Ep. 156 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. Joining me today from right here in Minneapolis is Dr. Amanda Weber, founder and artistic director of Voices of Hope, an organization that builds choral singing communities and correctional facilities. Dr. Weber also serves as the director of worship and the arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. She is passionate about uniting music, art and community through her work as a conductor, singer, pianist and composer. Welcome to Enhance life with music, Amanda. Thanks so much for having me. It’s great to be here. Well, Amanda, I didn’t realize until yesterday when I was preparing for our conversation that in addition to your role at Voices of Hope, you are director of Worship and Arts at Westminster Presbyterian. And I was just there on Saturday for an event, and I absolutely love that building and that facility. It’s phenomenal.

Amanda Weber: [00:01:00] Yeah, we are so fortunate. I mean, it’s such a historic space. But then the newer addition that was added in early 2018 is remarkable. So I feel very lucky to to be leading music there.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:13] Sure. Well, it’s so cool. Like you said, there’s that traditional, beautiful stone church. But then that addition is kind of like this juxtaposition of this really contemporary looking building. And it’s done so well that it just looks really cool. And then the inside, there’s so many features of the space that are kind of like functional art, like that staircase, that spiral staircase with the art and lights that go down the middle of it. And it was funny. I’ve been there before for a concert, and then when I was there on Saturday, I had a friend with me and it was her first time in the building. And so I was like, okay, before this starts, we need to go outside and I want to show you the outside of it. And then like even at the very end of the evening when we were leaving and it’s like there’s that built in underground parking that’s so convenient. And it’s like, oh my goodness, what what more could you ask for in a facility in Minneapolis? It’s perfect. Yeah.

Amanda Weber: [00:02:08] Yeah. And part of my job there actually is curating the Westminster Performing Arts series, which is only in its second season. So this is kind of a new concept that was inspired by the, the new part of our building. And yeah, so it’s been a great opportunity to kind of see, you know, the platform that we have at Westminster and to consider what artists, what, you know, dancers, musicians, theater artists, etcetera, might we want to lift up in that space? And it feels like a big responsibility, but also is so much fun to be able to connect with with arts across the Twin Cities and in what I think is one of the best performing spaces in town.

Mindy Peterson: [00:02:53] Wow, very cool. Well, we’ll have to chat afterwards so I can make sure I get on your mailing list for that series because that sounds phenomenal and I’d definitely like to stay in touch with who you have playing and get the dates and all that good stuff. Yeah, well, for today’s conversation, as I mentioned in your intro, you are the founder and artistic director of Voices of Hope, an organization that builds choral singing communities in correctional facilities. I learned about voices of Hope through my music teacher colleague Siri Calvet. So shout out to Siri, but tell us some more starting out here about what voices of hope is and what the impetus was for you starting it.

Amanda Weber: [00:03:35] Yeah. Voices of Hope started in the fall of 2015. I had just moved to town to start a doctorate in conducting at the University of Minnesota, and it was very serendipitous. The education director at the Shakopee Women’s Prison was looking to start a choir there. Shakopee had something that they called Choir at the time, but it was like seven women in a karaoke machine and facilitated by a staff person who just kind of printed off lyric sheets, and that was about it. And the education director, Dr. Jim Vernoy, who’s no longer there, he had a son in the Minnesota Boy choir. And so he knew that choir could be more than just kind of singing together for fun, like karaoke. And and he had this vision of, you know what? If we transform this into more of, like, an educational opportunity? And so he reached out to several people around town to find someone who could do this. And we got connected. And I had previous experience directing a homeless women’s choir in D.C. for three years and was really passionate in my graduate studies about the intersections of music and justice. And so it was kind of a perfect connection. And so that’s how it started in 2015 with a choir of about. 15 singers at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee and over time has grown into a small nonprofit organization but has expanded to include musical programming. Also at the Stillwater facility, which is for men. And we’re talking with other facilities about the possibilities of expanding there too. So, um, certainly, you know, in a state that’s kind of considered this great choral, you know, universe or like the land of 10,000 choirs here, you’d think that people who are incarcerated may like to sing as much as anyone else here.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:39] Yeah, we have all those Scandinavian Lutheran roots here where the choral music is such an integral part of that culture. Yeah. So tell us a little bit more about the programs, the volunteers, the events, how it all works, how often you guys meet or have programs, all of that good stuff.

