IMCC-Community Choir Writing Sampler #1
Dear Choir Members—In this writing sampler I’ve collected passages from the submissions of those who have given permission to share. Thanks to all of you who have contributed to this collection. It was a privilege to read the full submissions, and I wish time and space had permitted more and longer excerpts. Below you will find a mixture of written thoughts that I’ve grouped into four themes: Getting to know each other, Descriptions of our rehearsal experiences, Ourselves as singers, and Ourselves as writers. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
Getting to know each other
I feel I interact really well with the volunteers. It is really exciting to spend time with such wonderful people, singing our hearts out. I cannot wait for our concert so I can show everyone here at IMCC that we all had a blast working together.
I’m having a great time singing in this choir. I hope there will be other opportunities to interact with IMCC residents in the future, whether through choir or some other sort of activity. I realize there are a lot of logistics involved in making a group like this happen, and I’m grateful to Dr. Cohen for organizing the choir and to IMCC officials for allowing this activity despite the extra work involved for staff.
When I first heard of the choir being put together I was excited and kind of nervous all at the same time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I be good enough to sing with others? Would they be afraid of me, since I’m an inmate? …The first night our guests showed up I felt ready for the challenge. As we walked about and talked to each other, I knew at that moment I would be accepted graciously. The thoughts of being in prison went away and I felt relaxed. As we practiced singing, it felt good to hear our guests say I had a good voice. All the time we practiced I could feel the sense of a group coming together and felt important.
I now measure my years in parole-denial letters. New Year’s Day and birthdays mean less to me as years pass. It’s this difference in mindsets that separates me from the volunteers. It’s probably the one main thing we can’t understand between us.
At the end of the rehearsal I feel awkward about socializing, afraid I won’t be able to think of anything to say and not wanting to ask questions that might seem rude or embarrassing or just stupid. But I want to somehow let the inmates know that I appreciate the way they make me feel welcome. Kevin and Maria have brought copies of the newspaper articles, and a bunch of us stand in a cluster, looking at them for a while at the end of the rehearsal. One of the articles I have not seen before, and it features a great picture of one of the inmates and one of the community members sharing music and looking very intent. I notice this week that it is taking us longer to depart. We sort of mill around, maybe not quite ready to say good-bye. I realize that I feel a little reluctant to call it quits at 7:00.
As a volunteer, I joined this choir in hopes of meeting and interacting with IMCC men. To some extent this has happened; I’ve learned a few names and had some interesting (though brief) conversations with my fellow choir members. There are some obstacles to achieving my goal though—both personal and structural. A personal obstacle is that I am a bit shy and an introvert by nature. It takes real effort for me to introduce myself to someone I don’t know and start up a conversation. This is true of IMCC men as well as the other “visitors” I didn’t know prior to joining this choir. I’m shy with both groups. But I see this choir as a great opportunity to practice getting outside of my comfort zone and be a bit more outgoing. A structural obstacle is that I’m a soprano. I think “visitors” who sing bass or tenor have more opportunities to interact with IMCC residents since they sit with them throughout the rehearsal. The final obstacle, also structural, is simply a lack of time. Our focus during rehearsals is primarily on singing together—as it should be—but I wish there was more time to get to know one another with one-on-one or small group conversations.
I’ve always been a shy person. Believe it or not, I’ve taught cooking classes of 30+ people. I’ve done cooking demos on TV and at the state fair before 100+ people. Being in front of the crowd doesn’t bother me. One on one within the crowd makes me nervous and withdrawn. I’m starting to feel more comfortable in this environment. My interactions with volunteers have been sparse. I challenge myself to open up more. My being shy hasn’t helped decrease the gap that exists between the ones inside the fence and the ones outside of it. The fact that fraternizing with those outside of the D.O.C. is discouraged hasn’t helped either. The biggest similarity we share, other than species name, is love of singing. On this foundation, if I fail to engage you in conversation, then please by all means engage me.
