Join our mailing list

Mary L. Cohen on Prison Choirs That Churches Can Start

Churches can use this community/prison choir model to embody and invite people into restorative justice. It can help us develop our awareness of our common humanity and help people see God’s love within each of us.

Mary L. Cohen teaches music educators and music education candidates at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She researches choral singing and well-being, songwriting, and collaborative communities, especially in prisons. In 2009 she launched Oakdale Community Choir, which rehearses and performs inside a prison, so that “outside singers” and “inside singers” can sing together. In this edited conversation, Cohen talks about a kind of community/prison choir through which churches can live out their Matthew 25:36 convictions.

What’s your short description of how Oakdale Community Choir works?

Our two annual choir seasons coincide with the spring and fall semesters. We rehearse for two hours every Tuesday evening. Each semester we choose a concert theme, such as ”Building Bridges to Peace,” “Love Lives On,” “Finding Hope,” or “Come Walk with Us.” Each semester we perform two concerts in the prison gym: one for people who live and work in the prison, and the other for invited guests.

One of our outside singers, rhetoric professor Mary Trachsel, started the Writers’ Workshop at Oakdale Prison in August 2009. In the summer of 2010, I started the Songwriter’s Workshop. It has yielded 142 original songs that we’ve performed during rehearsals or at concerts. Several of us provide writing prompts to help us all reflect on the semester’s theme, songs for our upcoming concert, and other relevant topics. Submitting reflections is optional, but they help us learn more about each other. Some people recite their reflections as part of the concert program.

Which foundational principles are necessary for a church to launch a community choir in a prison?

The South African concept of ubuntu is foundational for our Oakdale Community Choir. Ubuntu means that a person is a person through other people. By contrast, prison culture strips people of their identity and isolates them.

Like others who research community music, I've found that a sense of hospitality is also key. This means recognizing that choir members' personal and social growth are as important as their musical growth. This generous hospitality looks at every person as having the ability and right to create, make, and enjoy their own music. Facilitators need to model the welcome for all involved,

Can you share an ubuntu story from your choir?

Richard Winemiller, Johnathan Kana, and I contributed a chapter—"Life within These Walls: Community Music-Making as a Bridge of Healing and Transformation in Prison Contexts”—to a forthcoming book to be published by Wilfrid Laurier Press. Winemiller, one of our inside singers, explains in that chapter that many prisoners see themselves “through the lens of stereotypical understanding.” They think that even after release, societal walls will separate them from the kinds of outside singers he’s come to know.

Winemiller wrote a song, “The Person I See,” that I set to music. Its chorus repeats this line: “The person I see inspires me to be/The person in you.” In rehearsals and performances, he noticed that the song moved both insiders and outsiders to tears. “It is very uplifting to think that I had a hand in bringing about such positive and peaceful emotions, using the power of the song to unite,” Winemiller wrote in our shared chapter.

How have you modeled hospitality by welcoming insights from inside and outside singers?

Winemiller had mentioned to me that rehearsals didn’t allow much time for conversation among choir members. So I implemented a short time for structured conversations about the songs we are singing. This helped all members think more deeply about the original songs and build personal relationships with their fellow singers.

An outside singer, Kevin Kummer, was part of my journey through grief and healing after my sister Judy died in a car accident in 2012. Judy was my role model, and I started taking piano lessons because she did. Her friends created “WWJudyD?” bracelets that gave the answer “Find the Joy.” I wrote “Find the Joy,” and we performed it at our Spring 2013 concert themed “Mourning Is Broken.” It was really powerful for me to learn this song with the choir. After rehearsal one evening, Kummer told me he doesn’t think we need to go outside ourselves to find joy. Rather, we need to be open to feeling the joy inside us. Kummer’s insight led me to change the song’s final phrase from “we seek to find the joy” to “we pause to feel the joy.” I explained that at the concert before we sang the song.

Your scholarly articles often mention Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking.” Why?

Christopher Small was a sociomusicologist who coined the word “musicking” to define music as a verb. In his book Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening (Music/Culture), Small wrote: “The act of musicking establishes in the place where it is happening a set of relationships, and it is in those relationships that the meaning of the act lies.” He explained that musical performances depend on sonic and social relationships that change as we change and vice versa. The performers’ experience isn’t complete unless they share it with the audience. Musicking is a way to express yourself and build bridges with a broader social community.

Musicking in prison choirs dynamically twines three levels of relationships. People sing and socialize in a choir. They become aware of song texts and somatic factors [the human body is the musical instrument] in rehearsals and performances. As choristers begin to think of each other as family, they practice mutual care, respect, and support through consistent attendance, practicing outside of rehearsals, and living out the choir goal of building a community of caring inside and outside prison walls.

Can you share stories of how musicking dynamics helped people create change?

Johnathan Kana, a restored citizen, wrote in our book chapter about how doing prison time “radically warps human relationships” so that “prisoners do their best to look tough and stay aloof.” He contrasts that with “authentic relationships, . . . reciprocal expectations and mutual contributions“ in musical ensembles. These experiences help inside singers realize that their lives matter to others and that who you are (or who you’ll someday become) is far more important than what you’ve done in the past." We sang his song “Life within These Walls” at our “Lead with Love” Spring 2017 concert.

In November 2018 we did a “Learning Exchange” with the Soweto Gospel Choir, Maggie Wheeler, and Sara Thomsen. Its theme was “Changes We Choose,” and I designed the event so that everyone in the gym was a participant rather than a performer or audience member. We sang and moved together. I facilitated a conversation among all participants so they could share reflections on a positive past choice. We sang “When We Are Singing” by Kevin Padworski from Justice Choir. Its first verse and refrain are: “When we are singing, we are bound together; when we are sharing, we are free to be. Both in our singing and in our sharing, we are bringing change, we are making peace.”

Many inside singers have had family members who decided to come and visit them because they felt comfortable coming to a concert. One had not had a visit in over six years. For some family members (and for prison staff also) it is stressful to visit their family members in the prison, but it is more positive for them to come to a concert and see their family member singing with the choir. The choir has provided new things for the inside singers to talk about with their families. Many have written songs for family members.

What essential steps might others take to form inside/outside prison choirs elsewhere, such as the one you direct at Oakdale Prison?

Stuart Paul Duncan and I are writing a book about this topic. The book is called Silenced Voices: Music-Making in US Prisons. We invite people to learn more about how to support returning citizens. And it’s really important to use people-centered, positively charged language, such as “people,” “men,” and “women” instead of “offenders,” “convicts,” and “felons.”


Watch a PBS segment about Oakdale Community Choir.

The United States has the world’s highest population of incarcerated people—more than 2.1 million adults in 2018. This does not include people locked up in juvenile facilities, immigration facilities, or prisons in US territories. Yet violent and property crimes in the United States have dropped sharply since 1993. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, the world has eighty-nine countries with higher rates of intentional homicide victims than in the United States.

The United States also has the world’s highest incarceration rates—about 655 per 100,000 people. By contrast, China’s incarceration rate is 118 per 100,000 people. The incarceration rate in many states exceeds the U.S. national average. Oklahoma imprisons 1,079 of every 100,000 adults.