In 1999, the East Hill Singers (EHS)--a chorus that's half-comprised of male inmates from the Lansing Correctional Facility (LCF)--gave a concert in Kansas City, Missouri, under the direction of their founder, Elvera Voth. Most of the audience members had likely never heard a chorus like this one and did not know what to expect. Maybe a few were skeptical and came with low expectations. As the men began to sing, the sheer power of the message behind the notes transcended all hints of vocal imperfection. A passion and energy emanated from these singers that reflected deep personal acquaintance with the sentiments of the songs. This chorus, as the concert program proudly stated, was one of many classes offered at LCF through its 501(c)(3) Arts in Prison (AiP) Inc. program. It was clear that the members of this ensemble shared the joy and emotional and psychological release the freedom of singing facilitates.
During the concert, inmates offered testimonials between music numbers that revealed personal reflections on their involvement in EHS and also described what it is like to be incarcerated (the audience was primarily made up of family and friends of the inmates). It became apparent that choral singing had a huge and powerful effect not only on the inmates, but the community singers as well--half of EHS are volunteers.
Currently under the direction of Kirk Carson (and assisted by the author), EHS has two separate rehearsal tracks: one for volunteers and one for inmates. Volunteer rehearsals in the Kansas City community are usually a breeze, due to a fine rehearsal facility, consistent and prompt attendance, good musicians and experienced choral singers. Prison rehearsals, on the other hand, can be tough; few of the 25 men have singing experience, and even fewer have the ability to read music. They slog through the notes, the vowels and the rhythms, making for tedious, slow work. Yet they have proven to be the most patient, dedicated and enormously grateful choristers one could have the pleasure of working with. Every rehearsal, for both "insiders" and "outsiders," concludes with Voth's four- part arrangement of the Swedish hymn "May the Gift," which contains the words, "May the joy of words and music linger as we now depart. In our thinking, speaking, living, give us grace to do our part." A better closing song for EHS rehearsals could not be found.
"The purpose of the choir is two-fold. First, it's about performing great music; secondly, it's about teaching the men how to turn their lives around by instilling hope," said Margie Friedman, director and producer of the documentary "Conducting Hope," a film about EHS. "If they can succeed at this, they can transfer those skills to the real world--the discipline, being responsible to others, working toward a common goal, the feeling of accomplishment. For many of these men, it changes the way they think...