Star of the North – Amanda, Lia Pearson’s Just Believe with Me will have two ACDA-MN performances this season. She created this piece while a member of Voices of Hope, the choir you direct at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee. Can you give us a brief description of the piece, how it was developed, and how has it been received?
Dr. Amanda K. Weber – In early 2020, Lia approached me saying she had an idea for a piece that she wanted to write for Voices of Hope but that she needed help notating it. We were able to give Lia one-on-one time with Zach Busch, our accompanist at the time, to get her ideas down on paper. Lia’s piece was written for treble choir with solo and piano, featuring a relevant and inspirational text about the value of walking alongside others through trying times.
Due to the arrival of the pandemic just a few months later, Voices of Hope never had the opportunity to perform Lia’s piece. I was heartbroken on Lia’s behalf, knowing she was to be released soon from prison and worrying she would never hear the music she wrote. It has been an incredible blessing to reunite with Lia on the outside and to be a part of multiple performances of Just Believe with Me.
SON – What does this piece, and the story of its creation offer to choirs and audiences?
AKW – Both the piece itself (Lia’s story) and the journey the piece has taken offer a message of persistence and hope. For Voices of Hope to sing Lia’s piece is an incredible act of sisterhood and community in an isolating space. The prison system is designed to keep incarcerated people apart, but choir in prison works to do just the opposite. That Lia felt called to write a song about accompaniment for her fellow singers speaks to the healing power of music in this context. In the broader community, Lia’s piece serves as a megaphone, amplifying the voices of our incarcerated siblings. While the creation of art is rich in prison environments, it is not often able to have the kind of reach Lia’s piece is experiencing.
SON – Voices of Hope clearly encouraged Lia’s creativity. How do you see choral music serving incarcerated people? [There is also a Voices of Hope choir at the Minnesota Correctional Facility – Stillwater.]
AKW – Residents at Shakopee are not allowed to sing (or dance, for that matter), as it is considered to be disruptive behavior. So the hour and a half that we have together in rehearsal each week becomes a space where people are free to fully access and express their emotions, and to do that in a communal space. Like other community and school choirs, prison choirs become a kind of family, as singers work together to create something meaningful. (Research shows that the social benefit of choir tends to have the largest impact on incarcerated singers.) Lia was released from prison in 2020, but current singers in Voices of Hope still know about her piece and the continued performances it is receiving. These singers, most of whom do not know Lia, are proud to be considered part of her choir family, and are empowered to wholly lean into their own creative practices. The success of Lia’s piece is a sign to them that their voice matters.
SON – How do you select and build the repertoire for Voices of Hope? Can you describe music that you and others have created to serve the needs of the choir? Many of us were inspired by your call-and-response ‘check-in’ song that was shared at Summer Dialogues.
AKW – Choosing music for Voices of Hope can be a difficult task. The musical level of our choirs tends to be on the lower side, as the singers have a wide range of musical backgrounds. But at the same time, the majority of these singers have experienced challenge and trauma beyond my understanding. So I’m looking for simple music with complex text, or highly rewarding 3-part harmony, or songs from across genres/time/location that can help broaden our understanding of ourselves as connected to something much bigger. We are not a religiously-affiliated organization, but much of our music taps into our spiritual selves.
The challenge of finding appropriate repertoire for this particular context has led us to multiple commissioning projects. Oh, Sister by Kathleen Allen and Lift Me Up by Linda Kachelmeier are two of our favorites. During the pandemic, Voices of Hope received an MRAC grant to commission 8 different composers to each write one song for our choirs. These pieces feature texts by incarcerated individuals at Shakopee, including a piece we’re currently working on called Buried Alive, by Emily Feld. Another recently premiered piece from that project is called I’m Not, written by Lara Campbell, a woman who is currently incarcerated in the state of Indiana. Connecting to text-writers or composers who share the same lived experience of incarceration helps to produce music that speaks directly to Voices of Hope singers.
SON – Do you have advice for choral directors who want to create the nurturing atmosphere that will call forth new music from their choirs and community?
AKW – I think there are many ways to spark the interest of new music in a choir, but a good way to start is by inviting a living composer to come and work with your group. Linda Kachelmeier worked with Voices of Hope in 2016, teaching us one of her songs that has become another favorite – I Am Becoming. In many ways, I think that was a transformative moment for the group. Meeting a living composer planted a seed in their minds that perhaps they, too, could write their own piece. Incorporating improvisation (in any form) into rehearsal, being vulnerable to share my own songs, or simply saying “yes” to someone’s idea like we were able to do with Lia, helps to create a culture that isn’t elitist but invitational. In a choir like Voices of Hope, we don’t need to judge whether a song someone writes is “good enough.” It represents them, and is therefore a gift to us all.
Lia and I would both be eager to visit with your community and share more about the healing power of music in prison contexts. Anyone interested in contacting us, and any choirs who are interested in performing Lia’s piece, Just Believe with Me, can be in touch with Voices of Hope – firstname.lastname@example.org.