Music professor creates prison choir with inmates, faculty, staff, and students
The choir members laugh, joke, and mingle easily as they gather in the makeshift chorus room at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Coralville.
Among them are professors, students, administrative assistants, and community members. Another group of about 20 men, indistinguishable except for the orange nametags attached to their shirts, are mixed into the group. These are brothers, dads, sons, husbands, and grandpas.
They are also offenders living at IMCC, known as Oakdale Prison.
However, for one and one-half hours each week this spring, the 20 inmates blend their voices with another 20 members of the community—including eight UI faculty and staff and seven additional UI students—to belt out songs ranging from “Lean on Me” to “Ole Man River” as part of a groundbreaking choral experience called the Oakdale Community Prison Choir.
At this point, the labels blur, and they are all people simply bound by an appreciation of music and human fellowship.
Mary Cohen, UI assistant professor of music education, leads the choir with passion, commitment, and a sense of humor. And her enthusiasm is contagious.
Cohen, who holds a joint appointment in the UI Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences, says the project provides an opportunity for the offenders to connect and sing with others. She said singing also provides tools to help them re-enter society successfully.
While she moves about the room, Cohen encourages and cajoles the choir members, offering praise when they do well and support and guidance when a voice strays an octave or is off pitch.
The program has been so popular that since the rehearsals began in February, two more inmates have joined the choir.
Another big reason that Cohen started the choir was to bring choral music education to a population that does not currently participate in it as well as to initiate positive relationships between incarcerated and nonincarcerated people through a common goal of preparing for a choral performance.
The experience has included rehearsals from 5:30 to 7 p.m. every Tuesday since Feb. 3 and will culminate in a concert in the prison gym April 21.
To begin each rehearsal, the choir members sing a simple round called “Beauty Before Me” and conclude with a sung blessing, “May You Walk in Beauty.” John Rapson, UI professor of music in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and director of jazz studies, composed an original song titled “Love, Light, Peace” that the choir is learning.
Cohen also hopes to restart an educational partnership between The University of Iowa and the prison and offer inmates an opportunity to reflect on the experiences of singing in a community choir through writing assignments. Each week, choir members have writing assignments that they share with one another and Cohen.
She also hopes to offer UI students an opportunity to reflect on the influences within this learning/teaching context and to learn about prison education, particularly music and prison-based art education.
Everyone gains something from the experience, Cohen says.
“Choral singing enriches lives like no other activity on the planet,” Cohen says. “The physical, emotional, and cognitive benefits as well as the social perks of singing with others, give these fine volunteers an enjoyable experience in a nontraditional context.”
The volunteers’ motivations for getting involved are as varied as the individuals.
Chad Burmester, an IMCC inmate and choir member from Hampton, Iowa, says he used to sing in his church choir and play the piano.
“I’ve always enjoyed music, and so it gives me an opportunity to use my skills,” Burmester says. “I really enjoy it. It’s fun to get out here, meet some new people, and get involved. I’m happy that they’re allowing this, and hope they continue it.”
Cohen says the choir also enables the visitors to see beyond stereotypes and statistics, recognize inmates as fellow human beings with dreams and desires just like their own.
Mary Trachsel, professor of rhetoric in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, agrees.
“All my notions of prison and prisoners came from sensational media representations,” Trachsel says. “Those notions began to change when Dave (Southard), who facilitates our coming and going at rehearsals, said at our orientation session that most of the inmates were ‘people who have made some bad decisions.’ I could certainly identify with that—I think we all can.”
Still, some choir members say they experienced trepidation when they first got involved.
Kayla Lalor, an administrative associate with the UI Foundation, and her husband, Jerry, got involved when they learned about the choir through their church choir.
“I can honestly say that I was very nervous about this at first,” Lalor says. “I had never been inside a prison, and the only exposure I’ve had is what I’ve seen on TV and in the movies.”
However, after the first rehearsal, her anxieties vanished.
“If you think about it, we are taking ourselves out of our element—going inside a facility that has high security where there are criminals with various offenses, and putting ourselves in the offender’s territory,” Lalor says. “That can seem a little daunting, but it’s not like that. The offenders are very welcoming, nice, polite men who trust us to come into their living environment. I’m sure they were just as nervous as I was, but over the last few weeks, we’ve all warmed up, and come together as a group. I believe there is a mutual respect for each other.”
Patricia Zebrowski, associate professor of communication sciences and disorders in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says she got involved in the choir because she used to participate in a community choir in New York.
“Music is great for self expression, no matter who you are,” Zebrowki says. “It’s a great release, it’s very relaxing, and I think it’s a wonderful idea because these folks are living in our community, and it’s important that they get to meet some of us and vice versa.”
Cohen says she could not have brought this project to fruition without the tremendous cooperation and support of the IMCC staff, including former warden Lowell Brandt, who helped initiate the project but died in December, as well as Greg Ort, Kevin Weideman, Dave Southard, and Kelli Collins.
Cohen adds that she hopes some participants' writing will be used as introductions to songs or poetry for original songs they can sing at the concert.
An excerpt from one inmate reads, “Since I’ve joined this choir… I’ve taken steps towards something I’ve lost. Or rather left. I’ve left part of me outside these walls and fences…
“Every voice I hear reminds me of what is possible. Togetherness, teamwork, acceptance, and the list can go on. Those voices carry with me as the volunteers leave on their goodbyes, and I return to prison. While we sing I’m not in prison. I’m in peace. I’m in a choir of gifted musicians who share my passions and joys. The choir helps me along my path to find my place in peace.
“So where does my peace reside? It resides at whenever and whatever place I reside. For my place is in peace. Peace is with me always, and I hope you can hear it in our voices. ‘Our place is in peace, therefore peace is in all places.’”
By Lois J. Gray