I admit it: I was rather timid the first night of practice. No idea what to expect. The clanging doors. Who would be on the other side of these doors? We entered the room. Men milling around the room. A cluster of young men. Oh my goodness! These young men, this room. It’s like being a parent chaperone in the “home room” at a show choir competition! These young men look like the young men in the high school show choir. Even dressed like them, with their blue jeans and tee shirts and tennis shoes. Elbowing and joking with each other. Even though in my head I realized that inmates are people, in my heart I was thinking of something else. I relaxed. I used to get along just fine with the show choir young men. I’ll get along just fine with this group of men. Perhaps some of the show choir men I’d spent time with on many Saturdays of my life are now incarcerated. Perhaps some of the inmates were in show choir when they were in high school. I can handle this!
Being in prison is especially hard for a lot of people because there is so much negativism. I’ve learned through our few practices and meeting people from the outside world that we are human, and that is a very strong self-esteem builder
I will admit that the first couple of rehearsals I was a little uncomfortable around the IMCC residents and the other volunteers. I did not know anyone and I did not know what to say. Every week I have been talking with different people and I am starting to get to know everyone. The IMCC residents are friendly, are all willing to learn, and are not afraid to ask questions. I have enjoyed getting to know the men around me in my section. One of the men has been struggling with rhythms and pitches in the music. When he finds the right pitch or sings the correct rhythm, his face lights up. I noticed that he has been singing more confidently in the last couple of rehearsals than he was at the beginning. The men at IMCC perform no differently from other choirs or instrumental ensembles I have performed with in the past. Everyone likes to talk and joke around, but we also enjoy musicking. I think when we all sing, we forget about where we are and about all of our problems. We tend to get lost in the music and the socializing.
Describing Tuesday night rehearsals.
It was Tuesday, and some of us had finished dinner quickly, leaving some of the food untouched. There was over an hour left before the rest of the choir would arrive, but in prison it is best to get things done early, making time to deal with problems as they arise. Four men split duties with little comment, falling easily into practiced roles learned from setting up the testing room for church services. The testing room needed to be opened by staff. One man looked to that. The piano and chairs needed to be brought out from storage behind security, which means getting staff to open elevators. Others worked at that. By the time the piano and chairs were rolled down the hall, the testing room was open, and men were moving tables to the side. As always, there was discussion as to the best placement of the tables, chairs and piano. None of it really matters, but it is part of the ritual, and ritual is everything in prison.
Men drifted in alone or in pairs or threes. Almost all of us are gathered more than a half hour before the posted start time, which is actually forty-five minutes before we are likely to begin. Very few men wait until the last minute to come down. We automatically split into small groups. Older men sat with older men. Younger men sat with younger men. Groups form from church-goers, Hospice Music members and just friends. It’s normal human behavior but feels strange to us. Inmates aren’t normally allowed to congregate in groups larger than four, and certainly not without being watched and supervised. The simple fact that we were being left alone, mixed with the excited anticipation of the evening gave us a sense of freedom and lightness that we seldom feel in prison.
Volunteers begin arriving around 5:15 in the reception area. We sign in, show our IDs to the guy in the front office, get our hands stamped, and wait for the stragglers to show up before we start through the multiple sets of doors that finally lead us to the testing room. While we wait, volunteers chat about the weather, what kind of work we do, and our experiences with this choir. There is an air of anticipation for us as well, and we are eager to begin the journey to the testing room where we will find you already gathered and the room prepared for us….
When the warm-ups are over, we finally get to sing. This is the high point of most of my Tuesdays. I love to sing and to blend my voice with others. I’ve never been in a choir with so many basses and tenors—tenors who handle the high notes easily and low basses for whom the low notes are not a strain. I too love the low bass sound, and enjoy the songs we sing that show off the considerable talent and wide range of the group. This group has been such a delight to be a part of.