Amanda Weber: [00:05:59] Yeah, for both of our facilities, they work in a pretty similar way. So we take a small team into the prison once a week to lead a choir rehearsal. I direct the choir still at Shakopee, so that’s an hour and a half long on Sunday afternoons. And you know, we kind of like any high school choir or college choir. We learn a set of repertoire across time and we’ve tried to perform about every quarter. So every 12 weeks, of course, the choir can’t leave the facility, so we’re performing in the facility generally for other residents who are there. And and then at the end of those 12 weeks, we kind of start over and do it again. And there’s usually an opportunity there for the folks who are in the choir to, you know, kind of add or there’s like an add drop period. So to stay on and do another quarter or they may want to do other programming that’s at the prison. And so sometimes there’s turnover there too. We’ve especially prior to COVID, we did a lot of collaborations as we were able with artists, musicians on the outside. And so we’ve had, you know, varying levels of success bringing other small choirs or small groups in. So for example, Cantus did a collaboration at Shakopee in 2019.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:23] That’s actually the group heard at Westminster the first time I was there.

Amanda Weber: [00:07:26] Yes. I mean, they’re fabulous, right? And and it just was the coolest connection to to watch, you know, a renowned vocal ensemble really be kind of humbled to come into a prison and what felt for them, I think like a very kind of uncomfortable foreign space and to sing not only for voices of hope, but to listen to voices of hope and to sing together with them. And not just one time, but across time, which I think is always important. And so over the period of I think it was like three months, we did this collaboration, they came in multiple times, we learned music together and we performed together. And yeah, Voices of Hope still talks about that several years later.

Mindy Peterson: [00:08:18] Oh wow. How big of a size of volunteers do you have? Is it kind of the same group that goes weekly or is it more of a rotating group?

Amanda Weber: [00:08:27] Yeah, it’s a good question. We really are kind of strapped by the permissions at each facility they prior. You know, again, there’s sort of this like pre COVID and post COVID era. Um, yeah, pre-COVID we had a little more flexibility in bringing in varied volunteers. We probably had like 30 different people on the roster and we’d kind of rotate according to people’s availability post COVID. We’ve been told, you know, we can have five trained volunteers at each facility and that’s kind of it. And so, so we’ve got small, small groups who are, you know, very committed people. We do have a couple of paid folks, right? We’ve got accompanists at each facility that are paid positions and the directors of the choirs and then yeah, and then a few volunteers. You know, I think as as much as it was kind of maybe fun or interesting to bring in different people, part of what I’ve found is so impactful for the individuals we’re working with is to see commitment from the same people over and over again. You know, many of these folks don’t receive visits, aren’t in touch with family, you know, have had people kind of come and go in their lives. And so to start to get to know a volunteer team who is committed and shows up and shows up on holidays and. Is is just there week after week, I think is a really moving experience.

Mindy Peterson: [00:10:07] You mentioned that part of the genesis of Voices of Hope was the realization and the understanding and the knowledge that singing can be more than just making music with with friends like, say, karaoke. What impact do you see from this choir on participants in the facilities, on participants who are volunteering? Just tell us about some of that impact that you see.

Amanda Weber: [00:10:32] Yeah, you know, having been there now for for several years, you kind of hear the same things over and over, which is really interesting because it’s, I think, a sign of, you know, that this is not just happenstance, right? There’s like science to it. So especially over the kind of having these like 12 week quarters where new people will join the group and you you, you know, culminate in a concert experience together, I tend to see just a real growth from the group, both sort of like behaviorally and emotionally. People tend to come in kind of guarded, you know, maybe like mad or angry. You can sort of tell there’s a negative energy in the room. And over time we’re just laughing more and more together. There’s a lightness, there’s a joy. A comment that often comes up is, you know, someone will say, this is the only time in my week that I feel free or that I forget that I’m in in a prison. And so there is you know, singing is, of course, such a vulnerable act. And so to to do that, not just like as an individual, not just to enter into like the vulnerability of one person, but to do that in a communal setting, which is a big ask. And then, you know, not just in any community, but within the walls of an oppressive environment.

