Group brings music learning and performance to prisons

Inmates play instruments through the Musicambia program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility downstate in Ossining. (photo provided)

Inmates play instruments through the Musicambia program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility downstate in Ossining. (photo provided)

For several years, a small group of music teachers have traveled to Ossining twice a month to give lessons. Their destination: Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Their students: inmates at the prison.

“We teach saxophone, drums, all the strings,” said Nathan Schram. “We used to have guards standing around. We’re always supervised. It’s not intimidating, not scary. But there are limited resources — only one room. So, even if someone is getting a private lesson, we’re all in there and make a bunch of noise. We make it work. We take pride in this.”

“We” is Musicambia, an organization Schram founded in 2013. He’ll talk about the group in a free Zoom conversation at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 18. Register through the www.friendsofchambermusic.org site.

This is Schram’s second appearance on the Troy-based Friends of Chamber Music series as the Attaca Quartet, which he plays viola with, performed during the 2018 season. The series, founded in 1949, usually holds its five-concert season at Kiggins Hall at Troy’s Emma Willard School. But this year all concerts are being streamed and organizers have added monthly conversations with notables in the classical music field, which includes Schram’s talk. A question and answer session will follow.

While Schram is Julliard School-trained and has worked with Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect, which has played at Skidmore College as well as the Decoda instrumental collective, teaching in a prison has never been on his horizon. But about eight or nine years ago, he performed two concerts at Rikers Island, which is New York City’s main jail complex, and “a light bulb went off.”

“I realized music was needed more there than in any other place,” he said.

A teacher friend who’d done a lot of work with Venezuela’s El Sistema program, which aims to bring social change to incarcerated communities in Venezuela, heard about his interest and got him an invitation to visit the program.

“I was probably the only American to tour six of their prisons,” Schram said. “It opened my eyes. We take the power of music for granted but when you see the change of what can happen when someone makes the connection to music — it brings them back to life spiritually.”

When Schram came home, he didn’t find any programs that were similar. However, Carnegie Hall did have a program at Sing Sing for inmates who already had some musical experience.

“But I saw it was important to those who had no experience and were interested in becoming musicians,” Schram said. “It’s what changes your life. It gives them something they’re proud of. It can define them in a different way.”

Schram founded Musicambia in 2013. The name combines music and the Spanish word cambia which means change: music changes lives. He decided to start with Sing Sing. Schram got help from Carnegie Hall, received approval from the state’s Department of Correction and from Sing Sing’s warden. Finding teachers turned out not to be a problem and all went through security clearances.

Initially, they led groups with everyone clapping in rhythm. Some of the inmates were doubtful about it all, Schram said. But eventually, interest was raised and Schram had to get donations to find the right instruments to bring. He and the teachers soon discovered it was easier to work in a maximum security situation than in a jail.

“The issues people are dealing with in jails, which are insecure, transient places, are greater. They’re on a terrifying journey,” he said. “But at Sing Sing, no one wants to jeopardize what they’re getting, so we’ve had zero behavioral or security issues.”

The program has since been expanded to correctional facilities — some of which are for women — in South Carolina, Indiana, Kansas, and at San Quentin in California. All styles of music are offered as well as song writing and composition. Once the virus closed everything, the program now offers virtual tutorials seen in up to 500 prisons, including the jails in New York City.

Schram said he’s also working with a songwriter, who has recently been released from Sing Sing, on an album of his songs. And Musicambia has an alumni program, which to date, has eight men who have been released and have not returned to prison.

“This is overwhelmingly exciting,” Schram said.

Best of all for those still inside, however, is that Musicambia convinced the warden to allow those who had taken up an instrument to be able to practice in their cells rather than have to get permission every three months or leave the instrument in a music room.

“That was a big deal,” he said.

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