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Chorus in Jail?

Next week our small church choir will be presenting its annual "concert" at our city jail. The following week, working with the chaplain there, I plan to hold auditions for a small group of men to do an 8-week pilot program to determine whether an inmate choral group might be viable on a continuing basis. (Volunteer faculty from the local university teach weekly classes in skills that will be helpful upon their release.)  My experience has been mainly in church music, but in this situation I am free to do secular music as well. I'm planning to start with unison or 2-part music, and I know I'll have to include sight reading. (Oh yes - there's no budget for music, but I can probably borrow some.) If any of you have had experience in a similar endeavor I would very much appreciate any advice you can give: audition, repertoire, logistics?  
Replies (26): Threaded | Chronological
on May 21, 2015 12:43pm
Contact Mary Cohen. She is on ChoralNet.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on May 22, 2015 5:36pm
Richard is right on, David. Mary is a practicing prison choral director and a professor of choral music education at the Universoty of Iowa in Iowa City. Her office email address is: mary-cohen(a)  Mary has advocated for music and arts programs for prison inmates and has seen first-hand how such programs transform human beings who are called "prisoners." Her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Kansas documented the work of an incredible woman who undertook this work in the prisons of Kansas after she "retired" (her name escapes me at this moment). During her career, the woman had organized and prepared the choruses for annual summer choral workshops in Alaska that Robert Shaw had conducted. While she was doing her prison "retirement" work, a mutual friend mentioned her work to Mr. Shaw, and how that work was endangered by lack of funds. Mr. Shaw called this beautiful woman, whom he greatly admired, on the phone and offerred to do a fund-raising workshop for her cause for no pay. It happened. A huge number of people showed up, and as I recall, well over $16,000.00 was raised.
Having sung with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus when Mr. Shaw was there, I read all of Mary's dissertation when she sent it to me. I teared up a lot at the rich human goodness that was being done by those human beings via choral singing.
So get in touch with Mary, David. You'll get a lot of ideas, and please tell Mary a w-a-r-m hello from me.
By the way, if you or someone you know would like to form a choral program in a juvenile prison, contact Bea Hasselmann, Music Director of the Metropolitan Boys Choir in Minneapolis MN--beahasselmann(a) She started and has developed over quite a few years, a wonderful choral program in Minnesota's juvenile prison near Red Wing, MN. The effect that program has had on the boys has been phenomenal and the administrators of the prison have seen a huge difference in the behavior of the choir boys compared to the other boys.
Be well, and good luck, David.
Applauded by an audience of 4
on May 23, 2015 3:32am
Thank you, Leon. I always appreciate your wisdom and eagerness to help  I'll write Mary today!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on July 31, 2015 9:07am
Wasn't there a Choral Journal article on this subject?
on May 23, 2015 7:14am
You might also contact the Barbershop Harmony Society (800-876-SING). There are a few men who are doing this in prisons and they can probably put in touch with them. I know of a couple in Florida and there are others around the country. What they are having the men do is not just Barbershop, but some of their favorite music to sing are good old-fashioned hymns. As I understand it, they do take to the four part harmony very well.
on May 23, 2015 3:22pm
David: I am the associate conductor/accompanist for the Lansing Correctional Facility's East Hill Singers, a men's chorus under the auspices of Arts In Prison, started by Alvera Voth back in 1995.  Currently Kirk Carson is the director.  We do 2 concert sets/year, Fall/Spring.  We have a nice complement of volunteer, community singers who augment the inmates.  In concert, we have inmates introduce the pieces and give a little personal blurb about their arts in prison experience, and/or their prison experience.  We also have a poetry program as part of Arts In Prison (teacher sings) and some of the poets read their stuff.  VERY GRIPPING.  Good luck with your endeavor.  The other replys you have rec'd are right on. 