Amanda Weber: [00:12:06] It’s a really countercultural thing for for these folks to be doing. And I think it speaks so much of of their power and their resilience and is yeah, it’s just a really amazing act to be committed to. And so over time, I think there’s kind of a familial connection that starts to happen in the choir, which again is, you know, very counter to the environment of a prison in which you’re really very much separated from each other. And the, you know, most people’s kind of mindset coming into a facility like that is I’m not going to talk to anyone. I’m going to keep my head down. I’m going to do my own thing and I’m going to, you know, do whatever I can to get out of here or to survive day to day. And so we’re kind of taking this like, inward mindset and trying to turn it outward to say, Nope, you got to listen to your neighbor. We’re going to sing together. You know, you’ve got to, you know, do this thing that requires connection and and vulnerability and emotion. And so people tend to kind of be a little skeptical at first. And then over time, there’s a real transition. And yeah, it’s been really cool for my perspective to see it, like as a conductor in front of the room, to see that happen over and over.

Mindy Peterson: [00:13:30] I bet there is something that’s so transcendent about music. It just somehow enables us to transcend limits, boundaries, walls and also kind of our personal troubles and our inter-relational differences that we have. I mean, I think about people in a room who have very different political leanings and you start singing together and all of that can tend to just fall away, you know? And so there’s a real uniting, transcendent type of an aspect of music and singing together, making music together. One thing that I really noticed in the TED Talk that’s posted on your website, and I highly recommend that listeners go there and listen to that. You talk in that TED, talk about how a lot of these facilities have a no touch policy, which means that the women can’t touch each other and may not have had a hug in years. And the music is almost like a sonic hug. And that really caught my attention, maybe because, you know, there’s those five love languages that Gary Chapman made popular with his book. And so a lot of us are familiar with those five love languages. And I tend to really identify with the love language of physical touch. And so just that thought of, wow, not being able to hug. Someone or touch someone for long periods of time. Yeah, that would really have an impact on you. And I guess we all got a little taste of that during COVID with being limited with the physical touch that we could have with other people. But that no touch policy is something that most of us never even think of if we’re not exposed to a prison environment. Are there other aspects of that prison environment, significant factors or realities of life in a correctional facility that most of us are probably completely unaware of and we might be surprised by and how music can kind of reach and touch beyond those?

Amanda Weber: [00:15:40] Hm Well, you know, there are several things that are kind of coming to mind as you’re saying this and just to to share, you know, in terms of the physical touch that particularly for me and working with the choir at Shakopee, one of the the things that I shared with them many years ago that they just like loved and have brought up since so many times is there’s a study I want to say maybe from out of Sweden. But there’s a study that came out that was kind of suggesting that when you sing together, your heartbeats align. Yeah, entrainment. Yeah. And you know, which makes sense when you think about, you know, we’re taking breaths in the same places and singing the same length of phrase or whatever, but so there is something that about that that just made them feel so joyful of like there is this, this connection, you know, connection. You can you can tell us we can’t touch each other, but like our hearts are moving together, you know, our breath is moving together. So there’s something so intimate about that that runs deeper than touch that, you know, of course it doesn’t replace physical touch, but I think, yeah, that that’s been something to hold on to, you know, and another thing that I think about related to your question is in both in women’s and men’s facilities, so many of these folks who are incarcerated are parents and very often parents to minors, young children.

Amanda Weber: [00:17:10] And there’s something about singing, I think, that really connects us also to our childhood. Right? There’s a playfulness about it. So many people who join Voices of Hope will say they joined because they used to sing in in middle school or in high school or, you know, a long time ago. And so reconnecting with that younger, playful, innocent part of yourself, I think is an empowering place to kind of go back to. And then, you know, I’ve heard some of these singers say that they you know, they’ve signed up for choir because their daughter is in choir at her school and they want to to connect with their kid in some way or they’ll sing songs to family members over the phone. So that way of of connecting, I mean, it’s you know, it’s something that’s special and different than than just speaking. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:10] One other thing that you mentioned in that TED talk that really caught my attention is you mentioned how singing releases dopamine. And one woman who is participating in the choir said, I’m in treatment and I’ve never felt a high like that. Yeah, that is awesome. I love that.

