University of South Carolina music students are performing this week in a concert with inmates at Lee Correctional Institution.
The groups have been working together via teleconference as part of music theory classes. Associate music theory professor Danny Jenkins said he has been teaching weekly music theory classes to inmates for about two years and thought they might have something to offer his USC students.
“I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to work with the inmates and bring the kind of conservatory, classical music training that they have to the inmates,” he said. “And have the inmates, then, to bring their musical training as more popular musicians to the students.”
Jenkins said the inmates have more knowledge and background of pop, rock, metal, rap and country music while the students have more experience in classical music.
“I was blown away by the talent level,” Jenkins said of the inmates. “Some of these gentlemen are true musicians and they have musical talents that complement some of our students and that was why I was so keen to get the students and the inmates together so they could learn from each other.”
Lee Correctional Institution is a maximum-security facility which houses some of the state’s most violent offenders. The facility was the site of a massive riot in April which killed seven inmates. Those participating in the music theory classes are from the Better Living Incentive Community, a dorm for inmates who meet behavior requirements.
“Whatever they may have done, they’re still human beings,” Jenkins said. “And we’re human beings and we like to make music and they like to make music and so I think it’s important for them to see that people on the outside feel that way.”
Jenkins started out with two inmates as students. Others requested a beginner music theory class. Currently, there are seven inmates in his advanced class. The inmates have been interacting with about 25 USC students since November.
“The basis of the songs are coming from the inmates and then the students take that and they expand on the forms, add some more instrumental parts, maybe add some more lyrics,” he said. “We have students that are rapping for the first time.”
They come together December 7 for a concert at Lee Correctional Institution to perform the pieces on which they collaborated. The inmates provide a traditional rock band in addition to saxophone, trombone, trumpet and viola. The students will add French horn, flute, accordion and cello.
“We’re really excited about the different possibilities of sounds that we can get from fusing these different types of instruments together,” he said.
Inspiration for the musicians comes from the centenary celebration of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth this year. The USC School of Music celebrated it in March with a performance of Bernstein’s Mass.
“We decided to use Mass as a kind of inspirational composition to guide our songwriting,” he said. “We’ve taken that idea of ‘Sing God a Simple Song’ as the thematic for our compositions,” Jenkins said.
Mass inspires universal themes of glory, peace and redemption, he said.
Jenkins said he’s looking at ways to bring this kind of community engagement into other courses he teaches. He said the inmates are grateful he offers them an opportunity to learn and interact with people on the outside in a constructive context.
“Every week. Every single week that I communicate with them, when we finish, they tell me how much they appreciate what we’re doing,” he said. “Every single week.”