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I Taught Myself Piano In A Prison Cell, Using A Cardboard Box

Dec 29, 2016

Every time I got a new cellmate, I warned him, “Don’t be alarmed. I have a cardboard piano that I play.”
Every time I got a new cellmate, I warned him, “Don’t be alarmed. I have a cardboard piano that I play.”ILLUSTRATION BY ELEANOR TAYLOR

In February, Jennifer Lackey, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University, where I teach journalism, invited me to speak to a class she teaches at the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison an hour outside of Chicago. Her students, fifteen men, are all serving long sentences, mostly for violent crimes. Some will be at Stateville until they die. I talked with the students about storytelling, and had them complete an exercise in which they described their cells.

I was so taken by what they wrote that I suggested that they develop these stories about the space, which, for some, had been home for twenty years. Over the past ten months, I have worked with them from draft to draft to draft. This process was not without obstacles. Sometimes, Jennifer couldn’t return my marked-up drafts because the prison was on lockdown. One student missed class for a month because, after surgery, he had to wear a knee brace, which the prison considered a potential weapon. Another student was transferred to a different prison. (I continued working with him by mail and phone.) One despaired at my comments and edits, writing to me that “this must be my last draft because clearly I’m incapable of doing it correctly.” But with encouragement and gentle nudging they kept going. Below is one of five of these stories that will appear on the site this week.

—Alex Kotlowitz

On my bottom bunk bed, I sat in deep thought. I had an unusual problem. The prison choir that I sang in needed a piano player, and they needed one quickly. I thought to myself, How could I teach myself to play? I had no prior experience with the piano, but I can still remember running down the hallways of my grandmother’s house as a boy. Every time I ran past her old upright piano, I would slam all the keys at the same time. Sometimes in the mornings before school, as I listened to cassette tapes of my favorite R. & B. and gospel songs by Mary J. Blige and John P. Kee, I imagined myself playing the piano. I sang in the church choir from the age of seven on. In the sixth grade, I learned to play the xylophone. I had an uncle who played piano professionally at Las Vegas casinos and on cruise ships. When he came to visit, I sat in awe as he played our upright. Music has been my constant companion. It’s like my DNA has tiny quarter notes infused into it.

One day while I was watching TV in my cell, I flipped past a show on BET that highlighted famous musicians, including the gospel singer Andrae Crouch, who described his first piano. It was made out of cardboard. I had an idea that was literally out of the box.

READ MORE: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/my-cell-learning-to-hear-on-a-cardboard-piano