Christmas Dreams, Inside and Outside

Posted on behalf of Jeongmin Gloria Song

After checking in with security and entering through the long sequence of impenetrable doors, the community choir members and I finally arrived inside of Oakdale Prison. This extraordinary and unusual event was an inspiring experience. Three days ago Dec. 10th, 2013, I attended a choir concert in Oakdale Prison auditorium; It was my first visit to the prison. The director of this unique choir, Dr. Mary Cohen, planned to form a choir with both members from the community and inmates. Dr. Cohen preferred to address the prisoners here as “inside members,” which I will use as well.

My goal was to observe the contemporary programming aspects of the concert, and I hoped to experience some of the materials we covered during class. However, breaking all my expectations, the concert’s program was rather traditional for Christmas season. However, the concept behind the concert was sensational. The story goes like this:

This event happens about three times a year, in spring, summer and Christmas seasons. The summer season concert is typically a smaller-sized choir, focusing on publishing the compositions by the inside members during their songwriting seminar. In this Christmas season, the construction of the program was holiday-focused, with a theme: “love lives on,” I heard a couple of familiar Christmas carols, such as “Silent Night,” which we all sang together. However, most of the lyrics performed by this choir were written by the inside members, carrying their personal messages to the audience by applying their own stories. In my personal point of view, the concept of the whole program was not only for enjoying the music together, but also for confessing their inner feelings and thoughts with the people there. As a result, the inside members are healed by each other’s memories.

There were approximately fifty members in this choir, composed of half inside and half outside members. Dr. Cohen mentioned that almost half of the inside members are inexperienced in music, so she had to begin the process from the most basic level. I could hardly notice this while listening, as everyone did an excellent job with their parts. The program included a short narration at the beginning of every song alternately recited by the inside and outside members. The program was composed of fifteen songs total; some of the titles show the deeper thoughts of the inmates, such as “More Than You See,” and “Healer of Our Every Ill.” The theme of the concert “Love Lives On” also has published as a written song, I will attach the part of lyrics so you can see what kind of messages they try to deliver. “In a world gone wrong, we pray that you’ll stay strong and when the hurt hits home, just know that love lives on…”

I had a chance to talk with many of the outside members. One woman who was in her fourth year of singing in this choir, said she had experienced a great deal through memories of the inside members. At first, they acted very defensively but eventually, they found the way to smile through the process of collaborating and making music with the community members.

With a strong will, people can overcome tremendous obstacles. Many people complain about unfairness of life and they make mistakes once in a lifetime. It was fascinating how many of the inside members’ lyrics incorporated some wishes for a second chance, or to become a better person. Perhaps not everyone gets equal chances in life, but there should always room to improve, and to dream again. The Oakdale Prison Concert represents a great effort to revive the hopes and dreams of the inside members, and has the potential to be a source of great change for both the inside and outside members.

Here is the official site for the Oakdale Prison Choir.

–Jeongmin Gloria Song

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