Susannah Black: Can you describe yourself and the program?
Nathan Schram: I’m a musician living in Brooklyn where I’ve been for over twelve years. I have a career as a composer, arranger, and as the violist of the Attacca Quartet, a professional string quartet. Additionally, I am the founder and artistic director of Musicambia, an organization creating music schools in American prisons.
Around 2011, I performed at Rikers Island, the main jail complex in New York City. Performing in this isolated place I realized there was a deeper appreciation for music there than in the most elite halls where I have performed around the world. This made me wonder what music could do to combat the growing injustices of America’s system of mass incarceration.
The next year I was invited to Venezuela where I studied the music programs they have in prisons, based on El Sistema, an intensive fifty-year-old music-education and antipoverty program. It astounded me how much these prisons were transformed into places of vitality and new beginnings by music.
Deeply inspired upon my return, I created Musicambia. Eight years later we now have programs in seven different facilities around the country. At our flagship program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility we teach everything from music theory and songwriting to individual instrument lessons and ear training. We pride ourselves on helping whatever genres our students envision come to life with their own skill and hard work.
One misconception is that we “bring” music into prisons. However, over the years I have never visited a prison where music wasn’t already being made on a daily basis. Our real mission is to advocate for music in prisons and help incarcerated people build a community with their musical peers.
José Antonio Abreu, the founder of El Sistema, called symphonies pictures of perfect societies; sometimes political philosophers use symphonies to illustrate the idea of the common good.
Performances help bring out the very best in people (both inside and outside of prison walls). Working toward a performance, you have a goal. In the rest of society we’re often not working for that same performance, so we get stuck in unnecessary conflicts and disagreements. It’s one of the many ways that working as a musical ensemble teaches you to be adaptable, focused, and trusting.
One guy was quoted on your website: “I want to show my wife and kids that I’m starting over with music. I’m a violist now.”
In prison, you’re defined by the worst thing you’ve ever done. This constant reminder can keep people from seeing the best in themselves. One reason what we do is so effective is because on day one, we define you as a musician. Instead of that old definition, you’re now a violinist. Now, you’re a singer. Or maybe you’re just a music student. We don’t address this directly, but make sure this is reflected in all of our actions as teachers.
We’re not “humanizing” the inmates. Everyone is already human there. But we are trying to make the system more humane. I, personally, have been thinking a lot about prison abolition. What could we do instead of locking people up and expecting them to get better? How much better could our society be if we brought out the best in these men and women instead of locking them up for the rest of their lives?
So much of what we do is unspoken. Make the music and the music does its work. We’re not going in there trying to make people less angry or nicer to others. I don’t know how to do that. But I can show you more about music. And when your focus is music, what’s important in life just seems to become a lot clearer.
What are some of your best stories?
There are so many. The first year of Musicambia, this guy came in, not looking us in the eye, and mumbled “Can I practice sax?” I said sure: he didn’t get any other chance to play. So he did his thing; I kept teaching. Time went by, and we had a concert: he got up there and played “What a Wonderful World,” solo saxophone, in front of two hundred guys. I went up to him, afterwards, to tell him how wonderfully he played. His legs were shaking; all of a sudden he had this light in his eyes, the biggest grin. He said, “That was so exciting. I can’t believe I did that.” Since that moment, he’s been this bright light in the program.
People get that light in their eyes when they’re inspired by music. Now he’s one of those who brings people together. It was that singular moment that seemed to transform him into someone that could see his immense value in the world.
Everyone wants to belong. Not just those in prison. Everyone. They want to be able to give back, and when they find out how to give, it becomes something that builds them up, as well as everyone around them.