Music program inspires creativity in prison reform

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Violinist Nathan Schram will present on campus about the MUSICAMBIA program as part of the annual Modfest. The program uses music to empower and enrich the lives of convicted felons. Photo courtesy of Matthew Stein

For the last 37 years, Vassar students have made the 30-minute drive to Stormville, N.Y. each week. As part of the Green Haven Prison Program, students and inmates at the maximum-security prison gather to discuss a range of topics including current events, do­mestic violence, fatherhood and more. The program started in 1979 and has been credited with changing the lives of hundreds of Vassar students and inmates alike. This Friday, stu­dents will have the opportunity to learn about another life changing prison initiative–this time without the drive. The presentation is part of Modfest, the annual festival that celebrates and explores 20th and 21st-century music through a series of events, concerts and displays. Ac­cording to organizers, this year’s schedule has particularly diverse offerings.

On Friday, Feb. 5 at 4 p.m., violist Nathan Schram will give a presentation on the MU­SICAMBIA program in Spitzer Auditorium in Sanders Classroom. MUSICAMBIA is a prison reform program that establishes music pro­grams within prisons and jails in which incar­cerated people can participate. Schram is the executive director and founder of MUSICAM­BIA. The presentation will consist of informa­tion regarding how the program started and will include pictures, videos and audio record­ings showing the work that this program has accomplished.

Explaining how MUSICAMBIA’s artistic fo­cus differs from the traditional prison reform movement, Schram replied, “This way of prison reform is more grass roots and not focused on being political. It can mainly prove that there’s a way to build pride and community amongst the incarcerated people and administration by reminding everyone of their humanity.” This blend of activism and creativity is expected to resonate on campus.

MUSICAMBIA, which is a portmanteau of the Spanish words “musica” and “cambia” to mean “music change,” began when Schram was in Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble ACJW and worked with the Rikers Island Correctional Facility in 2011. Modeled after Venezuela’s Penitentiary Orchestra Program, which Schram visited and studied, MUSICAMBIA provides an important opportunity for incarcerated people within these communities to develop a new skill that can improve their self-esteem and create a bet­ter lifestyle through creative expression.

Schram’s presentation is part of Modfest, the two-week annual festival now in it’s 14th year. Modfest’s aims are to explore arts in the 20th and 21st centuries. Dee Wilson ’69 and her husband, music professor Richard Wil­son, founded the festival with the intention of focusing in-depth on contemporary art from different fields to illuminate more modern art­ists that didn’t get the academic attention they deserve. This year’s Modfest includes Schram’s MUSICAMBIA presentation, a performance by the Mahagonny Ensemble featuring a new­ly-written piece by Robinson McClellan ’99 commissioned specifically for Modfest, as well as many Vassar students and local performers presenting all sorts of art.

Talking about MUSICAMBIA’s message and what influenced her to invite Schram to participate in Modfest, Wilson said, “When I got to know Nathan and I found out about the program he’s running, I thought that this is what it’s really all about, also just learning for learning’s sake. But the arts also have been said many times to bring a sense of calm, a sense of organization and, I think for these men, a sense of pride in what they’re doing, which has to help get them through the day.”

Schram’s program lies at the intersection of activism and art, which broadens its appeal. For Wilson, learning is appealing in its own right. She explained, “Even when learning ap­pears to be in a vacuum or not having meaning to it, there’s the inner meaning for it. Learning a language because you’re going to go there is wonderful, but there’s also to learn it just be­cause it’s really interesting.

Modfest educates on what usually is not taught. Other art events, like the Fluid Ecolo­gies exhibition, shed light on cultures and peo­ple that rarely get the attention they deserve.

“It’s wonderful to see this unified and fo­cused attention around contemporary music– and great programming and performances,” McClellan said of Modfest.

Modfest also has the potential to reach au­diences who were previously uninvolved in the music scene. With such a broad range of events, it can appeal to anyone. In many events like MUSICAMBIA, the themes transcend mu­sic and have a much greater resonance. Mc­Clellan continued, “I think Modfest provides people with a friendly but powerful introduc­tion to current ‘classical’ composers and per­formers. The choice of composers is broad sty­listically, so there is something for everyone, and the performing is top-notch so you get compelling presentations of the music that will draw in newcomers. And many of the concerts involve students, and they are happening just steps from the dorms, so it’s the ideal environ­ment to hear some new things.”

MUSICAMBIA offers a new side of the pris­on reform movement that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, the ability of rehabil­itation and pride through creative expression. Hopefully, this presentation can inform and motivate students to notice the change that’s possible within these communities and the dif­ference art can make. Currently, MUSICAM­BIA has partnered with institutions like the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, the Polmont Young Offenders Institution in Scotland and the Instituto Nacional de Orient­ación Feminina in Venezuela, with intentions to expand domestically and internationally even further.

Discussing the impact he hopes the presen­tation will have on Vassar students and staff, Schram said, “I’d like the artists to leave the presentation with a sense of the power their art has. Art is more powerful than ever thought, allowing ideas to be possibilities. In general, anything can impact the population.”

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