of the men that participated in the workshops, wrote choral conductor Mollie Stone a thank-you letter.

Nathan Schram brings music-making into prisons, places where no one ever hopes to end up. Schram founded the nonprofit organization Musicambia after a life-changing experience performing in a flute quartet for prisoners at Rikers Island. It was “a pretty odd ensemble for a notorious city jail,” he says. But playing for 200 men in a prison gymnasium made him realize that they were the perfect audience. “It was such a special way to share deep feelings with people who needed music more than anyone I’ve ever seen. I thought, ‘This needs to happen more.’” Shortly after, Musicambia began taking the concept of concerts in prisons to another level by holding regular lessons at local New York correctional facilities and hosting workshops – both around the country and internationally – in which inmates collaborate to produce their own performance.

21CM’s Mark Rabideau got a chance to see Musicambia in action when Schram joined with musicians at DePauw University to hold a four-day workshop at the nearby Putnamville Correctional Facility. They teamed up with two choral conductors – Mollie Stone, who specializes in South African song, and DePauw’s own Kristina Boerger – as well as a handful of students eager to learn more about making and teaching music in nontraditional settings.

Throughout their time, the musicians formed close bonds with their workshop participants, who had all petitioned for the opportunity to be a part of the project. One student, Elizabeth Brunnell, reflected on the powerful moments that came during the downtime between rehearsals, in which she had the chance to simply talk to the men and hear their stories. Many of the participants repeatedly expressed their joy, as in the words of one participant, Jesse Rosbia: “This is a door-opener for many people to use their talents and their gifts, and also to understand the power of music. I just want to thank God for this opportunity – music is therapy, music is healing.”

This audio story was produced with additional help from Elizabeth Brunnell and Jeremy Sutton as contributing reporters. The song used in the beginning and end is an original piece by Steve Bush called “In A Song,” which was performed and recorded at the workshop’s final concert. You can listen to the complete version below.

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1 Response

  1. Fred Child says:

    Thanks for this inspiring story about Nathan Schram’s work in prisons. Reminds me of composer Wang Jie’s work this year with inmates at the state women’s prison in Shakopee, Minnesota. She’s done a series of music, composition, and writing workshops over the course of a year, getting to know them well enough to compose an opera inspired by their experience, which includes the voices of the women prisoners, recorded in prison. Check out the website of composer Wang Jie for more info. –Fred Child

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