[OP-ED]: A reminder from behind bars of the rewards of persistence
It is said that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions are broken by the second week of February. I didn’t make it that far.
My 2017 vow was about my underwhelming progress in becoming a proficient piano player. “I’ll never be a concert pianist. But my New Year’s resolution is to amp up my practice to daily because I want to someday experience the joy that comes once sounds become actual music,” I wrote back in January.
Truth be told, that only lasted about a week and a half, when I defaulted to every-other-day, a lackluster pace that amounted to only 90 total hours last year. Barely a dent in the 10,000-hours-per-decade goal necessary to master the instrument before I turn 50.
Even worse: Work and family commitments got the better of me and, by Feb. 22, I was neglecting my musical studies altogether.
My hiatus ended upon hearing a heartbreaking story on last week’s New Yorker “Radio Hour” podcast.
In the segment “Writing About Life in Prison,” the journalist Alex Kotlowitz described his writing mentorship to men serving extensive sentences for mostly violent crimes at the Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois. Three stories demonstrated the humanity that manages to stay alive behind bars even after decades of incarceration.
One piece, titled “My Prison Cell: Learning to Hear on a Cardboard Piano,” struck me deeply. In it, Demetrius Cunningham described his singular determination to learn the piano.
“Music has been my constant companion. It’s like my DNA has tiny quarter notes infused into it,” wrote Cunningham, making kindred spirits with those of us who share his passion.
The piano reminded him of his grandmother’s home and also represented an opportunity to take on a leadership position in his prison’s choir. But first, Cunningham had to get really creative.
“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,” Cunningham wrote. “I found a large empty box abandoned at the end of the [prison] gallery. I tore off the top flaps and quickly went back to my cell. ... I stapled two sections together. I then took 10 sheets of white typing paper and wrapped them around the cardboard. To make keys, I used a case for a cassette tape to draw straight lines. For the white keys, I used a black pen to outline them. For the black keys, I cut small rectangles out of black construction paper. I attached the keys with clear packing tape.”
And then, with the help of a shipment of piano books from his mom, Cunningham put his imagination, aural skills and cardboard piano to work.
“I positioned my practice space at the end of my bunk bed. I was fortunate to have the bottom bunk, and so I used my small property box as a piano bench. I folded my mattress on itself, and then placed the piano on the steel bunk bed. For hours at a time, I would practice finger positions and how to build chords. Sometimes, I would hum the sound of the keys as I tapped on the cardboard,” wrote Cunningham. “I practiced for hours on end, to the point where I developed calluses on my fingers. Every couple of months, I needed to make a new piano because of the wear and tear from my practice sessions. After going through five keyboards, I made a heavy-duty keyboard by tripling the materials. It has lasted over five years.”
Not only did Cunningham succeed in becoming proficient at his instrument -- eventually ascending to church choir director and piano player -- but today Cunningham teaches three other inmates who have “accepted the challenge of the pedagogy of the cardboard piano.”
Kotlowitz’s elevation of stories about life inside a maximum-security prison cell is a much-needed window into an American population we rarely think about. More stories can be accessed via the “Written Inside” podcast (http://ow.ly/eV2v30akOdU), which the journalist co-produces.
The tales are a powerful reminder that even the forgotten still have goals and ambitions. And the rest of us, with our complaints about not having enough time or access to the things we want, have no excuse for fudging our aspirations. People who truly have a will find a way -- even under the harshest of circumstances, when a dream seems impossible.