IMCC Community Choir Newsletter: Better Late than Never
The editors (Jen Gerbyshak and Mary Trachsel) apologize for the inexcusable lateness of this newsletter. It’s inexcusable, yet we apologize. Below are excerpts from last term’s choir writing. Expect more timely editions in the future! Eds.
Songwriter’s Workshop Performance
I am so glad that I attended the Songwriter’s Workshop performance. The music was definitely engaging, but what really struck me was how much pain was expressed. Of course, one can respond by saying, “Well, duh! They’re in prison!” but that was not the point that I heard. It was the specificity of the hurt that was without blame or rationalization. It was the focused, mindful awareness of the stage they are now at in their lives, a focus primarily on the present rather than the past or the future. I was so impressed by their willingness to share this with each other and with us outsiders—neither self-pity nor macho bravado.
I was very impressed with the bravery displayed by the men in the Songwriter’s Workshop. They did an outstanding job introducing and sharing their original creations. It was an honor for me to collaborate musically with the men in the class. I love setting lyrics to music and the lyrics written this summer were very powerful. I think it would be good for the choir to learn and perform many if not all of the songs composed, so we could have a great audio recording of the music. Which ones should I arrange into 4-part or at least some harmony? Do any need revisions or tweaking? I need to listen to all the original songs we’ve performed and consider the original CD project more seriously. Many of their songs continue to flood my thinking, and I wonder about the incomplete songs. I am very grateful for this opportunity to have facilitated the 2010 Songwriter’s Workshop, and look forward to developing these and other new songs.
My memories of the workshop at first were very confusing. At times I was so lost that I thought I would need a GPS to find myself. I know more about music now than I did before we started, but I have a long way to go. It seems that there is so much to absorb. I hope my brain will take it all. There is so much more to music than just the singing part of it. There is structure, rhythm, melody, meter and the ability to write down on paper what you feel in your head and in your heart. Most of all, I want to thank Dr. Cohen for taking the time out of her busy schedule to conduct the class and for being so patient with some of us. I can’t speak for the others. But for myself, I really enjoyed the workshop and hope to continue.
The Songwriter’s Workshop performance was a very emotional time for me, both sad and joyful. After spending the better part of the summer trying to learn how to properly write a song, it was a tremendous relief to finally accomplish the completion of the song “My Love Always,” that was started last fall. When it came time to actually introduce my song, and then sing it unrehearsed, or not, I was overwhelmed with emotions I had not expected to feel, and was helpless to hold back. Since my mother passed away 28 years ago, I thought I had thoroughly grieved her loss. I am deeply grateful to Dr. Mary Cohen for allowing me to have the opportunity to express myself through writing and singing, while being a small part of something so big that it can touch the lives of many others, while changing the very core of who I am.
I started this summer’s Songwriting Workshop with both hope and dread. I love to write and perform my own songs, but I’ve always done it in a lazy way. I rough out the lyrics, then lay down some chords. Then I work back and forth between the words and the chord structure until a melody forms. This works great, but when it’s time to write down the song so others can read it, this method fails me. It’s one thing to memorize a tune. It is quite another to notate it on a staff. There are always nuances to a melody that are beyond my ability to capture in a score. My focus in the workshop was to learn more about what makes up a good song, melody and harmony. It was great to get so much concentrated information all at once. The loan of songwriting books was especially helpful.
The actual sessions were just this side of chaos, with Dr. Cohen bringing new writing material, working on our ability to read scores and to sing pitches, and working on individual songs in class. Each of the inmates got a chance to work with Mary, Rose and one another on crafting lyrics and melodies. It is quite seldom that the men here work that hard together on anything, so we had to learn to trust each other. Everyone wrote songs about their innermost feelings, so it took some courage to share the lyrics with each other. It also became evident that we all have different levels of tolerance when it comes to editing what we have written. Working with each person was a unique exercise in cooperation. I believe that we all grew from the experience.
