Oakdale Community Choir Reflections
Greetings! This summer edition of the Oakdale Community Choir newsletter contains excerpts from choir members’ writing in the second half of the spring session. I hope that reading the thoughts below help you recall the good times we’ve had and the good music we’ve made together. Best wishes to Mary Cohen, Rose Schmidt, and the inside singers who are taking the song-writing class this summer. I can’t wait to hear the results of the class, and I look forward to gathering together with all of you again on Tuesday evenings when the summer session is over. Mary Trachsel
I think of ritual as one kind of rhythm and rhythm as a—maybe the—most useful way to think about living. So I like this question and Small’s ideas about rituals and patterns. One important part of rituals is how they can engage the whole body in a process that helps the mind and heart remember and commemorate an important event. Another important, even necessary, part of rituals is the communities in which they take place. I often marvel at the difference between my response to the communion ritual in the church of my childhood and in my current church. Although different sects, the two churches have similar rituals and, in fact, think of themselves as sister organizations. And yet for me the communion rituals could hardly be more different.
The ritual that comes first to my mind is the singing of opening and closing songs in this choir. It’s possible to enact empty rituals—the way my brothers and I still chant the before-meal prayer at my mother’s house without even thinking of the words, but it’s better to fill them with meaning. When I really think about the words to our opening and closing songs, and when I really feel them as I sing, the ritual becomes meaningful. I feel the good wishes contained in those songs, and when I look around the room at the end of rehearsals when we sing the closing song in rehearsals and catch people’s eyes and maybe exchange smiles, I know that other people have similar feelings. It’s in the communal understanding and feelings of good will that those rituals become meaningful.
It is the nature of prison to drain. At the end of the day, something as simple as a normal response to “Good Morning” can turn into a draining experience: “What’s good about it?” Compliments are often half-hearted. After an offender has toiled nearly four hours on a floor to produce a shine that is remarkable by most persons’ standards. The supervisor comes along and says, “You did a half-way decent job, Dude.” Rarely will you hear, “You did an excellent job,” calling the offender by his name, or “I can certainly see the work you put into this floor.” (In the leader dog program at Rockwell, handlers are instructed to call the dogs by their names when giving them treats to recognize performance that it up to par.) Small wonder, then, that on Tuesdays, offenders respond as they do to applause and/or a genuine compliment. Rituals are rewarding….I appreciate the beauty associated with the rituals and disciplines inherent in the community choir experience. It behooves me to recognize the part advanced by everyone, but particularly the outside volunteers who treat offenders with dignity and respect. The little sweet kills great bitterness.
There is a theory that the recognition of patterns is a survival instinct in humans. I suppose it’s true. Certainly it is easy to see the man on the moon, and some people see the mother of Jesus in everything from bread to bell towers. Nothing in life consists so completely in the realm of patterns as making music. From the repetition of the simplest nursery rhyme to the complex play of melody and counter melodies in a symphony, patterns play out and tickle the human mind. How bizarre is it, really, that any human child can hear a bad note that is hit and doesn’t belong in the musical scale or pattern of music. Connect the dots, fill in the boxes, finish the lyric, resolve the chord…humans love patterns and a feeling of completeness.
I’ve always believed that we humans are quite capable of learning as long as we are still breathing. I also believe that every thought and every experience we have is filtered through and connected with everything else we have in our heads. I often have to convince students that they can learn and that they can think clearly. I have had very young students who have somehow convinced themselves that they’re too old to learn at the age of twenty. They often have been told over and over that they are stupid or lazy. To a man, every time I’ve been able to convince them that they can learn, they do. My only failures have been those few who believed the ghosts of their pasts….Children may learn faster and with less effort, but adults learn more deeply and often have a greater inducement to learning something they love.
I’m betting that neuroplasticity enables building new circuitry for emotions and not just for thinking. So many times I’ve witnessed adults of all ages gain new emotional competence that they never displayed before—compassion, humility, more love. The sources of this kind of new learning are surely more wondrous than the DVDs [that are teaching me math]. Inspiration is all around, looking for an open circuit.
The songs we sang
When I returned to the U.S. after having lived abroad for many years, I felt as if my world had turned upside down. I was seriously ill; it was a shock, culturally, to return to the relatively well-off states after having lived in places like India; and my parents were not happy about my long absence. While trying to find my footing, I happened across a reading of a number of spiritual songs, many of which I knew and were important me (and which were rooted in more of an Eastern spiritual perspective, which I was comfortable with). There was one song, however, that I’d never heard before—a Shaker hymn called “More Love.” It was a beautiful song; it was sung wonderfully by this artist, who I felt a kinship with, and it was very much an American song. I felt this song and its message of “loving each other in daily communion” touch me deeply, and in a small way, welcome me back to my culture. I still remember it fondly.
