Inmates work with nonprofit to make instruments for kids

The xylophones come as part of a pandemic-driven curriculum shift.

Inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center are working with the nonprofit Juneau Alaska Music Matters to make xylophones. (Courtesy photo / JAMM)

Inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center are working with the nonprofit Juneau Alaska Music Matters to make xylophones. (Courtesy photo / JAMM)

This story has been updated to clarify the instruments will only be at Riverbend Elementary School. The article has been updated to reflect this information.

Inmates at Lemon Creek Correctional Center have helped making masks through the pandemic. Now, they’ll turn their hand to something else: Xylophones.

“It was really just a lot of problem-solving. It was taking our violin program and finding a different instrument that worked,” said Meghan Johnson, executive director of Juneau Alaska Music Matters, in a phone interview. “I figured there was some way we could make something. People all over the world make instruments out of things.”

A fortuitous confluence of circumstances brought JAMM and LCCC together, helping to usher this first-of-its-kind program into the air. The program is currently being offered only at Riverbend Elementary School, said Rebecca Rickle, Riverbend’s music teacher, in an email. Ricker retooled a curriculum designed for violins so that it could be used to teach students how to play the xylophone, Johnson said.

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“We’ve never had a request like this,” said LCCC superintendent Robert Cordle in a phone interview. “They contacted us late September and asked if they’d be interested in partnering with us to build 50 xylophones.”

The inmate workers, working in the prison’s maintenance shop, first assembled a prototype with materials from JAMM, Cordle said. After that, they shifted to full production, with eight workers producing 50, and then 75 frames.

“All the frames are built right now,” Cordle said. “We’re just using the regular shop tools. We’ve got a pretty good shop setup here.”

The instruments themselves are miniaturized so that children can take them home in their backpacks, something they had not previously been able to do with JAMM’s dedicated instruments, violins, said Johnson.

“It was really just a lot of problem solving. It was taking our violin program and finding a different instrument that worked,” Johnson said. “They said their biggest challenge is tuning. They have all the equipment but they can’t tell if it’s tuned.”

The violins, which could cost as much as $150 per unit, are considerably more expensive than the xylophones, which are about $20 per unit, making it viable for students to take them home, Johnson said.

“Part of this is learning how to take care of instruments,” Johnson said. “Our music program in school is designed to develop physical coordination and music skills like pulse and rhythm. The whole idea is that we use music because music is so important to a child. But we’re also developing academic and social/emotional skills.”

Students, currently learning notes and practicing on paper instruments, will trade in their mock-ups for the real instruments in January, Johnson said, following the program’s typical trajectory. Lemon Creek is also amenable to more cooperative work like this, Cordle said.

“We would love to, actually,” Cordle said. “We would absolutely be willing to partner with the schools or whatever, especially to benefit the children.”

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at (757) 621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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