Ways of Letting Go
I let go by writing, my main mode of expression being poetry. It’s something I’ve done for a long time. I don’t try to stick with any certain style or scheme. I let whatever is cruising around my head and heart escape onto the paper. I feel free and lighter once I’ve finished writing. Not only is it a release for me, but it is also a type of journal for me. By reading poems I’ve written, I can relive my past emotions and thinking. I’ve never written my poetry for other people. It has always been for me. Until recently, I kept what I wrote to myself. Sharing my poetry is a new and undiscovered joy for me. It’s nice to hear how people relate to me and my writing. It’s a really cool thing to hear the choir sing the words that at one time would have gone unspoken. A downfall with sharing is that sometimes what people see is really only a thin film over what lies beneath.
I need to let go of feelings of responsibility for others. This is a habit I got into when I had little kids at home. Although my husband was very engaged in their care, I was the point person most of the time—the one who looked after their clothes, shopped for their food, arranged for them to be dropped off and picked up at the right times, signed up for parent-teacher conferences, looked for activities they’d like to do, and tried to keep their schedules. Now that they’re young adults, I have to stop and think about how much I am no longer responsible for in their lives—But now that I think about it, I realize that I felt responsible for other people long before I had kids. I felt responsible for keeping my father’s drinking from my mother, I felt responsible for protecting my father from my mother’s anger because, of course, there was no keeping his drinking from her. I felt responsible for making each of them happy when it was clear that their marriage wasn’t making them happy. At school I felt responsible for talking to and befriending people who had few friends. When other students didn’t have their homework done, I felt responsible for that too, and I would often give them my homework to copy. Now I see that although it can be a good thing to feel responsible for other people, it can also be a way of enabling others to persist in self-defeating behaviors.
Stranded with Music
If I were stranded on a desert island with a solar-powered boom box, the three CD/albums I’d choose to have with me are Elvis Presley’s Greatest Hits, Michael Jackson’s Greatest hits, and George Winston’s Piano Compositions. I grew up listening to and loving everything sung by both Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, and after seeing George Winston perform live, I was hooked forever on his style of piano playing. He is truly amazing, and I never knew you could manipulate a piano the way he does.
I’d start with something upbeat, something I could dance to, with perhaps enough of an edge to let me get some aggression out if needed, slam dancing with the coconut trees. I think The Clash’s London Calling would be a good choice for this. Then, since I’d be sure to feel lonely on a desert isle, maybe some blues, a Billie Holiday collection or something by Robert Johnson, something a little earthy so that I could really connect with my natural surroundings. Finally, since I imagine I would eventually find peace with being marooned, I’d want something to express my spiritual contentment. After all, the tropical setting—sun, sea, sand—is sure to lull me into a state of acceptance. I’d begin getting back to the basics, thinking about what is really important. The needs of the soul. I think Coltrane’s A Love Supreme’ll do the trick there. It offers plenty of uplifting chord changes, and its basic theme is pretty solid—a connection with something greater than myself.
I’d choose a recording of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I’d need a score so I could sing along with the “Ode to Joy.” And Mozart’s 40th Symphony, one of the most uplifting pieces of music I know of and I never get tired of hearing it. I always need to march in time to the 3rd movement. And finally, The King’s Singers Greatest Hits. A 2-disc CD, so this is cheating a bit, but the harmony of this group singing the likes of songwriters such as John Lennon, Paul Simon, Lionel Ritchie, Paul McCartney, plus classical composers, Christmas carols, Scottish, irish and English traditional will give me a sing-along opportunity whatever my mood.
The CDs I love the most are the ones that make me want to sing along at the top of my lungs. Invariably the best songs for singing are songs of faith—prayers, psalms, hymns, scripture:
- Handel’s Messiah for classical music
- Something from the folk-gospel tradition
- A collection of a capella hymns
Christmas 2010 Music and Concert
Peace propagating through
waves of melody,
repairs my soul.
