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Lee Ann Westover on Musical Connections at Sing Sing

This past season marked the third year of Carnegie Hall's Musical Connections program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Throughout the season, participants met with professional musicians in weekly workshops that led to concerts featuring new works by participants performed for the facility. One of our roster artists, Lee Ann Westover of The Lascivious Biddies, shares the story behind a CBS web extra of her performance of an original song written by a participant. 

By Lee Ann Westover 

I had worked in other prisons before heading up to Ossining, so this wasn't my first time working with people who are incarcerated. Still, I was a little afraid of what I might find up at Sing Sing. The maximum security prison is the stuff of legend. My fears began to dissipate, though, as soon as I started shaking hands with the guys. It was clear that these 16 men were intensely dedicated to their own rehabilitation. I found each one of them to be polite, respectful, and unbelievably excited to have the opportunity to hear their music performed with a group of professionals.

When I went to sit with Dennis to work out his song, his humble demeanor immediately put me at ease. It didn't take long for us to start up with friendly banter. One on one, we were two musicians, trying to bring a song into the world. During the first run-throughs, I was impressed by his clarity of vision. Some of my vocal improvisations were okayed, but he had the confidence to let me know that others strayed from what he wanted to hear. As a fellow composer I had to respect that. At the time I had no idea what he had done to land him up the river (this is where the euphemism originated), but the man I got to know is talented, smart, kind, creative, and funny. 

From the outside, it can be very easy to write off every incarcerated person as a burden of society who does not deserve the time and attention we have to give. Throughout the process I had a very difficult time reconciling all those warm friendly smiles with the seriousness of the crimes that these men had committed. However, as the workshop's facilitator Daniel Levy put so succinctly in his interview with CBS, each of them is going to be free one day. Would you rather have a neighbor who was given an opportunity to better himself or someone who was left to rot for 35 years? They have committed criminal acts, but I really believe that we human beings owe it to each other to try and help someone who is asking for the chance to make his life into something to be proud of—even if much of it will be spent behind bars.

Musical Connections is a program of Carnegie Hall that offers diverse live music experiences for people in healthcare settings, correctional facilities, senior-service organizations, and homeless shelters across New York City.  Visit for more information.


Photo by Mary K. Elkins.