Happy 1-year Anniversary,
Oakdale community choir!
(AND HAPPY GROUNDHOG’S DAY TOO)
Writing Sampler #5
February 2, 2010
Dear Choir Members—In honor of our one-year anniversary, this newsletter traces the history of our choir through selections from past newsletters. We conclude with some new selections from recent writings of choir members and a list of all the people who have participated in the choir, past and present. Thanks to all who contributed to this newsletter and to the vitality of the choir.
Meeting one another—March 2009 newsletter
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?
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.
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…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 the 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.
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.
This choir is no different 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 our problems. We tend to get lost in the music and the socializing.
Warm-ups—from March 2009
After what seems like an eternity, I arrive 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…The atmosphere on Tuesday for those brief moments is one of fun, relaxation, discipline and professionalism—an experience in normalcy….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…
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.
When the warm-ups are over, we finally get to sing. This is the high point of my Tuesdays. I love to sing and 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 love the low bass sound, and enjoy the songs we sing that show off the talent and wide range of this group. This group has been such a delight to be a part of. March 2009
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. March 2009
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. May 2009
I sing when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m busy and when I’m bored. I get nervous if I don’t play an instrument on any given day. It is actually very hard for me to just sing in the choir. If you check out my hands while we sing, I’ll probably be wiggling my fingers, playing a nonexistent instrument. Music is part of my daily life. I hope it will always be. July 2009
Songs in our heads
One of the songs 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…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. Don’t get me wrong—the song is very beautiful, and that might be its secret, but let me tell you mind: everytime we sing this song, I feel the desire to cry. Is it oversensitivity? Maybe. March 2009
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. May 2009
Whenever we sing “Mr. Grinch” in rehearsal, it’s stuck in my head all week. It’s especially relentless at night when I go to bed. Sometimes I can’t get to sleep because my mind is playing snatches of the song over and over again. Especially the words the men sing, “You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel” and the women sing, “Your heart is filled with unwashed socks, your soul is full of gunk.” November 2009
My friends attended our first concert and were impressed with how we sounded. One in particular has listened to the CD we made and thought it was very good. He will be singing or humming songs from the CD as we play cards. July 2009
A few things can knock a tune out of my head. The most significant is language, but the strangest one is probably engines. Busses especially, because they’re so loud and take so much effort to accelerate, impress my mind with the rising scale of their motors. Motorcycles tend to do the same thing. July 2009
I see writing as a way of compensating for my failures as a talker. 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 choir. March 2009
These writings have helped me get to know IMCC men better. It’s easier to express deeper thoughts on paper than in a brief conversation surrounded by lots of people. March 2009
Getting comfortable in the choir
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. March 2009
At one of the rehearsals, one of the men 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 some wrong decisions in life does not mean we cannot have relationships with them. May 2009
In my view, the choir helps me to get over the fear of reentry into society by knowing that there are people who care enough about others that they will spend some of their free time with complete strangers, treat them like family, and have a good time singing and socializing. The first time all of us gathered, I was very nervous as to how we would be accepted by people from the outside. Now, to me, it is like having a visit with family. July 2009
Our director, Dr. Cohen, is like a large magnet and we are all pieces of metal, and she just pulls us all together. November 2009
I was very excited to have a chance to visit with all of the volunteers. I’ve wanted to visit with them ever since the choir started. I found myself relaxed and open to everyone….Hearing from the choir members reassured me of how much people really like what we are doing…the session helped me realize how good I feel knowing that people care about me and others. November 2009
The choir in our lives
When I learned that one of the inside members would be leaving us, I felt a sense of loss I hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps in his next placement, he can act as a catalyst for creating a choir. I love his enthusiasm for the day that he can volunteer as a community participant of a prison choir. I hope I’m still singing when he returns. November 2009
The choir feeds me with hope and energy to go from day to day. It also confirms to me that some people on the outside of prison have a heart and care about our rehabilitation—that when we get out, there are people who will give us a chance to become productive citizens. November 2009
Most every inmate who has volunteered for the choir is also involved in at least one and in some cases many of the other activities here that is designed to achieve a similar purpose to this choir’s. A new inmate, or one who has yet to explore the opportunities here at Oakdale, may be the one who will truly experience the full intended benefits of the choir…Probably one of the greatest benefits of the choir is promoting confidence, which is needed regardless if you are a prisoner or a free member of society. July 2009
Where will I go from here? I’m going back to society with my head held high. I’m bringing with me the gifts from this choir to use in hopes of helping others. November 2009
“Go Light Your World” reminds us that we all have special talents within us….Without trying, we will never know whether we could or couldn’t accomplish our goals. The spirit in us is part of God’s wonderful power, igniting us in ways to help our sister and brother that we don’t really understand. When we run to the darkness, we can spread good news and help people know they are important, even though they feel they have failed. November 2009
Heading into our second year—new writing
Light in the Darkness—Holiday Concert
The song “No Days Like the Holidays” is a sad song and a happy song all in one. Sad because you know you can’t be with your family and happy because, looking from the inmate perspective, another year is done, so you’re closer to getting home to your family. The most I miss about Christmas is the food and quality time you spend with loved ones. I would like to thank the outside guests for coming in. You all don’t understand how much you’re appreciated. Sometimes if feels as though the world pushes us out of sight and out of mind, but this experience lets me know that everyone doesn’t think that way.
Our concerts have been a way for people to know we can be productive while incarcerated. Without music, people would be lost, in my opinion. Most songs are about life and the way we look at it. Most songs tell of how we live and get through our problems. A lot of our music talks about and praises God. The words hold meaning and challenges.
Honestly, I am usually just barely getting comfortable with a song when we have our concerts, and then we move on to new ones. I am hoping that as time goes by I will become more competent as a choir member and will have more mental room to use for memorizing parts.
I was surprised when Kristen came to give us the CDs. I had just talked to my family and was watching a Christmas special and was feeling a little down but that cheered me right up. I went into my room and listened to the CD 3 times in a row. It really lifted my spirits. I thought the CD sounded awesome and we need to hire him back in the future. I have listened to it over 20 times and I feel like I may actually wear it out if possible. It is now my favorite Christmas CD and I will treasure it for a long time. I can’t wait to hear from my family and friends after they have heard it.”
At the concert I had tears in my eyes as Andreas sang his solo on “Celebrate Me Home.” The first thing I listened to on the CD was the introduction to “Go Light Your World” by Nancy Halder. That intro brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. That is also my favorite song on the CD. We as a choir are “a family whose hearts are blazing,” and we are lighting the world with our music. Of course I love the “praying to our father in the name of Jesus” part too. I have listened to that intro and song probably 50 times already.
It has been great to be able to hear all of us sing together over Christmas (like family). And I am also very impressed with the sounds of the piano, flute, noisemakers and drums. The quality of the musicians is outstanding, and of course we sound good singing together too. We definitely are improving.