Piece by piece reverses
with soothing sealant.
Enters through my breath,
music made into being;
I am sane again.
The lyrics of “My Love Always” are powerful and poignant; powerful in their unswerving commitment, and poignant in their expression of the understanding that the intended recipient of the song may not grasp that commitment or accept it. Hence, the opening line, “Maybe someday you’ll understand.”
It is so tempting to ramble on about how hard it is to hang on to lasting peace in prison, but that isn’t reality. Profound peace isn’t all that easy to keep on either side of the fence. “Deep Peace” comes from within us, growing out of learned wisdom, contemplation of our place in the world and, for many, from prayer. May you find a peace to anchor you through your life.
My favorite song is Al Shlosha. Lovely, uplifting melody. Keep singing it. Until my kids get exasperated and ask me to stop.
I’m intrigued by “Kalinka.” It’s interesting enough to keep me occupied, perhaps prompting me to spend my time learning Russian so as to be able to translate it.
“Shenandoah” is a national park, a mighty river, and also a valley. The Shenandoah passes through the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The national park is rich in history; George Washington passed through during the French and Indian Wars. Battlefields of the American Civil War lie on both sides of the mountains. The mighty river is not navigable but creates electric power for a lot of the surrounding area. The river calls for us to explore it—we can only imagine its beauty and wish to fully understand its power.
Your concert last night was a joy. I rarely attend an event anymore where I’m moved, made to think, and experience new things—all in one evening! Mary, your presence as a leader of the choir was beautiful. You brought joy and love to every second of the performance. And your music for the original songs—with their heartfelt lyrics—made me cry. Thank you for the a wonderful event.
I drove to the prison tonight with a sense of collegial obligation to check out and support your work. Like everyone else this time of year, I was tired and hadn’t had dinner. The size of the prison facility startled me. I always imagined Oakdale as a smallish affair. Having just read somewhere that the U.S. prison population is the largest in the world, it saddened me to gaze upon the stark structure, razor wire, and signs about K9 units. I was immediately met with about a dozen rules as I entered the building and thought to myself that this must be only a hint of daily life. Many rules. Very regimented. No room for errors. I felt my fatigue intensify as I contemplated the inmates’ institutional existence. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for the Christmas music program.
Upon meeting other colleagues in the entrance, seeing yet others make their way into the gymnasium, watching President Mason and other administrators taking their seats, I began to perk up. They had all come to see your work. It was rather amazing for all the reasons that we as faculty know. Well, you can imagine how I, we all, felt when the choir began to sing. I felt the tension flow out of my shoulders and became absorbed with all the different faces visibly relaxing. Not being a Christian, I don’t celebrate Christmas, but you can’t escape those traditional songs that permeate the air throughout the season. And even though they don’t represent my traditions they’ve kind of grown on me through the years. Your challenging arrangements surprised me. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t the kind of music the choir offered. . .layered, complex, multi-vocal.
And that’s when I began to feel something way too emotional for me in such circumstances. The choir sounded like a community, like humanity, like love and caring. It sounded like a healthy and humane society, where everyone has a chance to make the most of their lives. I guess that’s hope. It sounded like the culmination of dedicated work aiming for the best outcomes. I guess that’s self-respect. The soulful lyrics written by the two inmates (I have managed to lose my program already) touched my heart in unexpected ways. Creative spirits, theirs and yours, raised the bar as far as Christmas music programs go. I must admit it was all I could do not to weep.
The juxtaposition between the sweetness of the choir voices, the depth of feeling in their lyrics, the inescapable nostalgia that arises around traditional hymns, and the circumstances under which we all came together tonight evoked more emotion than I had anticipated. There was a lot of love, hope, and dignity in that room. My wish is that it is enough to carry us all forward as our paths unfold. We can all use a little encouragement in meeting life’s challenges. We need each other to lift ourselves up. As you know, by the end of the semester it is easy to feel pretty beaten down. The choir lightened my spirits in a big way.