Meditations from the choir–#2!
From the Editor…
This semester, it has been my pleasure not only to sing with you but also to write with you. Another pleasure of this semester, for me, has been editing two of these Chorus Newsletters, where our voices come together on the page. As Dr. Cohen mentioned at the concert, I’m hoping to extend the writing component of the choir into a writers’ workshop at Oakdale. A couple of you have already let me know you are interested (thanks!). I hope others of you will be interested as well. If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing; if you can read, you can write.
I decided to call this newsletter “Meditations from the Choir” because each one represents a writer pausing to reflect or meditate upon the experience of Tuesday evening rehearsals in the IMCC testing room.
Meditations on singing
What prompts an incarcerated person to sing?
Maya Angelou said to us, “The caged bird sings with a fearful trill of things unknown but longed for still and his tune is heard on the distant hill, for the caged bird sings of freedom.”…Singing at church services has been the closest I have been to freedom of spirit. Choirs and/or groups coming into the institution to perform, worship, and/or socialize is often tantamount to escaping to freedom. Our choir has transcended and taken us to new heights…in this particular instance, the caged bird is not making an attempt, but actually singing.
Every week I have been talking with different people, and I am starting to get to know everyone. The IMCC residents are friendly, willing to learn, and not afraid to ask questions….They perform no differently from other choirs or instrumental ensembles I’ve 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 our problems. We tend to get lost in the music and the socializing.
My interactions with the men from IMCC consist of talking about the music, sharing pencils, talking about the weather. These might not seem like much, but as rehearsals progress, I find that we begin to feel and sound more like a unified choir. Usually, this process takes time, but through music we can share those feelings. I sit by a man from IMCC, and I find that even without words, we exchange the energy it takes to produce blended sound. In choirs I prefer to sit by another part, because hearing and sensing harmonies transforms the experience. These interactions are small and often through music, but they do not need to be grand to be powerful.
I enjoy learning the music better and improving my singing each week. For the first couple of weeks, I was correcting notes, rhythms, and missed dynamic markings. Now I’m able to focus on the meaning of the song and what the composer is trying to convey. Just this morning, I had the song about a motherless child going through my head. It never dawned on me how that text could relate to the inmates or the rest of us. I suppose I realized it early on, but it never sank in how the songs we sing in the IMCC choir might speak to the inmates. I have heard the words and I have sung them for the past five weeks, but the meaning was just now starting to sink in for me. I think part of it has to do with being more relaxed at IMCC and around other members of the choir and being more comfortable with the music. At first I was trying to learn the notes and rhythms, but now I can really focus on making music.
I know singing in a choir is not the same as having a conversation with someone and being able to ask questions back and forth, but there are similarities. We might relate really well to a song we are singing in the choir. When we sing at our concert, we might feel as if we’re having a conversation with someone in the audience. The audience can only listen to what we’re saying; they cannot respond. However, I think the audience will be able to tell which singers are just singing and which singers are trying to have a conversation with them.
A live choral presentation isn’t a recording that can be rewound or replayed. It isn’t a give and take conversation where you can get immediate feedback and there is no time to reiterate or clarify the message. It’s not a TV show or movie where the rough parts can be re-shot or edited out. A choral presentation is a form of communication and entertainment in which the message is conveyed to the audience as a stream of information in the composite voice of the choir. That composite is made up of the look, sound and every move of each individual member of the choir. Only a live performance of an orchestra rivals the complexity and demand for concerted and coordinated effort required by a choir to send a clear message to an audience. At some point, we must mature into the knowledge that what we do is about the audience.
Meditations on community
It’s amazing how emotions change before, during and after the rehearsal. I arrive at IMCC every Tuesday in a different mood, not knowing what the day is going to end up looking like. Seeing all these familiar faces in the lobby makes my mind shift quickly to another mode—to the rehearsal setting. The first half of the day seems like its own day, leaving me with the feeling that a new day is about to begin.
Becoming familiar with the members of the choir means easily picturing everyone’s positions in the sections. Although time for socializing is relatively limited, we have a chance to work on some chitchatting. I see many great people out there to talk to. Socializing becomes even more interesting when adrenalin kicks in, reaching its maximum when practice is over. Looking at the whole picture of people gathering, warming up, and then moving from one song to the other, I’m tempted to draw a graph of how choir emotions fluctuate. Watching some sort of happiness and satisfaction on the faces makes me believe that something great is going on, and I am part of it.
“Working your ass off for choir” means that you don’t just show up, you put yourself into the music, stay on beat, and read music as much as possible. I believe if the choir really means something to you, you’ll take extra time to do things to improve your friends in choir along with yourself.
