Musicambia, a non-profit that works with universities and prisons all over the country to bring music into correctional facilities, launched its first program in Sing Sing in New York in 2017 serving 32 inmates. Every other weekend, world-class artists instruct prisoners in instrumental music, theory and composition, and performance skills. The successful initiative expanded to centers in Indiana, South Carolina and upstate New York, with future plans for San Quentin in California.
The most recent addition to the project is UMKC, which has established a nine-month program at Lansing Correctional Facility. Per musicambia.org, it “promises to be our most in-depth and concentrated program to date.”
The Conservatory faculty members who initiated this program are Yotam Haber, associate professor of music composition, and Owen Belcher, assistant professor of music theory, both of whom began at UMKC in 2019.
“Yotam Haber and I were formulating the idea independently,” Belcher said, “and then when we met each other at UMKC, things fell into place. Yotam was in the planning stages of a similar program at the University of New Orleans, and I had heard about university-prison programs through UMKC’s Philosophy in Prison program (run through the philosophy department) and a music program at the University of South Carolina.
“We began planning in earnest in spring 2020 with plans to begin in fall 2020, but the pandemic delayed that. We received a Kauffman Grant to allow us to work with Musicambia in fall 2020 plus a bit extra from the Conservatory, and went into Lansing for the first time in October 2021.”
Any interested music major, graduate or undergraduate, can participate. The applicant must supply a brief statement of interest, a CV and references. It’s a substantial time commitment including twice-monthly visits, a thorough security/background screening and a two-hour orientation/training. Belcher acknowledges, “This is a lot to ask of students who, at this point, are volunteering their time! We’d like to turn the program into a credit-bearing course in the future. On the other hand, we want to avoid ‘prison tourism’ — We’re not there to gawk at incarcerated people — so students need to show a genuine commitment in their application materials.”
The security process is waived for one- or two-time volunteers, so a schedule of rotating faculty members is planned.
At Lansing, the incarcerated filled out surveys last summer, followed by interviews with prison staff. Amid widespread interest, 16 men were chosen to participate in the program.
Musicambia guided Haber and Belcher in implementing the project.
“At the recommendation of Musicambia, we began the program with a five-day intensive workshop (Tuesday-Sunday, four hours a day), where the outside volunteers aided the incarcerated participants in writing an hour’s worth of original music, performed in a concert on Sunday. Everyone participated. UMKC/Musicambia volunteers made up most of the band (though we had an excellent percussionist who is incarcerated), while most of the incarcerated men focused on writing the music/lyrics and performing the vocals. We plan to put on another concert in December, and thereafter try to perform twice a semester. The five-day intensive was a one-time thing just to get things jump-started; we’ll now visit every other week.”
There was, of course, some anxiety that first visit. Belcher admits, “I was very uncertain about how the students and I would feel in a maximum-security prison (and) how the incarcerated folks would react to us being there. I was relieved on both counts. For better or worse, very quickly I forgot about the broader situation, and it was just about trying to organize a concert in five days (no easy task). The men loved us being there and I personally experienced no negative interactions.” He commends the prison volunteer staff, too, for being extremely receptive and accommodating.
The plan is to continue the program indefinitely and independent of Musicambia after the first year. The musical instruments are now in place at Lansing, and small grants will be pursued to cover incidental costs of gas, food and instrument repairs/replacements.