Arriving at the testing room requires a journey through a series of long halls that are brightly lit and inundated with cameras. On that journey one will encounter nursing staff, doctors, correctional officers both male and female, young and old, and an occasional offender performing the task associated with his employment position….The persons you encounter may or may not acknowledge your presence. As offenders, we will recognize the varying messages coming across the loudspeaker, announcing access to the gym, library, chapel, art room, or whatever activity is available to general population offenders….After what seems an eternity, I arrive late at the testing room door. The volunteers have already arrived and Dr. Cohen is in rare form as she guides the choir through musical games and warm-ups. Again I experience what must be akin to the “cross-over” described by those who have undergone a cessation of life and later tell of the bright light and beauty of their out-of-body experience. The atmosphere on Tuesday for those brief moments is one of fun, relaxation, discipline and professionalism—an experience in normalcy….There is no we/they climate. It’s “us” and each one in the choir feels needed and appreciated. The last rehearsal with the cameras recording and everyone going about their business as if they weren’t there—perhaps that will be an image that will remain with me…
It was cold that Tuesday night, and I was 10 minutes late. I found myself rushing to get to the facility, eager for some warmth and hopeful for somebody to let me in. The idea of being locked out and missing the rehearsal seemed, for some reason, a little frightening to me. Luckily I wasn’t the only one to be late. There were four of us. We waited for a few minutes and a fifth person arrived. We showed our left hands to the guard and had them stamped. The next second we forgot about the stamp and followed the guard through the long hallways. We didn’t have to wait between doors or hear doors slamming behind our backs. Walking toward the rehearsal room, I was still thinking, “I’m happy I didn’t get locked out.” The sound of the choir warming up reached our ears the moment we took the last turn, causing us to widen our steps….
Since I knew the person on my right, I turned to the left. We were supposed to do the imitation game. There was just enough time to see, up close, a glimpse of who the other person is. A chance that might have never happened for both of us if we hadn’t played this game. He was an inmate, I was an outsider who, a few minutes ago, had been worried about being locked out. Then he joined his part and I joined mine. It’s time to get serious and start singing.
Ourselves as singers
I’m looking for some thoughts sharing here. It’s about a song we’re singing, “Homeward Bound.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t get this song out of my head. How can I find a good example? Here’s one…well, it’s not a good one, but I’ll say it. Well, when you step on a piece of sticky gum—you know that feeling—it just won’t come out—even if it did, there is always something left to remind you of the incident. Don’t get me wrong—the song is very [beautiful?], and that might be its secret, but let me tell you mine: everytime we sing this song, I feel the desire to cry. Is it oversensitivity? Maybe.
My favorite song so far is “Homeward Bound.” I like schmaltzy, sentimental songs, and this seems kind of like that. I like sweet melodies—like hymn or folk song melodies, and “Homeward Bound” sounds very sweet to me. I also like the words and the rural pictures in that song. Some of the words stir up memories of some of the best things from my childhood and youth on a farm: like quiet misty mornings, the moon, the singing sparrows, the sunset, the pastures, plows, the wind. Of course, the song is supposedly sung by someone who feels “chained” and “bound” to the rural life that I’m nostalgic for, and he or she wants to escape the farm and return “home” to someone or something that is somewhere else. But still the song makes me think of going home to my family’s farm.
The song I’m singing the most these days is “Lucius Dei” by a musical group called Immediate Music. They began as a group that composed and recorded movie trailer music, but their sound was so popular that they started releasing CDs. I like “Lucius Dei” first because it’s in Latin. Dead languages make me happy. Second, the music is powerful and beautiful, complex and, well, in a minor key in 6/8 time. The thing that makes “Lucius Dei” even better is that, like everything by Immediate Music, it makes use of a full orchestra, full choir, and modern instruments like electric guitars, bass and trap set. Basically, the philosophy is for the composers to take everything available to them and put them together to see what awesomeness results…. I tracked down the words so that I could memorize them and sing along. What better testament can there be of good music?
Our family is great friends with another family, both families of five (2 parents, 3 children) about the same ages, parents and children alike. The children are 8th generation Irish, although their ties to Ireland are such that it seems they just got off the boat yesterday. No Irish accents though. Four years ago when the daughter married, I sang the “Old Irish Blessing” with a mixed quartet. When we practiced, it was love at first sight, for both the melody and the words. Last year when the husband’s 96-year-old mother died, another friend and I sang the “Old Irish Blessing” as an a cappella improvised duet. On both occasions, I know that I could not, under any circumstances, look at the wife while singing. She cries copiously when she hears the music, regardless of the circumstances. Seeing her in tears would certainly have triggered me to become choked up. This is why each time we sing our version during choir practice, the “Old Irish Blessing” evokes feelings of celebration, longing, and thoughts of beauty and death.
