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Ep. 6 Singing Connected Relationships in Prison Contexts with Dr. Mary Cohen


Dr. Mary Cohen

Dr. Mary Cohen is a leading scholar exploring community music making within prison contexts.  Our conversation explores the redemptive, restorative, and connective empowerment of choral singing as building imaginations of possible selves and ubuntu, or connectedness. This podcast blends conversation, quotes from Andy Douglas' book Redemption Songs, and sound clips from the Oakdale Community Choir.

ubuntu, music education, choir, prisons, justice, imagination

Dr. Mary  Cohen is Associate Professor at the University of Iowa. Her scholarship focuses on choral singing and well-being with particular emphasis on music programs in prison contexts. She has published extensively on these topics in publications like the Journal of Research in Music Education, Journal of Research in Choral Singing, the Choral Journal, the Journal of Correctional Education, and many others.

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Blog post about this podcast and the need to "Build Musical Imaginations."

Cohen, M. L. (2012). Harmony within the walls: Perceptions of worthiness and competence in a community prison choir. International Journal of Music Education, 30(1), 46-56. doi:10.1177/0255761411431394

Cohen, M. L. (In press). Performing arts activities with hopes to build positive self-identity, heal harms and broaden the US public’s perceptions of people inside prisons. In M. Balfour, B. Bartleet, L. Davey, J. Rynne, & H. Schippers (Eds.), Performing Arts in Prisons. Bristol : Intellect.

Cohen, M. L., Silber, L., Sangiorgio, A., & Ladeluca, V. (2018). Music-making as a means to promote positive relationships. In G. Welch & G. McPherson (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Music Education (2nd ed.) (pp. ). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, M. L., & Henley, J. (2018). Music-making behind bars: The many dimensions of community music in prisons. In B. Bartleet & L. Higgins (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Community Music  (pp. 153-171). Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Cohen, M., & Wilson, C. M. (2017). Inside the fences: The processes and purposes of songwriting in an adult male U.S. prison. International Journal of Music Education, 35(4), 541-553. doi: 10.1177/0255761416689841

Douglas, A. (2019). Redemption songs: A year in the life of a community prison choir. San Germán, PR: InnerWorld Publications.


Henley, J., & Cohen, M. L. (2014). Constructing personal narratives around key musical events: Redefining identities and attitudes within and outside of prison music. In M. Cohen (Ed.), Listening to the world: Experiencing and connecting to the knowledge from community music. Proceedings from the 14th Community Music Activity Commission (pp. 115-123). Salvador, Brazil : International Society of Music Education.

Henley, J., Cohen, M. L., & Mota, G. (2014). Musical development and positive identity change within criminal justice settings. In G. C. Beyens, M. A. M. Ramos, E. Zipane, & T. Ophuysen (Eds.), Rethinking education: Empowering individuals with the appropriate educational tools, skills, and competencies for their active cultural, political and economic participation in society in Europe and beyond (pp. 120-149). Brussels : Access to Culture Platform.

Miller, P., & Cohen, M. L. (2017). “Dear younger me”: Writing, songwriting, and choral singing while incarcerated as a means to build identities and bridge communities. In M. Reason & N. Lowe (Eds.), Applied practice: Evidence and impact in theatre, music and art (pp. 195-201). London, UK: Bloomsbury Metheun Drama.



Speaker 1:          00:01          [inaudible]

Mary Cohen:         00:02          what are the deep needs in our society now and how can music education fulfill some of those needs? And I think we have, as a field, need to be using our collective imagination to think in really deep ways.

