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Musical Connections: Freedom Through Music

For the past five years, Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute (WMI) has offered composition workshops and concerts at Sing Sing Correctional Facility through the Musical Connections program. A group of more than 30 inmate participants—many with little or no previous musical training—have since developed as musicians and composers, moving from singing simple vocal improvisations to learning instruments and developing their knowledge of music theory.

“The positive influence of this program is highly desirable and needed in order to assist in a true rehabilitation.”

—Sing Sing workshop participant


“It is true that, with time, you can teach anyone how to play an instrument, but what you can’t teach is unity.”

—Sing Sing workshop participant


“Jazz is a good barometer of freedom … The music is so free that many people say it is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom ...”

—Duke Ellington

Through Musical Connections, WMI provides musical activity as a tool for positive change, pointing to the powerful impact of creative work in promoting the welfare of incarcerated populations, and fostering selfawareness, collaboration, and empathy. Along with Sing Sing staff, the program supports efforts to prepare participants for release and successful re-entry into their communities.

This season, Duke Ellington’s sacred music is the musical anchor for the creative work and four concerts at the facility. The Ellington Creative Learning Project at Sing Sing explores this rich music, some of the most ambitious and heartfelt of Ellington’s legendary career. First heard during three historic concerts in the 1960s and ’70s, significant portions of the work are being performed by Sing Sing workshop participants in collaboration with Musical Connections artists. Workshop members are also exploring jazz improvisation and arranging and writing their own compositions inspired by Ellington’s life and work.

Trombonist, bandleader, composer, and educator Chris Washburne is one of this season’s lead artists. “The musical life at Sing Sing is extraordinary for many reasons,” he said, “but what connects everyone involved is a love of great music and a belief that it can change our lives.”

The program impacts workshop members as well as many of the 1,600 incarcerated men in the general Sing Sing population who will experience the final concert this month through an unprecedented broadcast on an internal television channel. On the program are new pieces performed in response to Ellington’s work, ranging from gospel songs written for choir and mixed ensemble to big-band pieces developed throughout the year. Some of the new compositions are heartfelt expressions of hope and regret, including intimate songs performed by inmates alongside Musical Connections musicians. The concert will also include selections from Ellington’s sacred music, including the song “It’s Freedom.”

“The love and appreciation communicated by the general population at the concerts makes the performances unforgettable, intense, inspiring, and joyful experiences,” said Washburne. “The work at Sing Sing is very much in the spirit of Ellington’s lifelong pursuit of transcendence and social change through great swinging music.”

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