August 30, 2015
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #398: Inspiring Other Inmates
With everything going so well in the music program here, I asked my boss, Mr. Lohman, if he’d like to come listen to some of my piano students perform. I knew from experience that any performance is a huge motivator for the student, whether they like the stage or not. And, I really wanted Mr. Lohman to see some of the fruit of the program he’s done so much to initiate. Once Mr. Lohman agreed to an informal recital of sorts, the energy at lessons and practices skyrocketed. Big tough guys who normally can face anything were nervous beyond words. You’d have thought they were getting ready for a job interview or dentist appointment, a terrifying prospect since most prisoners don’t have job skills or teeth.
Since everyone got excited about performing, I encouraged my boss to also plan a day to listen to each of the bands perform. With several new bands recently formed, and each one getting practice time in the band room, I figured Mr. Lohman would enjoy seeing each of the guys who benefit from the more inclusive program that is the new normal. He loved the idea and set the day for battle of the bands just three days later, this past Thursday. On Wednesday, he called me into his office. I noticed immediately his mischievous grin and asked what crazy thing he was up to. “Oh, nothing,” he responded, trying and failing to look innocent. “I just invited the Chief of Unit Management, the Assistant Wardens, all the Case Managers, and the head Warden. I’ve got ten upper management people who will definitely be there tomorrow.” I thanked him and told him we’d be ready.
Ten bands assembled ahead of time in the band room, got all the equipment set up, and determined the playlist. Because I had worked to get the rap guy, Donald, an actual band to accompany him (rather than pre-recorded “beat-tracks” on CD like most aspiring rappers here), and I helped create his musical arrangements, I typed up the lyrics to one of his songs so that the non-rap fans in the audience could appreciate the good morals and sincerity of the song. I invited my piano students who have taken on students of their own, my cellie Andrew and my good friend Robbie, whose family and church donated most of our keyboards. As music buffs, I wanted them to experience the live music as well.
Everyone did an incredible job. The band room, packed with participants, onlookers, and guests became like an oversized living room jam session. But for many of the guys, it was their very first time performing in front of anyone, so in some ways, the informal feel was as much of a stage as they could hope for. I watched the staff’s reactions to the various music genres represented, everything from country to punk, mariachi to jazz, rap to rock. Mostly, looks of amazement accompanied open-mouthed stares. It really surprises some people that inmates have so much creativity and skill. Others, like Lohman, believe we just have to be given the right tools and the right opportunity, and we’ll become the best version of ourselves.
Immediately following the concert, Warden MacDonald told me he’d like to hear my piano students play someday, and Mr. Lohman made time later that day to hear several of them perform. Most satisfying was two guys who played for him, whose music I’d never heard before, since they’d been taught by students of mine. I wish you could have been there.
For starters, it is amazing to see guys with obviously tough pasts turn to playing piano. One of my best students who teaches has tattoos all over his hands—hands that beautifully played the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” which he and I had arranged. One of my (for lack of better term) grand students played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” His hands, visibly scarred from years of fighting, once committed murder. Now they’re committed to far more constructive uses, for which I’m grateful to get to experience first-hand.
The little mini-recital and concert did some tangible good, of course. The warden immediately green-lighted an order for new equipment we need, and he authorized a concert on the prison yard in October. This time, not just the five or six original band guys get to play, but all the new band members and groups I’ve recently encouraged to form. I’m really happy for them.
But the even greater good the concert did was to inspire some guys who never thought before now that their hands could be used to bless, to help, to encourage, including my own. I pray God continues to pick me to extend a hand on His behalf to those He loves, the unlovely in prison.