I feel wonderful when I sing with men and women in a beautiful choir. It’s something that makes me feel good because I feel we’re united strongly. We’ve all made mistakes, and to sing with you all is an honor. I’ve made some mistakes that aren’t fixable, but I can learn from the wonderful opportunity to be part of something positive.
I like watching the other choir members. Over the past few weeks I’ve read several newspaper articles about the choir, and it has been neat to see the pictures of people who are becoming familiar to me, some just by sight, others by name, and some through our weekly writing exchanges. I am really liking the sound that this choir is developing. This week in particular, it sounds like we’re becoming much more polished and responsive to things like dynamics and diction. When the men have to sing pitches individually, I feel for them. I can do that pretty comfortably now, but I remember a time in my life when I just dreaded those individual pitch checks and would get really nervous about having to sing even one note by myself
Ol Man River has been a favorite of mine way back in childhood days. The river represents “life” in my analysis of the song. The beginning of the song represents a nonchalance African-Americans cannot afford to embrace. Back in the days of slavery, Afro-Americans often remained silent when witnessing the atrocities visited upon them. These men, women and even children knew in their heart of hearts, their souls if you will, that something was wrong. Often illiterate, they couldn’t have voiced what they had to feel with a burning sense of revulsion. In the midst of that madness, these men, women and children, if permitted, kept “living” as the river “keeps on rolling along.”
Bringing this theme forward to the 21st century, Afro-Americans represent the vast majority imprisoned across the U.S., often wrongfully convicted, wrongfully executed, and/or unjustly branded for life. Even today there’s danger inherent in a pathological retreat to a silent comfort zone. In the face of racism, injustice, inhumanity, corruption, hypocrisy, Ol Man River just keeps rolling along—as we do more often than not.
When you sing as a group, you at least have to communicate with the other people, or you sound like junk. Singing improves your listening skills, because you have to listen to how your part fits into a song. It also improves organization skills, because you have to have an order in everything you do. These three things are very important to making relationships last and endure. If we get these three things in line, all the rest will eventually fall into place.
I guess inner beauty must be happiness. I’ve found that singing usually elevates my mood, and if I sing often and regularly, I’m much more cheerful than during the periods when I’m not getting much practice. Taking time out every Tuesday to practice with this choir makes me feel good because it exercises my voice and points my attention to music. It reminds me how much I enjoy it. Because I’m singing in this choir, I’m listening more to music these days. I’ll pop in a CD sometimes when I’m working in the kitchen, and I’ll sing along. I’m even thinking about getting my mango-wood ukulele out of the closet and trying to learn to play it. So singing in this choir cultivates my relationship with the musical part of myself in a way that I enjoy. It makes me feel like a happier, more beautiful person, because it exercises my voice and my ears.
Ourselves as writers
My poetry is how I commune with myself. Sometimes I smile, cry, or fear for myself. I’m most honest in this form. It’s odd and hard trying to explain this. I’d chance a guess that we all have something in our lives like this. Something we fully know and understand, yet can’t take it across the divide to another being. Even now I ramble to prevent myself from telling all.
As I see it, writing in this class helps me “touch divinity” or realize my “inner beauty”—such as they are—to the extent that it puts me in touch with other people in the choir. I see writing as a way of compensating for my failures as a talker. Last week, I saw another volunteer at the end of rehearsal, chatting and laughing with one of the inmates, and it made me think about how I need to do a better job of getting to know people. As I told Dr. Cohen, in a former life I used to be a shy person, and in new social situations I tend to revert for a while to my old ways. For me, reading and writing is a much more comfortable way to get to know people, so in addition to working on face-to-face communication, I’m going to try to work hard at the writing part of the class. I’m going to try not to just dash something off in a quick, last-minute effort. I hate it when my students do that, even if they can pull it off because they’re practiced writers who can write even when they have nothing to say.
These writings have helped me get to know IMCC men better. It is easier to express deeper thoughts on paper than in a brief conversation surrounded by lots of people. I’ve really appreciated this opportunity.
What I write now in my assignments and in my books is written through the scars of what evil I have done. Do I write better now because I have written longer, or is my writing a bit more profound because I have matured? And if I have matured, isn’t that growth driven by what has gone on in my life, both good and bad, both of beauty and ugliness?