Shorner-Johnson:    00:16          You were listening to the music and peacebuilding podcast, professional development network at exploring intersections of peacebuilding, culture, sacredness, relationship, community, creativity and imagination through research and story. Today we take a deep dive into the amazing, compassionate and restorative work of inside singers, outside singers and Dr. Mary Cohen of the University of Iowa. Together they have formed the Oakdale community choir within the context of the Iowa medical and classification center, a part of the Iowa Department of corrections. We listen to an interview with Dr. Cohen, excerpts from redemption songs by Andy Douglas, and excerpts of singing from the Oakdale community choir. Dr. Mary Cohen is associate professor at the University of Iowa. Her scholarship focuses on choral singing and wellbeing with particular emphasis on music programs in prison contexts. She has published extensively on these topics - in publications like the Journal of Research and Music Education, Journal of research and choral singing, the choral journal, the Journal of Correctional Education and many others that will be listed on our website with this podcast.

Shorner-Johnson:    01:44          I think I read that you first became interested in music within prison contexts in Kansas and I was, I was curious if you could tell us about what first sparked your curiosity about music within these unique contexts.

Mary Cohen:         01:59          Sure, yeah, there's been a variety of things and the more I've done it the other, the more the additional things that I've thought about. When I was in high school, I was on the debate team my sophomore year, my first time on the debate team, the topic was criminal court procedure. And I remember reading and exploring this topic and just curious, you know, what, what would be the point of putting a lot of people in the same space if you're not providing some kind of an educational program? Because we learn so much about who we're involved with and who we're around. So that was just a curiosity from high school.

Mary Cohen:         02:36          And then my husband and I were involved in a choir called the festival singers of Kansas City, and there were a number of folks singing in that choir that were involved in the arts in prison organization. So I was curious about it. I just heard about it through conversations with some of those folks. And then reading the Sunday Kansas City arts page one day and saw that the choir called the East Hill Singers were performing at the Atonement Lutheran Church just a few miles from where we lived in. We were living in Lenexa, which is a suburb of Kansas City. So went to it out of curiosity and was really blown away walking into the church in the gathering of the church were, it was filled with visual arts and some writing. And then during the concert, many of the inside singers, so the men, this choir, east hill singers is from the Lansing correctional facility, the state prison in Kansas, Lansing, Kansas. And the men leave the prison and sing with a group of outside volunteers. Anyway, so going into the concert, Kevin. It was just like, Whoa, this is really remarkable. The idea of singing with people who are in prison. So I just thought the idea of people singing in unison and harmony, you know, people that have been accused of committing crimes, singing with people who are from the society where they've been accused of committing the crimes from, you know, singing together. It's just, it really, really, really sparked my attention.

Shorner-Johnson:    04:05          So how did you start the Oakdale choir? I would guess that it's very complex to start a choir like this because you probably have a lot of naysayers and people who are concerned about security and um, and you have to work through a lot of things. So how did you start the Oakdale choir?


Mary Cohen:         04:22          Great question. So I used a lot of, I did a lot of research when I first came to the University of Iowa to prepare me to start the choir. So that involved things like collecting data, pardon me, from people who lead choirs. So I got to travel to Ohio to meet Kathy Roma who leads now three prison choirs. I traveled to Minnesota and there was a woman named, is a woman named Bea Hasselman who used to direct a choir at the Red Wing correctional facility and you know, and collected more data from a man named Marles Preheim who was one of Elvira's students who for a while let acquire in Hutchinson, Kansas. So I was seeking out people who had already done this. I also, um, had a really important phone call conversation with William Cleveland. Is that a name that you know? No. So William Cleveland has written, um, you think, well the, the article that I've used of his is called common sense and common ground and it's basically skills for artists working with institutions. And um, he's centered, he has another book called, uh, I think I have it right on my shelf here, Art in Other Places, which is from 1992. William Cleveland. So my conversation with him, he suggested to me, Mary, if you know, cause I was trying to figure out what's the best way to do this, what's gonna make the most sense?

Shorner-Johnson:    05:51          Dr. Mary Cohen Speaks of the pioneering legacy of Elvera Voth in the Lansing chorus as planting the seeds for her work at age 70 Elvera Voth started a choir at the Lansing Correctional Facility in 1995 both asked members of the community to sing with prison insiders and the aim of improving choral sound. This idea of combining communities launched inspirations for Dr. Cohen to approach choral work as community work; connection building, Cohen says, is fundamental to the reintegration of insiders with outside society. I asked Dr. Cohen about how she started the Oakdale choir in Iowa. She spoke of the influence of many people and in particular of William Cleveland who taught her that it takes a village to begin a choir.


