Listening to unsung voices

Matt Kerr discovered a lack of music in prisons—and launched a new nonprofit.

Alumnus Matt Kerr founded Beyond the Bars, a nonprofit that brings music to Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN
Alumnus Matt Kerr founded Beyond the Bars, a nonprofit that brings music to Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center. | Jenny Kerrigan TTN

Matt Kerr started teaching music in a closet at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design in Center City, but today his classroom is the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, a youth prison.

Kerr, a 2014 history and education alumnus, is the creator of Beyond the Bars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching incarcerated youth how to play music.

“I wanted to be a music teacher growing up,” Kerr said. “There was never a shortage of music teachers, but a shortage of music programs and funding for it.”

Kerr began as a history teacher at CHAD in August 2014. A member of local band Family Vacation, he noticed the school lacked a music program and decided to create one.

One of Kerr’s music students at CHAD told him how important the music program was to her. She told him her mother was a warden at PICC, and wanted to bring the program there.

“We talk about prisons and how messed up they are all the time, but you never really think more about it, because you kind of feel powerless,” Kerr said.

Kerr began visiting PICC every Sunday in fall 2014. He taught drums, guitar, bass, piano and  music theory to a group of eight young men between 14 and 18.

“Music gives them creative capabilities that they may not have without the arts,” PICC warden Karen Bryant, who started a choir program at the prison in the beginning of her career, said.

With the help of crowdfunding through Kickstarter, donations from friends and money from his own pocket, Kerr created a band setup to get the students playing music together.

One student told Kerr the lessons made him feel young again.

“I thought, ‘Oh am I babying you?’ but he said ‘No, I haven’t felt like this in a long time,’” Kerr said.

Through research, Kerr discovered an extreme lack of music programs in prison. There are musicians who visit prisons, he said, but those programs lack educators to continuously instruct students.

As a result, Kerr turned his project into a nonprofit and created a team for the organization, consisting of friends Eric Ammon and Brian Thomas.

“We already have a drive that showed success early on,” said Ammon, the organization’s chief financial officer. “In the next couple years, we plan to expand to other prisons in Philadelphia and other counties, but we also want to be level headed and not expand too quickly.”

Kerr recently has been in talks with Rollo Dilworth, the chair of Boyer School of Music and Dance music education and music therapy programs, about creating a partnership so Boyer students can volunteer with the nonprofit.

Beyond the Bars has also recently partnered with Rock to the Future and Settlement Music School to create after-school music programs.

“When they leave the prison, they have an outlet now,” Kerr said.

Kerr plans to get a recording studio inside PICC to record the students’ music, which will be played on WXPN radio through an additional partnership.

The Philadelphia native said his own experience with music helped him realize how beneficial the program could be.

“The look on a kids face—doesn’t matter about their background—when they jam with someone for the first time is the best,” Kerr said. “I told the kids, ‘All of the stuff you hear on the radio, their emotions, those experiences, none of it is more important than what you are going through. Let’s just find a way to express that.’ I could tell they really stuck to that.”

In regards to his upcoming plans, Kerr added expanding slowly is crucial, as Beyond the Bars doesn’t yet have the funding to be his full-time job.

In time he believes that will change.

“These are kids,” Kerr said. “They have done some stuff, but they have such goodness in them. They deserve to have those  feelings of self-love and self-advocacy.”

CORRECTION: In a version of the article that appeared in print, Matt Kerr was identified as a Chester County native, but he is a native of Philadelphia.

Emily Scott can be reached

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