Applauded by an audience of 3
on July 31, 2015 10:57am
Alvera Voth is the woman about which I wrote in my post above, Stephanie, and the subject of Mary Cohen's doctoral dissertation. I soooo admire the work that Ms. Voth started, and that you and Kirk Carson are continuing with Arts in Prison and the East Hill Singers! Bless both of you for the gooooood work that you are doing with the fellow human beings you work with!
on May 25, 2015 6:37am
Just one more thought: check out the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and performances for inmates. Really, this is the last place I would expect to find Riccardo Muti. He is probably the highest paid conductor in the world. Yet there he is, playing piano in a minimum security institution, trying to build enthusisam for Verdi. His ambitions for this kind of outreach are interesting and inspiring. This page is from the Irene Taylor Trust Fund. They support efforts like yours.
and especially 
on July 30, 2015 3:30am
I directed a 50-voice men's chorus for 10 years at the Wynne Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. We were a performing church choir, participating in Sunday worship at the the Rockwell Chapel. We also staged monthly concerts. I rewrote many SATB arrangements to overcome a lack of TTBB pieces. The best years of my career. 
I did vocal placement and was able to do some coaching. Administration was generally supportive, though one Church of Christ chaplain mandated that we could not sing during services he conducted because I accompanied the choir on the piano. We started singing our anthems as a prelude, then the "real" service began. Not a happy couple of years.
I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on July 30, 2015 1:51pm
Thanks much, Gregory, for your interest! 
It would be great to have the resources you obviously had, and what must have been a very supportive administration! I've got a wonderful chaplain to work with, but he has to tread very lightly.  Case in point: We had set up an 8-week pilot program of 75 minute sessions every Wednesday morning. I quickly learned that he had to go around to the various "pods" where the men are housed and wake each one individually, then shepherd them into the small chapel while I waited downstairs until he came to escort me - losing basically the first 15 minutes of supposed rehearsal time.  In those 8 weeks, he needed to attend an out of town conference, I had one schedule conflict, and last week he got word of a required administrative meeting that had been rescheduled; so 3 Wednesdays when we couldn't meet. We're going to try to restart after Labor Day.
As to numbers, we started with 15 unauditioned men, 3 or 4 of whom honestly cannot match pitches. Two weeks ago we were at 9 men, with two new ones.  One of the first replies to my ChoralNet query strongly cautioned against auditions, saying that those who would show up already had had enough rejection in their lives and that wasn't a good place to start. However, for the Fall term the chaplain has suggested offering a limited number of additional slots, with open auditions. Any advice?
"Repertoire" thus far consists of rounds/canons (Israeli ToembaiDona nobis pacemShalom chaverim, Kum ba yah), not yet venturing beyond two parts.  Also 2 pt arrangements I've made of the National Anthem, O Beautiful for Spacious Skies (both at their request) and It is well with my soul.  Another suggestion I received was to invite the men to create their own texts, to a known melody, their original, or without, which I said I would try to supply.  One of the recent "recruits" came to me after our last rehearsal and sang a song he had come up with (in Spanish), and we were arranging to record it so I could get it down on paper at the session that got called off last week. I don't suppose you've done any 2-part men's arrangements?
With the reduced numbers at the most recent rehearsal, there were actually some moments when the singing was harmonious - enough so that I think that we might possibly pull off a very short Show-and-Tell - after perhaps 3 rehearsals - to which the sheriff will be invited. The chaplain is really quite optimistic, for which I am grateful, and I think there is some real hope for the future, though thus far it's been very slow going.
Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.  Eager to hear from you.
P.S.  I'm wondering where Wynne is. Is it a town, or the name of some important person?  My first job out of Westminster Choir College was as organist and associate director at Highland Park UM in Dallas, and my first position after finishing my doctorate at UnionNY was in Tyler at First Pres.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on July 30, 2015 5:27pm
I wouldn't worry too much about the current ability level.  If the music is beautiful, they will learn it.  People can't resist having beauty in their lives. Thank you for doing such important work.  
