From Professor to Prison Choir Director

cropped-3152479914_803f12ea38_b.jpgThis is a story of my creating a choir at the Grafton Reintegration Center in Ohio (USA). I am a Professor & Director of Music Education. I’ve spent my professional career following a rather traditional trajectory—earning an undergraduate degree in music education, getting a K-8 vocal/choral music teaching job, earning a masters degree in vocal performance, singing professionally as a soloist and choir member, earning a Ph.D. in music education at a Big 10 University, and growing my professional career in higher education (now in its 20th year) at one college/conservatory of music. And then came this opportunity: starting a prison choir in a minimum-security correctional institution.

Call it a mid-life crisis or a moment of re-framing myself as a professional musician-educator, but the idea of conducting a prison choir sounded intriguing. Could I do this? Why me? My life experiences included singing in or conducting choirs in the public schools, colleges, community, and church choirs. I was a “legit” musician who trained diligently to learn the techniques and expressive nuances required to perform Western “classical” music. Music and teaching were my life’s passion points.

Schools and prisons are both institutions, yet they serve contrasting purposes. School institutions (including public, private, and community schools, churches, and colleges/universities) are investments of hope and inspiration in students’ (i.e., parishioners’, participants’, community members’, children’s, youth’s, adults’) futures. Prisons, on the other hand, are institutions seemingly devoid of hope and societal investment. Rather, they exist to separate and punish those whose behaviors deviate minimally or wildly from accepted cultural, societal, and/or religious values and beliefs.

But do prisons need to be defined as such? How might the arts, in this case music, be used as a viable tool to introduce or reintroduce incarcerated people to parts of their best human selves? How might prison residents re-imagine and re-create themselves by engaging in song? How might prison residents learn to be a community of learners, a community of musicians, and a community of empathetic citizens? How might singing in choir encourage and facilitate the residents’ exploration of feeling joy, creating, reflecting, transforming, hoping, gaining confidence, re-creating self, imagining their best possible selves, feeling safe and respected, expressing their deepest dreams and fears, and healing?

I invite you, the reader, to follow my journey with the Oberlin Music at Grafton (OMAG) prison choir. In light of recent prison reform conversations in the United States, we are recognizing that current rehabilitation strategies for incarcerated people are not working effectively. In fact, at least 76.6% of offenders who are released from prison will be re-arrested within five years (National Institute of Justice). No, a prison choir cannot cure this statistic. Incarcerated people must decide to do the hard work to change behaviors and thought patterns. Yet, I believe music can contribute to the well-being of people’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual selves. Join me as I grapple with the ethical, moral, religious, psychological, emotional, and musical issues as they are made manifest in our choral community.