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Reflecting on the Impact of a Women’s Prison Choir on Social Harmony

+ This week on Flypaper, we’re exclusively featuring content that covers music initiatives and recordings from prison, in our editorial series, Behind the Bars: A Week Dedicated to Music In, About, and From Prisons. Follow along via this tag or sign up for Soundfly’s mailing list to stay informed about all of our online learning programs.

By Laya Silber

“People come to windows,
They always stare at me,
Shaking their head in sorrow,
Saying, who can that fool be?”

This sorrowful text from the song, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain,” was composed and performed by The Prisonaires, an American doo-wop ensemble of inmates of the State Penitentiary in Tennessee in the 1940s and ’50s. It demonstrates how painful emotions can be expressed through the joy of song, and how singing together can provide a safe framework for communicating feelings.

Frank Clement, the governor of Tennessee at the time, who understood the rehabilitative potential, encouraged the inmates and permitted them the freedom to record and perform outside of the prison walls.

The Prisonaires served as my inspiration in establishing a choir in a women’s correctional facility in 2005. As a choir conductor, I had already seen how the singing endeavor, particularly with more than one voice part, can engender cohesion and create a healthy, trusting environment amongst chorus participants.

While under the spell of the music, singers are required to be attentive to the other voice parts, to coordinate and adjust their sounds to those of their cohorts, to react to the dynamic fluctuations of singers in the group, and to respond to the conductor’s gestures and rules. The participants become part of a singing community that both empowers on a personal level (self-expression, finding one’s voice) and challenges on an interpersonal level (listening, yielding, trusting), with all working together toward an aesthetically satisfying result.

As a metaphor for social harmony at large, it occurred to me that in a prison, where so many lack self-esteem, self-control, and trust in others, inmates might benefit greatly from the choral experience. The following is a reflection on some of the choices that defined the parameters of this project and on my experiences.

+ Read more on Flypaper: Check out our full week of content on music in, about, and from prisons here.

Why a Women’s Prison?

Truth be told, I think my initial decision to work with female offenders was due to the fact that I felt somewhat safer and more comfortable working with women, particularly in what I perceived to be an already threatening environment. The relevant literature also indicated that women tend to seek surrogate family relationships in prison and that, generally, emotional expression, and personal relationships are of greater significance to women than to men.

Naturally, the prison chosen for my project was the only women’s correctional facility here in Israel. It is a maximum-security facility housing approximately 120 female prisoners. The offenders participating in the choir were serving time for a variety of offenses ranging from drug abuse to murder.

Photo/video footage was not allowed to leave the prison walls. This photograph was taken during a meeting and rehearsal in a classroom on the exterior of the prison.

How the Rehearsals Worked

The choir met weekly for 90-minute sessions. The rehearsals took place in a special section of the prison designated for educational activities. Participants were escorted to the sessions by prison staff who remained in the general area to be called upon if needed. Our dependence on prison staff supervision made it difficult to adhere to a regular schedule of meetings. The participants had to be brought as a group from their various workplaces, cellblocks, or the dining room at precisely the designated time, so that those who were delayed would miss the entire rehearsal.

Other factors that proved disruptive to the regular conduct of the choir included release of some choir members during the course of the year, court appearances, family visitations, work schedules and disciplinary measures. The high incidence of smoking among the participants (typical of a prison population) also caused frequent disruptions, since those who wished to smoke were required, by prison rules, to do so outside the rehearsal room.

Despite the above obstacles, or perhaps as a result of them, a relatively stable choral group of seven women ultimately emerged. Members’ ages ranged from 17 to 35 and the singers were of ethnically diverse origins, including Jewish native-born Israelis, Arab Israelis, and Jewish immigrants to Israel.

“Choir members gradually learned how to sing and listen simultaneously; to accommodate and live in harmony with other voices.”

Repertoire and Techniques Explored During Rehearsals

After a pilot period experimenting with songs in the participants’ native tongues (Hebrew,  Arabic, and Spanish), I decided to limit the repertoire to primarily Hebrew songs that were already popular in the prison, and which I believed conveyed a message that might be relevant or beneficial to the singers.

We began and ended each rehearsal with an “anchoring” piece entitled “Chazak” (“Be Strong”), a bouncy three-word call-and-response song — where one voice begins and the other follows in a harmonic response — in two-part harmony. By opening and closing with this song, we framed the rehearsals with words of empowerment that created a musical dialogue and eased any tension that mounted over the course of the prior week.

Selections of songs and rehearsal techniques were largely geared toward curbing behavioral patterns that I witnessed in rehearsals and about which I had read in the literature. Lack of sensitivity toward others, for example, is a common phenomenon among prison inmates. As a result, it became clear that confronting the challenges of listening and attunement would need to be central to the prison project.

Each singer was urged to control her own vocal dynamics, as gauged against those of all the others, so that the desired balance between the parts could be achieved. We engaged in listening games, which also served to develop social skills. In one of these games, two participants spoke different sentences at the same time and were then asked to relate what the other had said.

In this way, the choir members gradually learned how to sing and listen simultaneously; to accommodate and live in harmony with other voices.

Laya Silber conducting a socially-distanced version of Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (2020).

While these listening exercises were critical for communication, other exercises and song selections were necessary to address aggressive and loud outbursts directed by some participants towards others that marred some of our early sessions.