Applauded by an audience of 3
on August 1, 2015 7:24am
Absolutely. The beauty of music is manna from heaven in an environment like this.
Applauded by an audience of 2
on July 31, 2015 5:33am
The Wynne Unit is a medium security prison in Texas' main prison city, Huntsville. The chapel is one of several donated by the  Rockwell family, the tool company. It seats 1200. There has always been a vital ministry there with numerous outside volunteer groups bringing in programming.
We did not audition singers, taking them at where they were. I delighted in working with individual singers to prepare solos for monthly concerts. I really improved my ear playing chops as many would sing songs they had heard in their past, which, of course lacked any semblance of having written scores! This allowed them to humor me by learning the stuff found in the scores I brought the.
on August 1, 2015 4:24pm
David, 'auditions,' per se, may not be the best approach, but it is fine to get a listen to the voices and the best way to do that is often with 'sectional' rehearsing where you have few enough voices that you can hear everyone individually at any given time (for the most part). And it is even good to try and do some small group or individual coaching to hear what they offer. You will already know from one get-together what most of them have to offer if you ears are any good. It is true that your flock doesn't need to deal with any more chickenspit than they already have. On the other hand, prison, the population, the administration, everything, is a decidedly 'legalistic' environment: everything is evaluated on 'perceived' merit, no grace, and the majority are looking for some merit to stand on. Giving them responsibilities, soloes, homework assignments, special positions, things that they can own as some certification of merit, will add to their commitment and enjoyment. If you remember that first scene in 'The Music Man' when Harold Hill teaches the school board how to ring a chord: he doesn't have to tell them they just did something special, he brought them to it and they knew it. If you give the men some little nugget of something, not complicated, that can show them they can make amazing sounds, you will have them hook, line and sinker. I remember the first time they sang the round "Dona nobis pacem," they could not believe the amazingly angelic sound they were making in that awful place; they were transported! Also, if you do concerts, do a nice program; have someone 'on the outside' do some snazzy graphics and make sure their names are in it, so they have some kind of 'keepsake.' If it is possible for the public to attend, do all you can to pack the place. 
Lastly, this is a joke that came up in the process when we had some guys kind of doggin' it, half-hearted, and one of the men said, "Come on, sing like FELONS!" We died laughing. And then they sang the doors off!
on July 31, 2015 5:37am
Also contact André de Quadros at Boston University. He has been doing prison choral music for some time. Remember that you do not have to written choral "arrangements."  Vocal improvisation can be very powerful and personal.  Also look at Ysaye Barnwell's books on singing in the African American tradition - fantastic place to sing from!
on July 31, 2015 12:09pm
I think because I had developed a Choir for the Homeless I was encouraged by an enlightened Catholic Charities administration to form a choir of 20 - 30 resident men on their parole & probation program next to Baltimore City DC.  We learned our music for 2 - 3 hours a week, by rote rather than sight-reading.  We weren't always successful at matching pitches and some men would sing rhythmic drones and pedal notes, effective bass lines for the choral gems of "Boyz to Men" or r&b gospel songs by Dietrick Haddon, for instance.  Although there is a lot of material out there, it's hardly inspiring for young men who want to sing where they're at before they can relate to where we're at (sic).  It meant I had to do a lot of arranging myself, but this group was so rewarding for everyone involved, it was so worth the effort.  These guys had never been asked to do something beautiful nor been appreciated for creating a team effort greater than the sum of its parts.  Just as Society had rendered them redundant, there was nil expectation from some of their social workers or case managers.  Studying the music and rehearsing endlessly brought up a lot of the stress of dealing positively with the unfamiliarity of new "people, places, and things"; being put on the spot where you were uncertain, yet being totally supported by the team was life changing for many.  Going from no confidence to discovering more about your potential was priceless.  Unfortunately, after 3 years, the program has just been cut - administrators have moved on and so must we.  Good luck in your  endeavors.     
