Berklee Online, BreakFree Ed offer music lessons for inmates


Thanks to the collaboration of Berklee Online and BreakFree Education, music lessons were offered to incarcerated students.

by Talia Smith Muller from Berklee online.

Those who have worked in juvenile justice facilities in the United States know that education is not a priority in the prison system – and music education is certainly not a priority either. Kat Crawford, a technology innovator for BreakFree Education, can attest to this, having worked with over 120 institutions over the past decade to try to change this reality.

“Music is huge for our students,” says Crawford. “If they can’t hear it, they’ll make music themselves, either tapping a pen, singing all the words to a song, or having a whole group of people sing together. So there’s really no way to turn off the music in this space.

BreakFree is a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide educational solutions for incarcerated students. When Mike Moyes, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Strategy and Operations at Berklee, heard about BreakFree, he knew Berklee Online could help be part of that solution.

“It was something that was always on my mind, that there are amazing musicians who ended up in the prison system, often because of circumstances beyond their control,” says Moyes. “They have the skills, the ability and the talent, and just need an opportunity.”

Circumstances beyond their control include the disproportionate number of school arrests of students of color and students with disabilities, according to the ACLU.

Infographic by Community Coalition and featured in the Unsung Songwriting Contest program.

The partnership began with an initiative called Unsung Songwriting Contest, developed by Crawford. Now in its third year, the Unsung Songwriting Contest offers students a program to learn how to write and produce their own protest song. Crawford and Moyes decided that the competition would provide insight into who would be an excellent candidate for a Berklee Online course scholarship.

The first lesson in the Unsung program covers lyrics to songs like “We Shall Overcome,” U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up,” and more. Students are then encouraged to write about issues in the world that affect them, such as the school-to-prison pipeline. They then learn how to adapt their songwriting to a song format, and finally, produce their song in the online DAW program, SoundTrap, and submit it.

A slide on the protest anthem “We Shall Overcome”, featured in the Unsung Songwriting Contest program.

“Anyway, you can change people’s perceptions through music by creating protest songs,” Crawford says. “That was the idea behind the program that I designed and when we pushed it out there, we had so many amazing songs and we continued to have just amazing stories.”

One of the amazing stories Crawford refers to is that the two first-place winners of the 2020 competition were separated at their establishment as punishment for singing together too often. A teacher who was aware of the situation asked permission to bring the two students to a visitation room, where they then created their winning song during this session.

“To me, it was just amazing,” Crawford says. “Not only did the teacher acknowledge that this was not something the students should be punished for, but also took the initiative to say, ‘We shouldn’t see this as a hindrance, but can we do to bring these students together to create great music? »

In the 2021 competition, five winners were selected from 54 student entries from across the country. Moyes consulted with Crawford on how to choose the students best equipped to succeed in a Berklee Online course. There were many factors to consider, and the last thing they wanted was for a student to have a bad experience in a course because their technology wasn’t up to snuff or because they weren’t getting the support he needed in his establishment. BreakFree coordinated with teachers from winners’ schools to determine scholarship recipients.

Here’s a playlist of the top five winners from last year.

I remember laying in my cell, just thinking, reminiscing
You wouldn’t understand because you’re not in my place
What you know about ramen noodles, the only thing that’s in the kitchen
I still think about you everyday, I hate the way I live
—First place winner’s song, “R3M3MB3R”

“What I like to do is work with the facilities, ask them, ‘Hey, you’ve done all this exercise, who’s really excited about going deeper into the musical aspect? Moyes says. “’Who really turned on when they did this project and wants to know more about chord progressions or lyric writing?’ And then these people, who have a friendly correctional officer who is going to partner with us to allow them to use the Internet and all that. We want to find students who are not only interested, but also ready to succeed from within.

One of the great benefits of the scholarship program was that recipients could take their Berklee Online courses without their online peers knowing they were incarcerated. Moyes offered them mentorship and paired them with instructors whom he informed about their situation and whom they trusted to support their progress, including Andrea Stolpe and Danny Morris. Here’s what one winner said about their experience, with their identity being kept anonymous to protect their privacy:

Brotha told me watch who I ride with
I didn’t listen now I’m back in focus
They throw me in this cage
and they are waiting for a change
But it only made me worse and you’re all to blame
-The second place winner’s song, “How I Feel”

“Professor Danny Morris was very open to things that were not available to me due to my incarceration. I feel like many incarcerated youth would benefit and grow through the class. I’m not going to pretend this was all a piece of cake, it wasn’t. This was all very new to me but my teacher understood and did everything in his power to help me. Being incarcerated only gave me time to soak up and grasp the fundamentals of music and its language.

This student’s correctional officer also had positive things to say about his learning experience:

“This experience ‘normalized’ her and made her feel connected to the outside world. I’m so proud of her for stretching and learning a subject that didn’t come easy to her. All in all, this opportunity was one I know she will never forget! She took many college courses while incarcerated, but never a completely overwhelmed online course and never anything that taught her the basics of a subject she felt so connected to.

Crawford and Moyes plan to continue to expand this partnership, hoping to provide more Berklee Online scholarships and more opportunities for students from different institutions across the country to collaborate.

“We are honored to have Berklee Online help students with a passion for music pursue their musical education,” says Crawford. “We look forward to seeing the long-term impact this program could have on our scholars.”


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