Meditations on Prison
These choir rehearsals have made me think about prison in new ways. At the beginning of the semester, I filled out a questionnaire that asked me to describe my attitudes toward prison and prisoners. My initial response was that I really hadn’t thought much about prison at all, and I didn’t have feelings one way or the other. But in fact, I now realize, that’s not true. My first real, though indirect, contact with prisoners was through a relative’s incarceration here at Oakdale many years ago. I had known this relative for only a short time—not long enough, it seemed to me, that I would be a welcome visitor at the prison. I only knew about prison visits from two sources: movies (where visitation scenes were either tearful and dramatic or violent and frightening), and a curious bible passage I recalled from my childhood Sunday school experiences. The verse said something about Jesus telling his followers that when they were kind to others, they were kind to him. In his list of examples were standard, easily understandable kindnesses, like feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving to the poor. But there was one that mystified me: visiting people in prison. As a kid, I equated prisoners with “bad people,” whom I had been taught to avoid. Moreover, I couldn’t imagine why bad people in prison would want a visit from me, a stranger from the outside. Now I think I understand a bit better. When people can’t leave the place they live, even the company of strangers is a connection to and from the outside world.
My visits to the prison have deepened my appreciation of my own freedom to come and go as I please. They have also helped me understand the importance of sharing my wealth of freedom with people who have very little. Singing with the inmates has changed my concerns about why people are in prison to an interest in what their lives in prison are like and what they will be like after prison. And finally, my visits have caused me to think in new ways about captivity. For instance, I think differently now about dogs and cats in the animal shelter. I think differently about my own dogs with their collars and leashes and human escorts whenever they go outside the house. I think about the tall fence and double-gate system of the dog park, the only place my dogs can safely and legally run free. I think about these things in the context of a new appreciation for my own freedom to play with my dogs in the park.
There are lots of times in our lives that we will experience pain and sorrow. As hard as it is sometimes to pick up the pieces and move on, we have to try. We can’t change the past; we can only be positive, believe in ourselves and prepare for the future by helping others in need. We have to be able to swallow our pride sometimes and do something we might not ordinarily do. When we begin to realize we are all human and make mistakes, we find out we can’t carry the load alone. We have to be able to open up to others for help when hurting.
At one of the rehearsals, one of the men from IMCC asked me how my week went. I responded, “Good.” I didn’t know if I should ask him how his week went or not, but I did. He responded, “Great, we got pizza today!” I had to take a step back and think about how they must not get pizza all the time. It made me think back to when I was in middle school and all of the students would get excited for ‘pizza day’ in the cafeteria. Singing and interacting at IMCC has given me a new look at life and my surroundings. Just because these men have made wrong decisions in life does not mean we cannot have relationships with them. I think it helps them know that there are people on the outside who are willing to have relationships with them. These relationships may give them something to look forward to when they get out of prison.
I have seven years down on my seventy percent mandatory. There are another twelve to go. Just about everything my wife and I had planned for our lives is gone, yet I live a full and rich life here in prison. My writing helps, but so does my drawing, performing and writing music, along with my religious and language studies. All of the energy I used to pour into work and family on the outside is now channeled into the kinds of things I have always wanted to do but never had the time for. When I came to IMCC, I could barely order a beer in Spanish. Now I read my Bible everyday in Spanish and am working with a few friends to turn what I know into some sort of proficiency with conversational Spanish. I’ve started to learn to read and write Ancient Greek so I can better understand modern translations of the New Testament. As far as music, I started playing clarinet in the fifth grade. Since being incarcerated, I have learned to play guitar, banjo, flute, mandolin and violin and have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about music theory. Now I’m getting serious about faking it on the piano. Wish me luck. In terms of self-fulfillment, coming to prison was the best thing that ever happened to me. But there have been huge costs.
Meditations on Writing
To add or subtract words just to reach some desired word count is probably not a very good idea. I think King’s admonishment early in his book hits home most at this point. He stated at the very beginning that he was writing about how he writes. Because he is naturally verbose, he has a need to go back and cut out some of his words. I write sparsely, focusing on action and dialog. Anything I might cut would take away from the plot or message of my book. I doubt that King really thinks that cutting ten percent out of everything we write will automatically improve the quality of what is left. Rather, I believe he has found that he himself overwrites and so corrects that tendency by cutting out some of the flowery stuff. Maybe what I need to do is go back to my writing and plant some flowers.
My poetry and writing I’ve always kept to myself. I only shared maybe two poems with other people in the first 20 years of my life, one being a poem I wrote for the senior football players in my junior year. Even though it was embraced by everyone and published in the yearbook and local paper, I still hid my poems. It wasn’t until an ex-girlfriend read my poetry book without permission that I considered opening up this vault. As hurt as I was, her sincere apologies and praise helped me. 8 years later, I still don’t show all of my poetry, but I let a little more out than before. This choir and its writing has helped me open to strangers, where before close friends barely knew I wrote poetry, let alone read what I wrote.