Music behind bars

The mezzosoprano Joyce DiDonato is always so intriguing. When I heard she had presented a concert at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison, in New York, I was ready again to learn from this remarkable artist. Miss DiDonato, who is used to performing Handel, Purcell, Rossini or Donizetti for the most elite and knowledgeable of audiences, sang pieces written for her by inmates who have been studying composition as part of the Musical Connections programme, through Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.

This community-based effort is giving hope and a voice to inmates with the creation and performance of new music. Through the Carnegie Hall outreach programme – now in its eighth year of partnership with Sing Sing – select prisoners, including some of the most hardened criminals, play instruments and write songs with renowned artists. They are learning to replace their destructive behaviours with the help of music.

The men engage in a year-long learning experience. A series of workshops focused on composition and instrument skills culminates in several concerts for the facility’s general population, featuring original works and performances by the men alongside Musical Connections roster artists and special guests such as Miss DiDonato.

This is one of a set of community-based projects which links people to a variety of musical experiences created in partnership with city agencies, ranging from standalone concerts to intensive year-long creative workshops designed to have a powerful impact on participants’ daily lives.

In the UK, there are music therapy programmes for prisoners too. One called Changing Tunes, says the work is important as part of rehabilitation as it lasts “through the gate”, engaging both pre and post-release; that is the key element to creating lasting behavioural change.

Music of course is therapeutic in several ways. It can help us release our emotions – whether we play or listen, and offer a form of safe catharsis. It may help participants reach out to those from whom they feel alienated, restoring communication and helping to rebuild relationships.

According to Changing Tunes, performing and playing is vital to counteract the isolation many prisoners feel. It can lift self-esteem, engender respectful behaviour and promote more rounded, positive behaviour. And a Norwegian study in 2014 reported that music therapy in prisons reduced levels of anxiety among prisoners.

The best of these programmes recognise that those on both sides of the prison wall must be full participants for the projects to reap their full value. It is a great start to ask prisoners to play, and we must find it in ourselves to listen too.

Bruno Wang