Finding One’s Path Through Music

Posted by Sarah Johnson, Jul 20, 2017 0 comments

As a musician, educator, and arts leader, I’ve had the privilege to work with artists of all ages, in many musical genres—from elementary school music students to some of the most renowned artists from around the world. Six years ago, I met a man named Dexter. He didn’t have a formal background in music but, over the past several years, he’s become a trumpet player, a composer, and a testament to the power of music.

Dexter and I met through one of our Weill Music Institute (WMI) programs, during which he began creating and performing original music for the first time. His brother had given him a trumpet, and while he’s the first to admit that initially he was a terrible player, his commitment and dedication earned him the respect of his peers, as well as a rousing, standing ovation at his first performance. Since then, he has continued to compose new songs, including some that have now been performed at Carnegi­e Hall and even the White House. Today, Dexter is a composer and arts advocate who will soon be attending Columbia University to pursue a master’s degree in social work. His ambition is to work with teenagers to help them flourish.

Dexter and I met when he was participating in a songwriting workshop that was part of WMI’s Musical Connections program at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility in Ossining, New York. Centered on the Weill Music Institute’s core values of artistry, community, and equity, the program invites men who are incarcerated to join an artistic community in which they create, perform, and produce their own original music.

Like many of the original songs he has written, Dexter’s song “I Must Confess” considers his past and his hopes for his own and his family’s future. Now that he’s returned home, Dexter enjoys sharing his love of music with his two sons and family. He is now a member of the Musical Connections Advisory Committee, which helps men transition home and continue to make music. With his best friend, he’s built a recording studio in his home that he makes available for free to people who were formerly incarcerated.

At Carnegie Hall, we see our Social Impact programming as an integral part of our mission, to celebrate the artistry in all of us and explore the most inventive ways that music can play a role in people’s lives. WMI’s work has grown and evolved in the last decade, and we are continually exploring what it means for Carnegie Hall to be of service to both New York City and the country through a broad range of music programs. Over the past eight years, we have built programs in justice settings, serving both young people and adults. We are also interested in helping to transform the systems themselves, and we believe the arts can be a tool in moving toward a more inclusive, restorative approach to justice. We’re very excited about our newest initiative, Create Justice—a partnership with the Los Angeles-based Arts for Incarcerated Youth Network (AIYN)—which launched this spring. Much as Americans for the Arts brings people together collectively for arts advocacy and learning, Create Justice brings together young people alongside arts and justice leaders from across the country, to work towards justice reform through the arts.

At the Weill Music Institute, we are thinking all the time about the ways in which we can serve people through music, from elementary school classrooms to healthcare settings, from maximum security adult correctional facilities to after-school, youth-led teen programming in our Resnick Education Wing. We do this in collaboration with incredible artists from many genres, and as part of a network of organizations large and small, in New York City and nationally, who similarly care about the role music and the arts can play in people’s lives. We believe that music is a human right and an innate capacity, and we know that it’s part of our responsibility as cultural citizens to do as much as we can to acknowledge, nurture, and encourage musical discovery and expression, so that we can hear and learn from people’s perspectives and voices. At the Weill Music Institute, we are deeply passionate about this work, and incredibly inspired by the work of the people, like Dexter and many others, who participate in our programs.

Sarah Johnson is the recipient of Americans for the Arts’ 2017 Arts Education Award. Presented each year since 2007, the award honors transformational leadership in arts education through strategic planning, programming, and partnerships to achieve community goals. Johnson is a member of Americans for the Arts.

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