I worked with the choir members on the activation of the diaphragm as a means of achieving the steady flow of air necessary for proper singing. This practice of breath control also served as a useful method for releasing tension, since it slows the heart rate and calms the nervous system.

Proper breathing could then also be used as a tool for controlling anger in general. So I suggested to the choir members that they take deep breaths “like we do for the choir” whenever they felt anger build up.

Another way I sought to ameliorate aggressive tendencies was to have the choir work on a popular song recorded by a well-known countertenor where the participants could experience the countertenor’s higher register. In their music, as in their prison experience (and for many inmates, in their lives before prison), the inmates in our group were unaccustomed to this understated and non-aggressive voice.

At first they resisted singing in this delicate manner, fearing that people would think their voices lacked “power.” But I impressed upon them that singing in the higher register would actually be perceived as “stronger” precisely because it was pleasant and unforced; and indeed, this message was affirmed by the enthusiastic response of the future audience — many, fellow inmates — when the choir performed this song.

In our rehearsals thereafter, we referred to the higher register sound as “the new voice.” I would remind choir participants of “the new voice” whenever one or more of them would direct an inappropriate outburst toward, or engage in angry altercations with, other members of the choir.

“The give and take of a soloist accompanied by the warm and powerful tones of the other choir member singing in harmony, created an atmosphere of acceptance, openness, and support.”

Lack of trust is another problem endemic to the prison setting. In our first several  sessions I noticed, for example, that certain participants took pains to sit separately and to communicate almost exclusively through me.

Here, again, was an issue that I felt we could address, since choir participants’ trust in one another is essential to achieving musical goals, and the lack of such trust would present a serious impediment to achieving those musical goals. A singer of one voice must be able to trust that those singing in other voices will enter, accompany, or imitate her in accordance with the song’s designated time and pitch.

I therefore decided that the first step in working towards musical trust was to encourage the choir members to discover their own singing voices and to draw a connection between those voices and their underlying emotions. I then sought to blend their voices into the group’s voice, thereby communicating their inner worlds in a non-threatening way.

Each member was encouraged to sing solos for the rest of the group while the others provided harmonic back-up. The give and take of a soloist accompanied by the warm and powerful tones of the other choir member singing in harmony, created an atmosphere of acceptance, openness, and support.

One interesting episode illustrated the way in which harmonic vocal support created a positive and almost therapeutic dynamic in our choir. One of the less popular and more  depressed participants, who had been placed in solitary confinement for harming herself a few days earlier, approached me about singing one of the verses of a prayerful song as a soloist. She asked me not to disclose to the group that his was her way of praying for her mother who was dying of AIDS.

I agreed that she sing the solo part, but asked her to do so in a way that was truly prayerful. Taking the risk of thereby exposing her pain and loneliness, she sang passionately, buoyed by the soft harmonic support of the other voices. At the close of the song, there was a brief silence.

It was clear that for the soloist, it was as if the group had not only supported her in her prayer but answered “Amen.” At the close of the rehearsal, she commented that she felt better and enjoyed the session. Despite her wariness of exposure, she had found a means to communicate to, and be consoled by, those around her.

The fact that the choir participants increasingly shared their feelings with one another and with me demonstrated that the attempts to bring the group together musically had extra-musical ramifications. Various comments by the inmates attested to the change that they had begun to sense. One stated, “M really moves me with her voice.” Another commented, “we support each other here.” And yet another said, “I feel like they are my sisters… and the teacher… a real sense of family.”

Laya Silber conducting the end of year concert with students from the Dept. of Music at Bar-Ilan University in Israel (2018).

The Concerts and Audiences

The choir performed three concerts during the course of the year, and the audience reactions suggested that participation in the choir had a positive impact on the choir members and significantly boosted their self-esteem.

“The inmates had performed with ‘an intensity rarely heard in a concert hall.'”

The first performance was before a group of guests attending a conference held in the prison. The second, attended by prison inmates and staff, was part of a memorial ceremony for Israeli soldiers killed in combat. The third concert, and the highlight of the year, was a choir-to choir songfest with the university students’ choir that I conduct.

In preparation for that last concert, each choir (university and prison) separately prepared songs it would perform for the other, as well as two songs that the two choirs would sing together in multiple voices. The impact of that last performance was profound.

The inmates were taken by the fact that the university students would devote the time and effort to prepare for and participate in such an event. The students, for their part, appreciated the accomplishments and seriousness of the inmates as well. One remarked that the inmates had performed with “an intensity rarely heard in a concert hall.”

The most poignant moment came when the two choirs joined on stage to sing two pieces together — a popular song entitled “Tishmor Al Haolam Yeled (“Watch over the world, little child”), below, and “Amazing Grace.”

As the two voice parts of the songs sung by the prisoners expanded to four and five parts when joined by the students, the inmates were thrust into a world of harmony richer than they had ever experienced. Not only had their singing created a safe haven within the prison walls; it had momentarily brought down the barriers between them and the outside world.

(Laya Silber’s full academic paper) 2005. “Bars Behind Bars: The Impact of a Women’s Prison Choir on Social Harmony.” Music Education Research 7:2, 251-271.

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Laya Silber earned her doctorate in Music Education at the Teachers College of Columbia University in New York. She is Senior Lecturer, Coordinator of Undergraduate Studies and Choir Director in the Department of Music at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. 

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