Mary Cohen:         06:49          And he said, Mary, if you want to start something like this, think of it like starting a village, not a summer camp. Meaning that if you can establish really positive relationships with the people in the prison facility, the staff, the administrators, and you know, make more of a partnership, it's going to be a much more meaningful program. So between that kind of advice and the University of Iowa's Center for teaching offered a brilliant workshop on public-engaged research that I got to go to. Um, and a lot of that was helping me form the ideas for this project. There's a, there were, the director for that center for teaching Gene Foreman and another colleague who's a rhetoric professor at Iowa, Mary Trachsel, the three of us met so I could plan out a reflective writing component that I've included with the choir. And um, Mary, in turn, she sang in the choir. Both Jean and Mary sang in the choir the very first season, 2009 when the choir started. And Mary in turn started a Oakdale writer's workshop in the prison in August. I started the choir in February of 2009 and in August of that year, she started this writer's workshop, which is still going really strong. So to start the choir. I mean, those were things that I did on my own. The different, there were other research projects. I did one where I looked at, um, what are the songs that people who lead prison choirs find helpful and important? Um, that one I didn't publish but I presented at a conference. It was just all stuff to really help me think through how to start this project. Then the second part was making the connection with the prison.


Shorner-Johnson:    08:37          I love Dr. Cohen for her gifts and thinking through relationships. She went on to name at least 10 individuals who all contributed inspirations to her work. Mary is a connector, one who is gifted in crafting community at every stage of a process.


Mary Cohen:         09:05          So, um, the plan had been for me to come in in January and have the meeting at the prison with men to let them know here at some of the ideas I have for starting this choir. Are you interested? You know, what songs might work. So what they did at the prison was there was an interim warden named Dan Craig who I just emailed with today and just learned, he's now the director of the bureau of prisons and, and he's actually retiring soon. But anyway, so, so they were supportive of the project starting because it was planned to go and I had the meeting With the men in the prison on, uh, in January of 2009. And then we had our very first rehearsal, the first Tuesday of February of 2009 as kind of a pilot to see how things would go.


Mary Cohen:         09:52          And uh, from there we just continued to partner with the prison and make sure what we were doing, fit what their goals were for the prison and make sure that what we're doing with bringing people in and this writing component fit their guidelines with security. Okay. And there've been a variety of changes that have happened over these 10 years as you can only imagine. Um, the biggest change was the choir sang in the spring season of 2009. We did a concert themed peace and place. We did a themed concert. Summer 2009, the theme was rivers and rocks. And then at the end of that summer, I met with Dan in a group of other administrators at the prison and they said, Mary, it's really hard to have these outside volunteers. We had 22 outside volunteers come in with, and met 22 insights singers. It was really hard for them on Summer Tuesdays for these outside volunteers to come in every week. So he said, let's just have the choir during the academic semesters. But I said, sure, no problem. And then I asked would it be possible to start a songwriting workshop because that evolved organically and they said yes. So in the summer months, what we do is do songwriting workshop.


Oakdale Chorus:     11:10          Music

Oakdale Chorus:     11:36          Music interlude - Beauty before me, beauty behind me....


Shorner-Johnson:    12:38          before we get too deep in, can you explain for the listeners who are unfamiliar with these terms about how you arrived at insiders and outsiders as designations for people in your choir?

Mary Cohen:         12:49          Sure. Yeah. Well, I didn't have that term when the choir started and I really fumbled around every time I was trying to explain a direction that would be specific to one of the groups and not the other group. The, The prison traditionally has used the term offender, and I knew that term didn't resonate with the goals of this project. So I had attended a conference in California. It was a correctional education association conference and went to a session with someone that had attended the inside-out prison exchange training program. This is a program Lori Pompa started at Temple University and what she does is she trains faculty members who want to teach a class as part of their college load, teaching load, in a prison where half the students are inside students, the incarcerated students and half the students are outside students. So I heard that presentation, someone who had been to a inside-out training and I thought, oh, that could work for the choir. So I want to acknowledge the, Lori's program because that's how I got the terms inside and outside singers.


