Last year, Toomai String Quintet had an unforgettable performance at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, where we partnered with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections, Sospiro Winds, and teaching artist Daniel Levy for a day of musical activities with the incarcerated men. This last Friday, November 11th, 2011, we returned to Sing Sing with soprano Camille Zamora to build upon this amazing project.
Since the fall of 2011, Levy had been making regular trips to the prison to prepare them for this event. Inmates practiced guitar, electric bass, violin, percussion, and composed original pieces for Toomai to perform. Several of the participants that we met last year were present at the second visit. Our schedule was similar as well – we arrived at the prison, spent hours passing through a rigorous security check, had an intensive rehearsal, and finished the day with a concert. The sequence of events was the same as last year’s, but the overall depth of the project has grown tremendously.
Before Toomai arrived at Sing Sing last January, we were somewhat nervous before meeting the inmates, as none of us had ever been in a prison before. The inmates were all very friendly, but when it was their turn to share their music with us, I sensed that many of them were slightly self-conscious. These men live in extreme isolation, and when given the challenge to compose their own music, they are already exploring a mode of expression that is completely outside of their comfort zone. When asked to display their progress to people who were not only from the outside world, but who were more fluent in this musical language, it is understandable how these men would perpetuate some tone of guardedness. However, when we played the first beautiful phrase of a piece by one participant, Tim, everyone in the room was brought to tears and the barriers were instantly shattered. For the rest of the day, we were all overwhelmed by a feeling of awe, excitement, and surprise. The inmates had never heard their music played as it was meant to sound, and the performers were inspired by the abundance of creativity and depth in each new work.
For our second visit, the feelings of inspiration and excitement were still present, but the element of surprise changed – because of our incredible first trip, both Toomai and the residents of Sing Sing had high expectations for the return. It was great to see everyone from the year before – I remembered their names, their music, and their distinct personalities. They remembered everything about us as well. This year when we played the new pieces, there were no tears — we went into productive work mode almost instantly. It was evident that each composer’s musicianship had developed significantly in the last ten months. Their pieces were longer, with an elevated sense of craftsmanship. When they spoke about their music, it was evident that each of them had an extremely clear idea of how they wanted their music to sound – this clarity of musical intent is something that is difficult even for professional composers to possess!
Last year, one of the participants, Rob, told us that giving these men music was like giving them “a voice that [he] never knew [he] had before, and although right now, it’s just a little baby voice, it’s there, and it makes a huge difference.” Being able to return to Sing Sing and witness the growth of these voices is an experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life. Some people ask “Why should convicts be awarded a musical experience, when so many others need it?” We do not know the crimes these men have committed, and it is irrelevant. This musical companionship gave all of us an opportunity to put our best foot forward, and forget about the darkest moments in our lives. I often think about what would have happened if these men had been able to discover their musical voices earlier in life – would it have changed where they ended up? I am hopeful that these newfound voices can still bring them to a better place, which would be great for everyone.