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Singing together, pandemic doesn't break choir and incarcerated audience connection

By Fernanda Pires

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.

The annual calendar for the Out of the Blue choir was set: seven anticipated and approved performances inside men’s, women’s and treatment facilities around Michigan. University of Michigan musicians were thrilled to be able to perform for and bring joy to hundreds of incarcerated people.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic crossed out those dates from the singers’ agenda. Locked outside of their venues, this Prison Creative Arts Project choir remained undeterred. To reach and interact with their confined audience, Out of the Blue made a total shift in their programming.

“It doesn’t matter what facility we go to or our performance format, the point is that we always want to bring joy into a space where there is almost never any,” said School of Social Work graduate student Rikki Morrow-Spitzer, who co-founded the choir in 2018 with a dozen music students.

Out of the Blue is an auditioned outreach choral ensemble that partners with PCAP, U-M alumni and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to bring choral concerts and workshops to prisons, juvenile detention centers and re-entry programs across Southeast Michigan. The choir combines alumni volunteers and students enrolled in an undergraduate course, taught this year by Katherine Rohwer.

The members of Out of the Blue, an outreach choral ensemble.

The singers receive training on how to thoughtfully perform music in non-traditional settings as well as enhance their knowledge about the history of the Michigan prison system. In 2.5 years, Out of the Blue has performed for approximately 850-900 people inside.

This Fall, the choir had to come up with a totally different way to work virtually with its incarcerated audience. One specific requirement could not be left out: interactivity.

“Every time we have a concert, whether it’s this semester or not, we want it to be as interactive as possible,” Morrow-Spitzer said. “It’s not meant to be standing up and singing for an hour. The hope is that there are points where the audience might be doing that, but a lot of it is engaging and getting all involved in the music and participating in all different ways.”

After some stumbling and changes in the original plans, the students found a perfect way to circumvent the pandemic and even from a distance, interact with and bring joy to the incarcerated men at the Milan Federal Correctional Institution, which has been PCAP’s partner for four years now.

Each one of the 12 students chose one song that had brought hope and joy during a difficult time. School of Music, Theater and Dance student, Molly Schwall, chose “Rainbow,” by Kacey Musgraves.

“This song is all about after the storm and finding inner peace and everything going on around you in everyday life. Also being able to step forward with confidence and to feel secure,” she said. “This is a song that I play whenever I’m feeling sad. It really just brings me joy and it is very comforting for me. That just really resonates with me and it is a great reminder that everything is going to be okay.”

The next step was to record individual messages explaining their choices and to come up with prompts that the men could answer about the songs. The result is a one-hour DVD, combining the students’ selected songs, some other music performed by them, and their testimonials.

The choir opened and closed the virtual show with  “One Foot in Front of the Other,” by Melaine DeMore, a piece the choir performs in every concert and has become an anthem.

“We knew we needed to involve that [song] in some way in the concert because that’s like the familiarity piece,” Morrow-Spitzer said. “Other than that, it includes the most random assortment of songs of all time and so many different genres. I thought that was the greatest thing ever.”

The DVD was sent inside and the facility employees printed out the worksheets. In total, 26 men participated (which was the maximum allowed to be together in a room at a time), answering all the activities and also picking their favorite songs. “The session was a huge success,” said FCI Milan chaplain Jonathan Cooper.”

Participants responded to the songs on the printed worksheets that were sent with the DVD.

The men were so grateful for the time to stop, listen, and reflect. It meant a lot that the students took the time to put this together. Their kind words and musical selections were very uplifting.”

Chaplain Cooper sent all the participants’ responses back to the U-M students. After listening and reflecting on “Overture,” from Le nozze de Figaro by Mozart, incarcerated artist Michael B. said the music reminded him of a time he enjoyed sitting in the woods and watching nature. “A pesky squirrel, birds chattering, deer grazing, snakes slithering, insects buzzing around my head. Animals fleeing when they get spooked,” he wrote.

Incarcerated artist Michael B’s response to the prompt given for the Overture from “Le nozze de Figaro” by Mozart.

Among his favorite songs, B. picked “Grandma’s Garden,” by Zac Brown and “Just the Two of us,” a Will Smith remake. These and several of the other songs chosen by Milan’s participants will be incorporated into next semester’s Out of the Blue performance.

For music director Katherine Rohwer, the responses from the men were overwhelmingly positive, and the students are excited to continue engaging and corresponding with them next semester.

“At a time when music-making can feel so disjunct and abstract, working to put together this virtual choral project for the folks inside gave us real inspiration and purpose,” she said. “It reminded me—and I think all of us—about music’s power to foster connection, even in unexpected and non-traditional ways.”


This story was originally published in the Prison Creative Arts Project.


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