Shorner-Johnson:    14:01          Imagination is a cornerstone of peacebuilding practice. In Dr Cohen's work. I sense the generative power of imagination. Her scholarship speaks to the imagination of possible selves and the healing power of imagining through musical memory.


Shorner-Johnson:    14:21          I feel like I sense this idea that songs have a, an amazing impact on people and bringing them back into the imagination of some of these, these good memories. And I was wondering, uh, what you had experienced about how songs seem to bring about an imagination of good memories and, and possibility.


Mary Cohen:         14:44          Oh, what a great question. Kevin. This is brilliant. Um, there's so many directions that we could explore with this in the, in the, in the context of what I've experienced. So, um, the first thing that came to my mind is, I was thinking about your question is the role of community, like the concept of a communal voice, um, because I intend in this project to facilitate the whole choir and the songwriting workshop learning From a constructivist approach. So more of a, um, what can we as, um, well can we construct from our own knowledge? And the part of adding this concept of imagination is exciting and challenging. Cause how, how can we, um, explore what we don't know? And that's where that concept of Ubuntu comes back because I Um, I'll try to get to a specific answer about songs in a moment, but just from a more of an overarching kind of framework, when we're together in this context, there's the potential for the imagination to grow in a new way through our interactions with one another. And it's, it's potential. It all depends on how things are facilitated, how people feel in the moment, um, how willing they are to share the ideas that they're thinking and how willing they are to listen deeply to what others are saying. And sometimes it's listening to what they're saying. Sometimes it's listening to kind of the nonverbal message that they're sharing as they're interacting together. Um, and then how can we take that into some kind of a musical experience?


Oakdale Chorus:     16:30          "Inside my mother's eyes" song.


Mary Cohen:         17:10          So coming back back to this concept of imagination in music, we, after I went to my first music for people workshop, I started to improvise group choral improvisation. And, um, with the song that we do beauty before me where it's a simple, simple, um, strategy that I know a lot of my colleagues in Canada have done for a long time and it was just new to me. But, um, you sing a cannon and then, you know, a short, you repeated it a few times, and then the invitation is for someone to sing the drone of whatever the common tone is, or the Canon. If its a Canon That's simple enough to have one pitch, or maybe it's a small little Ostinato that's repeated. And then you could say, invite them to sing one measure of the cannon on a neutral syllable over and over again, like that beauty before me, do, do, do to do, just repeat that little melody over and over again. And then ideally listen and blend with what you hear around you or just stop singing and listen and then come in with the little idea. So anyway, um, this is an example of, as a group, what we've tried to do is create a space for everybody's voice to get to be expressed musically. And, um, you know, I just, I am seeking more ways myself to learn how to facilitate this. In fact, I get to go a week from tomorrow to Los Angeles to participate in a song fest that Maggie Wheeler is putting on. Maggie Wheeler came to Iowa for our learning exchange last November with us with the Soweto Gospel Choir, Maggie and her friend Sarah Thompson are both part of the Ubuntu choir network and they both facilitated songs. Maggie's also from the TV show friends. She played the role of Janice. So a lot of people know her from that and she directs a choir in Los Angeles called the Golden Bridge Choir.


Mary Cohen:         19:06          So, um, what I'm trying to say when it comes to imagination and choral singing is that I've been really, really exploring how we can do this from a communal standpoint. And, um, original songs is one step for that. And then my next step is to, to develop my skill to facilitate more, um, circle style singing where we get that, you know, it's that idea. It's the whole idea of um, coming to a equal sense of power, you know, this concept of the circle and we're all at the same level of power and then how can we, um, create music from that space? And I feel that kind of give and pull of someone that gets to express themself and everybody supporting that expression and then letting that kind of rotate through the group.