Our world today embraces a “just get by, “do whatever,” “survive if you can” approach to life. These 1, 3, or 4-word formulas for making it come up void of substance when one weighs the words in scores such as “Till the Stars Fall from the Sky.” “I am yours now and forever, till the stars fall from the sky.” “I’ll be with you my darling, till the stars fall from the sky.” It’s not a theoretical commitment, but a soul-level commitment to marriage vows, for instance. What if my legs are lost in the war, or I am paralyzed from the waist down from some mishap? What if cancer takes the breasts of my beloved, or we learn after marriage she can’t have children. What if one or the other winds up in prison for life? What if these scores were picked without concern for the in-depth meaning in the lyrics? Who is to say someone in our midst—be it a volunteer or an offender may for the first time enter into a region of thought never before realized? It is not difficult to ascertain the spiritually maturing consequences that result from singing and spending time perfecting and digesting these words.
I was struck by the refrain to Kenneth’s “May the Stars Remember Your Name”—“And the stars remember, remember my name.” I have had the same experience with land. Whenever I visit my hometown, I drink in the landscape as I get closer. The land if perfectly flat for long stretches, and it bakes under 360 degrees of unbroken sky. When I step out of the car, I smell the frying grass; I feel the higher pressure of being closer to sea level and the powerful gusts of wind that have nothing in their way. I take this all in, and I could sweat the land remembers the touch of my feel and welcomes me back. I grip the insides of my shoes with my toes in a sort of hug—hello again, friend—I remember you too.
I wonder if the image and sound of the inmates singing “Till the Stars Fall from the Sky” affects the correctional officers accompanying us as much as it does me. This sound stands out just because it’s about coming home someday and being with a loved one, even if you are not there in person. I am so impressed with how well composed the inmates are when we sing that song, and all of our songs, since they are so emotionally stimulating. Ideally, singing these songs is cathartic, especially because all of the songs are fairly positive and thankful.
I believe “Thank You Very Much” should be dedicated to the staff here at IMCC, the outside volunteers, and especially Dr. Cohen. If it wasn’t for their teamwork to get this started, we wouldn’t be here singing. As the song says, this choir is “the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for us” in here. We don’t get to share our experience with the outside very much like we do with the choir, except maybe through our friends and family. The inmates are here as punishment for their crimes, but the volunteers are here because they choose to, which makes this time more enjoyable, and makes me feel as if another life’s begun for me.
[I’ve had an] experience that relates to the song, “In my Mother’s Eyes,” in that I can recall a moment of disappointing my mother, and the great hurt I felt from the absence of her love and from having hurt her. Luckily, we all experience these moments of regret and shame, and they encourage us to value the love given to us and the good deeds done for us more deeply. These moments enable us to give that compassion back more effectively and consistently.
Writing words and writing music
I’m not the best writer, but I am thankful that we can have the opportunity every week to write about our experiences, because I know this is very helpful to me. Sometimes I just sit down and write letters home. Many don’t make it there, for various reasons, but it’s nice to be able to put thoughts down on paper, even if it doesn’t make sense or isn’t perfect. It is just so helpful.
I have spent a lot of time trying to put my own songs on paper. I’ve never been happy with the results. The pitch of a note is no problem, but the duration of notes, the nuances of a performance is always flattened out when I try to get the song as sung onto paper.
I think fans of Western classical music maintain the need to be accurate to the original score for two reasons: literacy and recordings. The more literate a culture becomes, the more dependence is placed on the written word. Words are frozen to the page and always read the same. Correct grammar is to be used. This spills over into contemporary ideas of a score; it too is frozen on the page and should always be read in the same way, the correct way, which is the way of the original author/composer. With increased literacy comes decreased spontaneity in both the written word and the performance of the written score. Secondly, recordings also freeze music—each time a recording is played, it sounds exactly the same. With the magic of editing, recorded performances can be technically flawless. Therefore, those who listen to recordings begin to expect live performances to be equally the same and flawless. While recordings enable the masses to listen to performances, they have done a bit of disservice to live performances by creating the expectation that live renditions will sound the same and include no flubs.