on August 1, 2015 7:22am
I have significant experience working with these men. Of course, one thing to be mindful is that your are working with a men's chorus. There often are a number of men who are interested to participate but have very little aptitude. I found that basing a lot of the arrangements on a strong unison melody section worked well. Adding one or two voices of men capable enough to sing harmony above worked very well, the same with voices below. I found that little of the standard repertoire was useful because of the available resources (personnel and, with it being city jail, changing personnel; they're not always there for an extended stay). In short, writing your own basic arrangements is a big plus if you are able. I ministered in a federal facility that was fortunate to have a violinist with conservatory training; with only a few additional instruments (trombone, trumpet, piano, drum, guitar), I was able to put together 3-part arrangements for men's voices and, with our chamber orchestra and full chorus of men, we actually pulled off Handel's MESSIAH! It was glorious.
Don't forget public domain resources like and You may find that you have some truly exceptional individuals there; you can highlight that as a core and arrange the other men around it. Most of all, you will have to be able to 'think on your feet,' be creative, and be responsive to your circumstances, work with what you have and be focused and energetic. They will respond well to solid leadership and appreciate someone who clearly knows what they're doing. Hope that helps. I wish you all the best.
on August 2, 2015 5:39am
Many thanks to all of you above, who have weighed in on this topic.  Your comments and insights are very helpful and thought-provoking.  I'm assuming that all of you in related situations are doing it on a volunteer basis. I'm wondering if those who have created your own arrangements - particularly 2-part male - would be willing to share.
on August 2, 2015 7:09am
If you would like to contact me and provide an e-mail address, I would be happy to forward scores to you in PDF format.
on August 2, 2015 2:27pm
There's a suberb article about one director's experience forming/working with prison choirs (Iowa) in ACDA's ChorTeach.  
(ChorTeach, Vol 3, No. 1  2010)
on August 2, 2015 6:17pm
I spent two years directing a prison choir. We had the benefit that another volunteer taught music theory, so many of them could read very well. We didn't bother with auditions, although another choir in the same institution did. We sang only religious music, but we were singing for the weekly worship service. 
It was very different from any of my educational choral groups, but it was a very rewarding experience. Simply program good music. Quickly, you will find out what sort of skills and abilities they have, and you should be able to build from there.  
Don't count on anything, though. I had a soloist for a Christmas song transferred to another facility mere days before our performance, and another inmate released on parole before another. Always have a back-up.
One last thing: this was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. The men in our choir were incredibly grateful for every hour in the group. This was the only time they could find peace in a life that had no peace. Only medical problems took me away from that choir, but it was an honor directing it while I was there.
on August 3, 2015 6:36am
John Elving is right. The Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) has MANY chapters around the country who reach out to prison inmates. Even if there is not a chapter doing so in your area right now, making contact with them might very well inspire them to start, and you really cannot find a better resource for teaching men to sing than the BHS. You will be amazed.
on August 4, 2015 6:18am
Also look at Cathy Roma's work in Ohio. Here's a news video about her work in the prison:
on August 4, 2015 10:05am
Hello, Everyone,
  I'm sitting in my cluttered studio here in Victoria, BC and I can hardly tell you how excited I am to have read the question and comments.  Bless you all.
  The feeling of being 'a lonesome babe in the woods' has brought a renewed sense of purpose to this old heart of mine.
  Does anyone have any information about such a 'program' in ANY British Columbia, Canada prisons?
  I realize I may be 'casting about' and it's clear to me the time has come for me to expand my learning.
  Than you for considering.
  I look forward to your responses.
Blessings and thanks,
on January 5, 2016 5:47am
I found this Sweet Adelines chorus: and this barbershop chorus:
on August 4, 2015 10:51am
I taught music/choral singing at the women's prison here in Hawai‘i.  It was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a teacher.  If you are interested in hearing more about my experience, I'd be happy to share!
Susan McCreary Duprey
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