Shorner-Johnson:    19:59          Ooh, boom. Two translates as a person is a person through other persons, Reverend Tutu from the Desmond and LeahTutu legacy foundation defined Ubuntu As an ethic of interdependence, it inspires us to imagine into our universal interconnectedness. That whole idea of Ubuntu is kind of a, is a process of, uh, uh, of imagination in many ways of trying to imagine yourself as being in one relationship with other people.


Mary Cohen:         20:34          Absolutely. And I think, um, in the context of this project, the part of it that I find, um, highly challenging is the part of the survivors perspective and providing care for the survivor. So what I've done so far is connect with the state of Iowa, has an office of restorative justice and victims services for the Department of Correction. And the woman that runs that office has been into the prison a number of times. I invite her, if she has any survivors who are comfortable coming in, then they come in and participate in a concert. We had a listening session back, uh, just last fall I hosted a listening session in the music building with, We had about six or seven survivors of violent crimes. So these were all parents. There was one grandfather who's child, parents of children who had been murdered. Because I wanted to ask them what, and these were all facilitated with, um, the support of Mary Roche, the woman that's the director of restorative justice to find out what do you think of a music program inside of a prison.


Mary Cohen:         21:44          And everybody, you know, had a different story. But one thing that they shared that was in common was the thread or the connection that each of those individuals, each of those survivors had with the perpetrator. Hmm. So, you know, as we're talking about Ubuntu and this concept of imagination with Ubuntu here is where, when we're talking about how to move forward toward a healing space with people who have been hurt and the people who have hurt them. Um, and then trying to look at imagination is really important. I mean, using our imagination is really important because it's always best to not have an assumption about why someone made a choice. Every person when we interact with them, it's like we only have that surface tip of the iceberg and there's going to be a deeper story to that individual's life. And a deeper story to Even that individuals, um, ancestor, like their family backgrounds that could have impacted, you know, people that were alive, their parents, their grandparents, you know, generational trauma can also be impacted. So we need to be able in this concept of imagination is so important. And I think if we can maybe. How can we, uh, develop our imagination mean what are the skills we need to be doing as individuals and as communities to develop our imagination in a way that's for the greatest good.


Speaker 8:          23:19          [inaudible]


Shorner-Johnson:    23:20          how do we develop imaginations? What are the deeper stories that our children bring into our classrooms? How do deep stories inspire imagination and support wellbeing? How do I take more time to honor the deep stories of my students? I love how the Oakdale choir has turned song introductions and written reflections into an art form. Calling us to listen for deep story and meaning within choral song.


Oakdale Chorus:     23:55          Our theme for this year is always look on the bright side of life. Uh, this theme really hits home for a lot of us and not just us as inmates. You know, the holiday season can cast a dark shadow over our lives. You know, sometimes on this season, depression can weigh heavy on our hearts and our mind, uh, due to the separation from us being from our families this year, couple of us suffered the loss of some loved ones. But, uh, this choir here, you know, we have bonded as a family, you know, a family of hearts and a family of voices that can relate to the ups and downs of the holiday season. And so as we begin to look on the bright side of life, we became very grateful of our past memory of our families and loved ones. But we also look forward to the new ones with the hopes that they will guide our hearts into the future. So tonight through songs and through smiles, but most of all through love, we invite you guys to join us and our way of sharing gratitude for our family and friends who give us every reason to look on the bright side of life. Now this choir that stays behind me, consists of a smooth brothers singing in the sections of tenor and bass, complemented by a group of beautiful sisters, harmonizing from Alto to soprano. Uh, my main man, brother Williams on the piano. We are all up under the phenomenal leadership of Dr Mary Cohen.


Oakdale Chorus:     25:12          [Applause] Now brother Williams. Let these people know what are we here for?

