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Music Program at Sing Sing Prison Gives Detainees a New Start


Teaching artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles conducts the Musical Connections Resident Ensemble at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, December 18, 2015 (Photo by Stephanie Berger)
Music Program at Sing Sing Prison Gives Detainees a New Start
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Sing Sing Correctional Facility is a high-security prison about an hour by car north of New York City.

Sing Sing holds 1,600 prisoners.

As the men serve their sentences, prison officials are planning for the time those detainees will be released.

One of those officials is Leslie Malin, the deputy superintendent for program services at Sing Sing. Malin says the prison offers technical training and educational classes.

It also has a music program, which works in partnership with New York City’s Carnegie Hall fine arts center.

Making musical connections

Two times a month, artists from New York go to Sing Sing and spend a day working with the 30 detainees involved in its Musical Connections program. The program is nine years old. Before that, Sing Sing had just a music room.

A man identified only as Rob is a former prisoner. New York’s Department of Corrections asked that VOA not give any last names of prisoners.

Rob remembers there were often fights over who could use the music room. But he said it was hard to hate the other men when they are helping each other with music and performing songs.

Rob has been on parole for the past year-and-a-half, after spending seven years in Sing Sing. He says he performed just two times before he went to prison.

A man called Joe had even less experience. "I didn't know what an A flat was," he admits. "I've heard these terms. I couldn't have explained them to you. I didn't know what they sounded like. I didn't know what they meant."

Joe performs a duet with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)
Joe performs a duet with mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Joe spent four years in the Musical Connections program. He studied music theory during that time. Now, Joe is writing an operatic work. He said he became interested in classical music after working with opera star Joyce DiDonato. "She definitely opened my eyes to something that I didn't even know I had within myself," he added.

Kenyatta, who has been in prison for 23 years, calls the music program "the most transformative thing I have ever experienced."

Kenyatta earned a master's degree after completing a higher education program in religious studies. He has been a speaker in a TED talk video from Sing Sing.

Kenyatta has been a part of the music program since it started. He says music has helped him open up to others. "I can be a little less alone,” he says, “because I know you understand some part of me, at least, and you can be a little less alone because you know that I understand some part of you.”

Kenyatta's TEDx talk from Sing Sing, in December 2014, was called "Connecting Through Art."
Kenyatta's TEDx talk from Sing Sing, in December 2014, was called "Connecting Through Art."

Increasing musical skills

The Musical Connections program is under the direction of Carnegie Hall's Manuel Bagorro. He leads similar programs in homeless shelters and community centers.

Bagorro says all the programs have similar goals. He says “People have come together. They play together. They negotiate artistic decisions. They sort out problems…”

And those are all skills that prisoners can use when they are out of jail. Danny was released from Sing Sing three-and-a-half years ago, after seven years in the prison system. He learned to play the violin in the Musical Connections program and started writing music.

Danny said that after his release, he was able to take the same energy and effort required to learn an instrument, and put it into other areas of his life.

One of the teaching artists, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, says she has seen both personal and musical growth in the prisoners over the years.

"I just think the sky's the limit for so many of the men in this workshop. They're professional. They're working. Many of them are working on the level of a professional musician….Yes. Sky's the limit," she says.

Rob performs his original song “Testify” with teaching artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles in concert at Carnegie Hall, March 11, 2018 (Photo by Fadi Kheir)
Rob performs his original song “Testify” with teaching artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles in concert at Carnegie Hall, March 11, 2018 (Photo by Fadi Kheir)

Music training

Carnegie Hall holds a monthly gathering for the programs’ members who have been released from Sing Sing. Rob says that at these meetings, the men do more than play music, they also talk about what's going on in their lives.

He told VOA "It showed me that everybody was struggling trying to find a job, trying to stay employed, trying to find some time to practice…I knew I wasn't alone in any of these things."

I’m Phil Dierking.

Jeff Lunden reported this story for VOANews.com. Phil Dierking adapted the report for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

What are other types of programs that could be used with prisoners? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

A flat - n. a note a semitone below an A​ note

operatic - adj. relating to or characteristic of opera.​

parole - n. permission given to a prisoner to leave prison before the end of a sentence usually as a reward for behaving well​

transformative - adj. causing or able to cause a change​

classical music - n. serious or conventional music following long-established principles rather than a folk, jazz, or popular tradition.​

violin - n. a musical instrument that has four strings and that you usually hold against your shoulder under your chin and play with a bow​

master’s degree - n. a degree that is given to a student by a college or university usually after one or two years of additional study following a bachelor's degree​

professional - adj. relating to a job that requires special education, training, or skill​

workshop - n. a class or series of classes in which a small group of people learn the methods and skills used in doing something​

practice - v. to do something again and again in order to become better at it​

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