May 24, 2015
Sunday, 4:30 p.m.
Letter #384: Keyboards are Here!
I am so excited right now! I can’t believe it, but it’s finally happened: there are now six keyboards in my unit, ready for guys to learn piano. Let me tell you how this came to be.
I can remember the night before I turned myself in to serve my fifteen-year sentence, I sat at my piano in my parents’ living room and played song after song, dreading to stop, knowing it would be the last song I played for the next fifteen years. I’d been told that some prisoners used to have keyboards but they don’t allow anything except guitars anymore. In fact, some prison chapels don’t even have a piano or keyboard. So, not knowing what to expect, I resigned myself to the possibility of a life without a piano. I figured that if God planned to use my skill at the instrument after prison, he could certainly preserve those skills for later use. Meanwhile, as my dad gathered a few men to pray with me that night in February, 2008, he prayed that I would be able to play the piano while in prison, I didn’t have faith to ask it for myself.
Seven years later, I’ve spent time at five prisons with six chapels, and have been blessed to play the piano or a keyboard at each. Since meeting Sister Peggy five years ago, who comes in to help with choir practices two full days a week now, I have many opportunities to play. In fact, I’ve played piano more in the past five years than I did in the five years before prison, sometimes up to eight hours a week.
I was told in October of last year that a church wanted to donate some keyboards to the prison, and that is when Unit Manager Lohman first invited me to move to his housing unit to teach piano. I finally moved at the beginning of December and met the other main guys who have been <ahem> instrumental in getting the music program running, mostly by forming a few bands.
As soon as I arrived, I pushed to get classes started so that many more guys have the opportunity to learn music. With 56 keyboards supposed to arrive from a church in Green Bay, I patiently waited, meanwhile setting up the schedules, practice charts, and passes, and meeting with another piano player to teach him how to teach.
My twin brother, Michael, when he heard that the church in Green Bay became skittish about dealing with the prison, offered to have the church he serves at, Park Victoria Baptist Church, in Milpitas, California, be the one to send donations. He also sent me basic piano teaching material to keep my first students busy. Thanks, Pastor Michael!
While I waited for the church in Green Bay to ship even one keyboard to Park Victoria, I created exact-to-scale paper keyboards for each of my students, so they could at least begin practicing. That was January.
In April, with still no keyboards in sight, one of my students, Jay, asked if he could purchase one to have shipped from Michael’s church. Michael graciously agreed, and Jay’s parents went shopping, then drove the keyboard to the church. Michael followed all the proper protocol, enclosed a donation letter from the church, and a few days later, we had our first keyboard. With more than eighty students on a waiting list, I was so excited, but we would need more, if we expected to have any time for guys to practice on their own.
Jay let his family know, and they bought two more. Then, a kind woman at their church, St. Mary’s of Los Gatos, who is involved with Restorative Justice programs, bought two more, and yet another was donated by someone else at the church. With help from my dad and Jay’s parents, Michael shipped all five to the prison.
I got to unpack them all with a very enthusiastic Jay in Lohman’s office. As we pulled out keyboard after keyboard, engraving serial numbers on them and logging them into our unit’s equipment inventory, we found that Jay’s mom had made custom carrying cases for each one and packed them into the boxes.
Lohman, who has waited far longer than I have for this portion of the music program to finally get off the ground, was overjoyed. At one point, with all the boxes everywhere, me engraving and Jay unpacking and organizing, Lohman exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas!”
Yes, it’s about as close to Christmas as I’ll probably ever see while in prison. The generosity of a few kind-hearted people, combined with the can-do attitude of a very good-looking youth pastor and an incredible staff member who is willing to think outside the box has all come together to help make this happen. I am thrilled!
To put it into perspective for you, I am aware of just three or four prisons in the entire state of California who have band rooms, and one prison I was at had a band room at one time. However, none have piano practice rooms where inmates can sign up for practice time at a keyboard and schedule a personal one-on-one half-hour lesson once a week with a music teacher. In fact, what we are doing is so outside-the-box that California’s Public Information Officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is aware of it and says he wants it duplicated at every California institution (probably so they can legitimately claim to be rehabilitating us.)
Thank you for your prayers and notes of encouragement. I am grateful for each of you in my extended “family” and my family who are so supportive. My dad’s prayer so many years ago, and yours, have been answered. God is good!