Oakdale Chorus:     25:26          [Singing "we come to sing"]


Oakdale Chorus:     25:44          to all the people far near. We're truly grateful that you all here. So do us a favor. Open up your hearts. Lend us an ear. See we on a mission. That's to lift your spirits up with cheer. Please clear your mind. It's time for us to rejoice. Hey Choir, give these people a sample of our voice.


Oakdale Chorus:     26:02          Singing...


Oakdale Chorus:     26:21          Ok, so now that we have agreed to leave all our problems at the door, our next mission is to see you smiles restored. You see tonight is the night we see what all the hard work is for. So hold onto your seats. Patt your feet. We are about to soar and I promise we're going to have a good time, that's for sure. Hey choir, give these people just a little bit more.


Oakdale Chorus:     26:41          Singing


Shorner-Johnson:    26:44          This is community music in the Oxford Handbook of community music, Mary Cohen and Jenny Henley, right of the imagination of possible selves as cognitive bridges between the past and future. How do we inspire dream like imagination about who we are and who we can be?

Oakdale Chorus:     27:06          This is not a selfish mission. Happy faces is our goal. And if you dig deep down into your soul, whenever you feel the passion, just grab ahold, hey choir, I think there's something we need to let them know.


Oakdale Chorus:     27:23          [inaudible]


Shorner-Johnson:    27:23          How have you experienced choral performances as kind of an awakening of the potential for possible selves?


Mary Cohen:         27:29          Hmm, that's a great question also. Wow. Um, one of the ways I've seen it experienced, is through the relationships that are developed between people in the prison and their families, the relationships that are developed among all of the people who sing together. And Yeah. I want to make sure as I answered this question, I mean the default way of me thinking is, is what I've noticed with the men in the prison because that's been really powerful. Like a man who has not had a visit for six or seven years. And then finally their family member decides to come to the prison to attend a concert. The one, the May concert where one man had three children, two under 11 years old. Traditionally in the concerts, anyone under 18 is not allowed unless there's a special permission given which the warden does allow for that. But they're usually teenagers. And then he allowed this man's two younger children to come in.


Mary Cohen:         28:29          When I see like way back in 2009 when one man wrote a song called in my mother's eyes, he was reflecting on the look. His mother gave him in the courtroom when he was sentenced to prison and he gave me the lyrics and said, Mary, can you put this to music? And I smiled and said yes. Wasn't quite sure if I had the time or skill set to do it. And I got home and read it. His words in my mother's eyes, I can do no wrong. I'm in her thoughts and prayers always in her prayers. She asks God to keep me strong so I can make it through another day. And I took it in there. The verses go on really powerfully as well. So I took it and wrote it like one line at a time, d minor meter in three kind of like a lullaby, but it was just really, really powerful.


Mary Cohen:         29:15          So possible selves, you know, when someone is able to reconnect with their family and have something new, like a new topic. Kenneth Bailey, who's been in the choir when it started and he's out and just now just moved to Texas. He's written the song, "may the stars, remember your name" that Yo-yo Ma performed in October of 2010 at the Warrenville Youth Center in Illinois. Um, Kenneth had shared that it provides new topics to talk about with his family and other men have talked about that as well. So, um, it's like kind of an incremental way of growing into new selves. Through renewed relationships with family. That's really one of the very first things that comes to mind. Um, and I think there's also a sense of possible selves with the outside singers. You probably got a taste of that from Andy Douglas's book and what he grew, how he grew from being in the choir and there've been other outside singers.


Mary Cohen:         30:13          Pardon me, who have also expressed that their experience of coming in and singing. I mean, everybody has said this. It's like they don't keep coming. I mean they keep coming because it's valuable for the outside singers. That's the research project that I need someone else to come into the prison and do, cause I'm too biased to be able to do it from a a neutral perspective. But we need to find out, you know, what are the positive, negative and neutral components of singing together in a choir like this. Um, and it's, it's just with all these different perspectives, we've got students from the University of Iowa, Faculty, staff, people from the community who are not in the prison and you know, with all the, and sometimes people are only in it for a season and they, many times will come back for concerts if they can, but you know, sometimes they move far away and it's just the memory of the experience. So, you know, to what extent did one season of this choir impact their sense of possible selves? Um, it's really hard from a scholarly standpoint to be able to assess that.