Amanda Weber: [00:18:30] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s, you know, singing is just such a full body healing experience. And I think the majority, vast majority of people who are incarcerated have experienced a high level of trauma. It’s often a very big part of why they might be there. And our system is not set up to address this. I mean, our our correctional facilities do not have adequate treatment for recovery, for substance abuse or therapy for mental health issues. So we’re locking people up, but we’re not giving them the treatment that they need. And there’s a lot I could say about the faults of the system at large. But in the meantime, I feel like the least I can do is offer singing, you know? And it’s, to me, kind of one of our cheapest resources, something that everybody’s got on them at all times, you know, And people just need to be given permission. I mean, at at Shakopee and I would assume it would be the same at Stillwater. You’re not allowed to sing, you’re not allowed to sing or to dance. These are disturbances and people can get in trouble for this, for for singing in the halls or in their room. And gosh, you know, it seems like a basic human right to be able to just sing in the shower or whatever. And so to imagine, you know, we think about prison as of. Taking people’s freedom away. But you don’t think about all the things that people get stripped of. And to be told, you know, you can’t even use your own voice in the way that you might wish. It’s just devastating. So to create a space at least at least once a week, I mean, it’s nothing, you know, to be able to express yourself. I just think there’s really nothing more important than that.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:25] Sure. You mentioned that participants can re-up sort of every quarter or whenever the session sort of ends and a new one begins. What kind of longevity do you see in the choir with participants, and have you kept in touch with any of the participants who have been released? Yeah, I can.

Amanda Weber: [00:20:42] Speak to that at Shakopee. Stillwater is such a new program that we’re still kind of seeing how that how that will look over time at Shakopee. We especially again prior to COVID, we would see about half the choir turnover. So we had gotten to we sort of leveled out around like 45 or 50 singers. We would start with each quarter, which was a pretty incredible size choir and a fairly small space. Yeah.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:11] What percentage of the population of the facility does that represent?

Amanda Weber: [00:21:15] So we had like 50 singers and something like 650in the facility. Okay. And I think we would have we could have grown to a larger size. But, you know, at some point the administration wanted to keep kind of a cap on that class. One of the things that that I learned early on, which of course, would be the case, is that a lot of people don’t stay there forever. Right? Their sentences end and they leave. And so often we would kind of start a quarter with 50 singers. And, you know, by the end of the quarter, we’d have 40 or so. We would we’d lose some people who had just completed their sentences and left and we would lose other people maybe for a disciplinary reason, or they wanted to sign up and take a college class or something. And so I learned pretty quickly, like to make sure at the beginning of the quarter that I asked, you know, who would be leaving during the quarter, because I would like lose an entire section of Sopranos or something. If I if I wasn’t careful about this. But yeah, it was you know, it’s also kind of a novel experience as a choir conductor to mostly, for the most part, be glad my choir is shrinking. You know, I want these people to go on to better things. I want them to leave the facility. You know, our vision for Voices of Hope is that it no longer needs to exist, right? And so so it’s kind of a weird feeling to feel like, oh, man, we’re getting smaller, kind of kills the morale of the group.

Amanda Weber: [00:22:48] But it’s it’s a good thing. And so over the course of like the seven years I’ve been at Shakopee, I’ve worked with almost 300 different women and more than 200 of them have left the facility. So that’s great. You know, a lot of people leaving. I’ve been there long enough to see some of them come back, which is a really hard thing to see and hard because, you know, as you hear some of those stories, it most of the time has to do not with them and their faults, but with, again, the system, the community and ways that they’re not set up to succeed when they leave. And that really is heartbreaking. And so we’ve you know, as we see that happen, it’s really fired us up more and more to be involved in the reentry process as much as we can to to try to stay in touch with people, keep them singing, keep them engaged in positive activities and, you know, help connect them to support wherever we can. And that’s been hard because there are a lot of sort of Department of Corrections policies in place that have prevented organizations from who work on the inside, from also bridging the work on the outside. And so we’re all kind of you know, there are several of us organizations who are sort of banded together trying to figure figure this out on like a more policy based level, because I really think that is so key The the support in the transition of leaving the facility.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:24] Are there any trends that you’re seeing across the country here in the US with music programs, whether it’s choir specifically or music more in general in correctional facilities?

