Oakdale Prison Community Choir creates unique learning opportunities

[Source: “Oakdale Prison Community Choir creates unique learning opportunities,” University of Iowa News Release, 20 February 2009]

Photos: Members of the Oakdale Prison Community Choir practice at a recent rehearsal. Photos by Doug Allaire with the UI College of Education.

Oakdale Prison Community Choir creates unique learning opportunities

They won’t be singing “Jailhouse Rock” or “Folsom Prison Blues.”

20090220-oakdale-choir-01Rather, 20 inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville are joining 20 volunteer community members and eight University of Iowa students to lift their voices in jubilant song as part of a groundbreaking choral experience this spring semester.

They are learning selections such as “Ol’ Man River” and an arrangement of “Deep River/Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” as part of the Oakdale Prison Community Choir, coordinated in conjunction with a UI graduate seminar in music education.

Mary Cohen, an assistant professor of music education with a joint appointment in the UI Colleges of Education and Liberal Arts and Sciences, said the project provides an opportunity for the offenders to connect and sing with others. She said singing also provides tools to re-enter society successfully.

“When we asked the offenders what they wanted to sing, they said some fun songs. So we’re trying to have a mixture, including a Hebrew song and an African song,” Cohen said. “I was overwhelmed with the positive volunteer turnout for this project.”

20090220-oakdale-choir-02This pilot prison choir project rehearses from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center across from the Oakdale Research Campus in Coralville. Rehearsals began Feb. 3 and will lead up to a performance in the facility on Tuesday, April 21 with the theme “Peace and Place.” The exact time has not yet been set.

“The idea as expressed by Bo Lozoff in his book ‘We’re All Doing Time,’ is that no matter where you are, if you aren’t at peace with yourself and the place you are in life, you’re just doing time,” Cohen said. “And no matter what place you’re in, you can find peace. This philosophy really resonates with prisoners and creates a perfect theme for our performance.”

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 and director of jazz studies, composed an original song titled “Love, Light, Peace” that the choir is learning.

Societal Benefits of Prison Choirs

Given the high rates of incarceration in the U.S. — and the state of Iowa — it is critical to provide more tools to enhance the safety of correctional facilities and to find ways to help this population re-enter society, Cohen said.

20090220-oakdale-choir-03“If you think about the concept of getting along in society, and getting along in a choir,” Cohen said, “there are a lot of similarities. In a choir you learn a sense of group responsibility. The choir can only be as good as the quality of how well people are participating. Consider the symbolism between offenders creating harmony with people from the community, when previously they made a decision that caused dis-harmony.”

Not only do the prisoners benefit from the program, but Cohen hopes the community volunteers will as well.

“One of the goals that I have is that the volunteers will be more aware of the U.S. criminal justice system,” Cohen said. “And they’ll think more critically about how we are leading the world in the number of people we incarcerate.” Cohen wants to explore what positive things can be done with this population while they are incarcerated.

“A volunteer and an inmate singing together are building positive relationships, and not only will the inmates have some positive social connections with the volunteers,” Cohen said. “But the volunteers see inmates as individuals, not just statistics or stereotypes. They put a human face to this issue and to crime.”

Completely Different Experience

“Singing in an inmate, volunteer choir is not just another choir. It is a completely different experience,” Cohen said. “You have opportunities to build positive relationships with incarcerated men who are working to rebuild their self-esteem and their purpose for living.”

20090220-oakdale-choir-04Not just music educational doctoral students are involved in the choir. Volunteers include a law student and even a nursing student. Others have come from local church choirs, UI faculty and staff, and members of the general public who enjoy singing. The only criteria were that the participants be at least 18 and have a desire to share their singing skills.

Cohen is modeling this prison choir project after similar projects in Kansas and at the University of Michigan.

She has added a writing component to the choral singing pedagogy. The choristers receive a weekly menu of writing choices that relate to singing and the experiences in the choir. She hopes that some participants’ writing will be used as introductions to songs or poetry for original songs they can sing at the concert.

Cohen studied prison choirs while earning her doctorate degree at the University of Kansas, and modeled this prison choir project after similar projects in Kansas and at the University of Michigan. She conducted a prison choir previously in Kansas City.

20090220-oakdale-choir-05Funding for the choir comes in part from the Jubilation Foundation, a new organization geared toward providing funds for programs that focus on children’s music making. Since the Jubilation Foundation could not fund Cohen’s entire grant, the president of the foundation, Becky Liebman, liked Cohen’s plan, so she wrote a check from her own money for $1,000. Her mother, Mary Liebman, who attended the UI, also wrote a check for $1,000.

NOTE TO EDITORS: Reporters, photographers and videographers need to make arrangements prior to attending. To arrange an interview or photo/video shoot, call Mary Cohen at 319-335-3030 or Lois J. Gray at 319-384-0077.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City,