Oakdale Chorus:     31:24          [inaudible]


Oakdale Chorus:     31:24          good afternoon. My name is, uh, Anthony Rod. Most of you guys know me as A-Rod. Earlier you heard Macy speak of the Native American tribes who once called Iowa home. I am a enrolled member of one of these tribes in this choir. We sing from a variety of perspectives, not always aligning. For example, the next song makes me uncomfortable. I know firsthand the depths people would go to to attain their perfect peace. However, I'm beginning to understand the humility it takes to build bridges of peace. It's with this peace in mind that we sing the following song.


Oakdale Chorus:     32:21          Piano intro followed by choir singing "Deep Peace"

Shorner-Johnson:    33:12          Andy Douglas writes, It might seem odd to describe a prison as a caring community, but if we hope to break the chain of criminal thinking, then that's exactly the kind of environment we want prisons to be, and in that respect, in creating a sense of hope, the Oakdale choir is cutting edge. It represents a tool for breaking through the sense of separation that plagues the criminal justice system.


Shorner-Johnson:    33:45          I asked Dr. Cohen about songwriting because songwriting is a key part of her work and scholarship. To date, members of the Oakdale community choir have written 153 songs. The song writing process builds expressions of personal experience and story. Dr. Cohen begins by relating one song written by an insider just as the song writing workshop took off.


Mary Cohen:         34:13          So then during that season, one of the insights singers came up to me and said, Mary, whatever happened to those lyrics, I gave you "my love always." He said, are you going to be able to maybe set those to music? So we had no songwriting workshop at this point in the project. And I said, sure. So I went home, I found his lyrics, at the end of his lyrics, Kevin, he wrote in the style of Reba McEntire. Okay, no problem. So went on to youtube and found some Reba McIntyre kind of get an idea of what that meant from a couple songs set at the piano and set out, set his lyrics to music with kind of an upbeat country style. It was kind of how I thought he meant when he said in the style of Reba McEntire the choir started to learn a song and a couple weeks into the season I get a note typed up saying that the version that I had set of um, my love always did not match the songwriters' the lyricist's ideas. And I thought, Oh okay cause I didn't have any chance. I had no, just one one-on-one conversation with this lyricist to say, tell me what you think of this. So we stopped the song that following summer we had our first song writing workshop in the summer and the man who wrote those lyrics and I set at the piano and I got a much better idea of, of what he meant. He wanted a slow ballad. And I also learned a lot about teaching songwriting because the way he had written his lyrics, he had verse one as like a paragraph. He had the chorus verse one chorus, excuse me, verse two as a second paragraph, but hadn't really understood how the words and the rhythms for one verse in the second verse and needed to align. So I learned a lot about ways to instruct that and how to teach that.


Mary Cohen:         36:09          And then, um, by that December, the following fall, we were able to do the song "my love always." In fact, Andy Douglas reads a really beautiful introduction to that song at the concert. Yeah. Anyway, so the songwriting, obviously it was so clear to me when we did that summer songwriting session in 2009 with a choir and then move on to summer songwriting workshop in 2010. It was crystal clear that songwriting was a meaningful way for the men in the prison to express themselves. And it was really, really fun for me. I love taking someone's lyrics, sitting at the piano and creating a melody for it. Um, what we do at our sessions, this will be helpful for the K-12 teachers, is we use a system for feedback that's called the Liz Lerman critical response process. It's a four step four-step strength-based process that allows, step one is the step of providing what's interesting, meaningful and evocative. So the very first step, all of the people listening to the song, and this can be applied to lots of other artistic contexts. Step two, the artist gets to ask questions. And that's great because then the topic of the conversation is whatever the artist wants, different than the master teacher approach, where someone presents an original piece, original performance, not necessarily original, but any kind of musical performance. And the master teacher is the power person that says, here's what needs to be different. So that Liz Lerman critical response process has provided a really positive way to give feedback.


