We are now approaching the darkest days of the year. Our Advent wreaths and Hanukkah menorahs have brought light into our lives. It is an opportune time to reflect on how one can bring light to dark places.
Several months ago friends from out of town invited me to a benefit organized to support Musicambia. I accepted because I wanted to spend time with these friends and this was going to be a good way to do it.
After a nice dinner getting caught up on family news, we made our way to the event. We settled into our seats and I began to focus on Musicambia and its mission.
First up was Dexter.
Dexter is a composer. He became a composer in prison where he spent over 20 years, some of them at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison in New York.
It was at Sing Sing that Dexter connected with Musicambia, an organization that teaches students (all of them incarcerated) music skills including theory, ear training and vocal skills.
Musicambia organizes the students into small groups based on their instrument for further instruction. The students come together to reinforce newly learned skills in a small ensemble performance class. Like any conservatory model, students are expected to practice their instruments on a daily basis. The students have been granted special permission to bring their instruments back to their cells, which ensures they have ample opportunity to prepare for the next session.
When the Musicambia ensemble had finished performing a piece that Dexter had composed, Dexter got up to speak. He described how the music program organized by Musicambia had created a community and family for him in prison. He contrasted his music family with the surrogate family he had been a part of on the streets; the family that had led him to commit the crimes that put him in prison.
Dexter talked about how through his new found connection to music he was finally able to express and love himself. Music had opened him up and showed him that people cared about him.
While prison could lock him up, it couldn’t silence him or stop him from creating. He talked about what it was like to perform his own compositions on the stage at Sing Sing and how it freed him to become the person he wanted to be.
Today Dexter has left prison and is now working on his MSW at Columbia University. He asked us, when prisoners come home, what kind of men do we want them to be?
To me the answer is simple: we want them to be like Dexter.
Musicambia provides a pathway for that to happen. In the words of Nathan Schram, the founder and executive director, it is “important for us to remember the men that we serve and their tremendous perseverance to find the most positive light in a very dark place.”
How can we help light the way?