Strike Up the Band

By Mike Powers

When I was in the sixth grade, my music teacher, Mrs. Jennings, talked me into taking up the cello. Except for the difficulty of lugging around such a large instrument, I enjoyed it very much. The following year, I went on to junior high, and for the first month or so, I didn’t take Orchestra. As it turns out, Mrs. Jennings came to see Mr. Prescott about the progress of her students, and when she found out I hadn’t signed up for Orchestra, she went to the counselor’s office and signed me up without so much as a “How do you do?” I’ve never regretted that she did.

Fast forward almost 40 years, and I am hopeful my beloved Mrs. Jennings didn’t survive to see me come to prison, she would have been very disappointed. But I think I’ve finally given her something to smile about from her perch among the saints in glory. I’m a musician again.

I’ve been singing in church for years, at least twenty of them, and as such, I can honestly say that I never stopped being a musician, for the voice is definitely an instrument, but there is certainly a new level of accomplishment when one can skillfully play an instrument. At last, I am playing the keyboard.

For seven years now, on two different units, I’ve either sang with or led the praise team in my prison church environment. At the Stevenson Unit, I can count on one hand the number of practices we had in the six years I was there, if I don’t include the Baptist choir. (Dr. Hall would come every Saturday an hour early to ensure we had time to practice the choral hymns we’d be singing that night.) The bands behind these teams always struggled, and not for a lack of talent. You’d be amazed at the ability of some of these jailhouse musicians. But a band that can never practice together has a tough row to hoe.

Here on the Diboll Unit, Chaplain Culberson has gone beyond the call of duty to provide several practice times each week for the two bands we have, one Catholic and one Protestant. I’ve been leading the Protestant team since October, and God has blessed us with a great band along with the practice times. And then, in February, we lost our keyboard player. Here’s where it gets interesting.

Despite the frustrations of being a prison musician, there was never a lack of candidates for open positions. Someone was always waiting in the wings for a spot to open up in the band, and sometimes they were more than willing to give the musician a little “push” off the stage by dropping I-60s with false, or sometimes true, information about illicit behavior outside the church house. It was like “Game of Thrones” behind bars.

For once, in all those years, when our keyboardist made parole, there was no one to take over the position. We made do without anyone playing for several weeks, and then we introduced a song that just screams for piano in the accompaniment. I knew the keys, and I can read music. The only thing I was lacking was a firm grasp of what the pros call “harmonic gravity”, the way chords fit together inside a scale. But even this had been seeping into my brain all this time, so I decided to give it a try. Believe me, I’m no Chopin, but I held my own, and even had the chance to put some nice flourishes in here and there. One of the settings on the keyboard is, of course, “cello”. Now here I know my way around. We had this song where it seemed like a cello in the background would be real sweet, so I changed the settings and played behind the lead guitar. It was beautiful, and the joy of making music that touches the soul in worship for Christ is indescribable.

I’d like to think I’m not one of those fragile-egoed artists. Several times, we’ve announced in service that we are still looking for someone who can play to take over the spot, but in the meantime, I’m having a great time and learning so much that I’ve decided I don’t want to give this up even when I get out myself. I wonder if a GoFundMe account to buy a middle-aged ex-con a keyboard would get any traction.

So, we are making sweet music together, and some cool things are happening. Besides some significant growth in church attendance, people outside the church are taking notice. We’ve been invited to play in several events, and we recently asked the unit’s major about doing an outdoor concert in tandem with the Catholic band sometime this summer.

I’d like to close today’s article with some thoughts about the contrast between TDCJ, this MTC unit, and other state and federal prisons. First off, MTC is much more closely aligned with the programs offered at more progressive state and federal facilities. Not only is the religious music program strong, but guitar classes are open to all inmates of various skill levels with semiannual music festivals to display what they have learned. The benefits of this program are enormous. Not only does it provide badly needed self-esteem and sense of accomplishment, but it is a great way to manage behavior. Some of these guys fear losing their guitar privileges more than they fear any harm to Texas’s case. Also, over the years, I’ve known of several stories of prison choirs or bands that are given the chance to perform for free-world audiences. I’ve never seen the TDCJ offer anything like that, and it’s a shame. Can you imagine with me, for just a moment, the sense of achievement in the heart of a man who has known nothing his whole life but failure and consequence, and now he’s enjoying the applause of an enthusiastic audience because he’s done something wonderful- something worth applauding? That kind of experience can change a man’s life, my friends. Even if the applause is just the Father listening from heaven...and maybe Mrs. Jennings

The Attorneys
  • Francisco Hernandez
  • Daniel Hernandez
  • Phillip Hall
  • Rocio Martinez