Amanda Weber: [00:24:37] Yeah, to a certain extent, yes. There are a handful of active prison choirs across the US and it’s hard to even I’m sure there are far more than we even know about that are kind of small volunteer based classes and so on. But there are a handful of other conductors and. And folks who are researching in this area who are really making great headway. Just this year, the first book came out on this topic called Music Making in US Prisons, and that’s co-written by Mary Cohen and Stuart Duncan. Mary’s a music education professor at the University of Iowa, and she’s been kind of a lead researcher on this topic. And then Cathy Roma is another big name of someone in Ohio who’s doing like 3 or 4 different prison choirs across the state. And she’s been doing this work for like 30 years. Andre de Quadros is another just really amazing person in the Northeast and the Boston area doing similar work with marginalized populations. And so we’re all connected. You know, we often kind of ask for advice or share stories. You know, I think in terms of trends or whatever, know, I think we are all experiencing having really similar experiences in terms of both the population we work with and also the systems we’re working within and all of the challenges there.

Amanda Weber: [00:26:11] And then Mary Cohen has been doing a lot of work lately to connect internationally with people doing this kind of work. And it’s just amazing, you know, other countries that are also doing music in prisons and, you know, sometimes they’re working in more supportive systems. So there’s, you know, a lot of this in England and in Australia and really all over. I think there’s a lot of potential for us to learn from this, to do more research. It’s very a very hard population to get permission to research. I did my doctoral dissertation as a kind of a program evaluation of Voices of Hope in 2018, and that was the first like data ever collected by a female prison choir. So yeah, it’s, it’s it’s time, It’s time to, you know, I think there are people out there who are interested and it’s time to to make a change.

Mindy Peterson: [00:27:08] Do you have any recommendations for listeners who may want to find out if there is some kind of a music program in a correctional facility in their area or if there isn’t one and they are interested in starting one? What recommendations do you have?

Amanda Weber: [00:27:25] Yeah, you know, that’s so tricky because there’s not one way or one system in every correctional facility is very much like warden run, kind of like every school is like principal run. And so my recommendation would be to connect with prison staff at a prison near you, which, you know, they’re everywhere. And to just ask like a volunteer coordinator, you know, is there any musical programming happening here? And would you be open to that? But you’d have to then kind of learn what are the policies at that facility, What are the needs? What are the people interested in? Yeah, it’s not as easy as like, here’s a curriculum and go. But I you know, I would love to, to see more of these programs. And I know Mary Cohen and myself, Kathy Roma, all of us field calls and, you know, zoom connections with people who are interested fairly often. So if someone wants to chat about it, we’d be happy to do that, I’m sure.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:28] Wonderful. Well, I’ll include lots of links, of course, in the show notes, but just tell listeners verbally what’s the best place to learn more about Voices of Hope? What’s your website?

Amanda Weber: [00:28:38] Yeah, our website is called We are Voices of Hope. Org.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:42] Well, thanks so much for joining us today Amanda, and telling us about Voices of Hope and just thank you for all that you’re doing to enhance lives with music in this way. I ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical, ending a coda by sharing a song or story about a moment that music enhanced your life. Is there a song or a story that you can share with us today?

Amanda Weber: [00:29:07] Yeah, I’m excited to share with you a little recording of Voices of Hope singing a song called Resilience, and this is written by Minnesota composer Abby Betinis and included in the Justice Choir’s songbook, which you can download free of charge at Justicechoir.org. It’s been a great resource for us with Voices of Hope, and this has been a song that we’ve repeated many times at the various facilities. Very well loved.

Transcribed by Sonix.ai