Shorner-Johnson:    38:03          I asked Dr. Cohen about ritual because her work seems to embody intention through opening and closing rituals.


Mary Cohen:         38:12          In the prison choir, um, we have a song, we always, we started a few quite a few years ago with that silent meditation. And I use, um, part of my yoga practice of the Kosha model where I invite them to relax their bodies. You know, maybe relax the tiny muscles around their face and their eyes. And their lips and release unnecessary tension in their neck and back, you know, just go through a series of relaxing the body and then I bring their awareness into their breath so that the first is the body that um, Ana Maya Kosha and then the Prana Maya Kosha, which is the breath noticing the breath. And the third is Mana Maya Kosha where I invite them to set an intention or many times all have some kind of an intention or a quote. Sometimes the quotes from the reflective writing that the members of the choir have done. Other times it's a lyric of a song they're doing or something that kind of sets a focus for this session.


Mary Cohen:         39:14          So then after that, that that's, I always do that silent meditation relaxation before the physical warmup and the vocal warmup. That's been the pattern. And then during rehearsal we always move spaces. So maybe once, maybe two times where we, what we usually do is start out in mixed formation and they're instructed to sit by someone they don't know at the beginning of the practice. Then after the warmup and maybe one or two songs, they'll move into their sections of soprano alto tenor bass. Okay. Um, and then usually at some point they move back into mixed formation. And then at the end of the rehearsal we make a big standing circle and that's where we do announcements. And if, um, we have time, especially at the beginning of the season, we'd go around the circle and people say their name and they're invited. If they want to say three words, it could be, you know, three words on their mind or three words of songs, I mean, any three words they want or they can just say their name. And then we always end, even summer song writing workshop. We end with a song called may you walk in beauty


Oakdale Chorus:     40:26          Singing "May you walk in beauty...."


Shorner-Johnson:    41:36          Is there anything that I haven't asked you that you would like to say about your, your work with the Oakdale community choir or other work you're doing?


Mary Cohen:         41:44          I think the biggest thing when we're talking about this topic is that it's so much more than providing music education for people in prison because the United States has many, many, many serious human rights issues in prisons. Really big ones like youth that have been incarcerated with adults. The lack of music education for youth who are in, who are court involved. And that's in itself is a huge tragedy in our field. And I think we as music educators should be looking in our own communities. What are, what kind of music education do youth have, who are court involved and what can we do? What should we be doing different? Should we be providing funding through the local public school district? Should there be more, um, some kind of an afterschool program or nonprofit organization or another way that music educators and you know, and what kind of music education would be most meaningful?


Mary Cohen:         42:43          Should we be doing more with families and um, music education. Um, I, you know, the whole, the, the topic that you asked me about with imagination, I think we need to really think really critically and deeply in our field in music education and say, you know, we've got a lot of tradition that's phenomenal AND what are the, the deep needs in our society now and how can music education support, fill, fulfill some of those needs? And I think we have as a field need to be using our collective imagination to, to think in, in really deep ways. Because there are so, the list is so long. Yeah. There's just so many things and that's, um, I, I don't mean to say to be negative about it, I just mean to say that, um, um, I hope that we are able to really make some smart choices and I want to compliment you on the upcoming master's program in peacebuilding and music education at Elizabethtown College because that's, that's a s a star example of what direction we need to be going in our field and looking in new ways. I've got to do a article this summer with an undergraduate student on creating a definition for circular practices and peacebuilding and music education. So I'm looking forward to digging into that topic a little more and I'm super looking forward to finishing the book. I've been writing about music, education and prisons


Shorner-Johnson:    44:14          In redemption songs. Andy Douglas reflects the beauty of this group I'm coming to understand is that it allows all of us, whatever our level of self-understanding, whatever issues we're struggling with, to listen to each other. Listening is an underrated art. When we offer our attention to someone else, dropping any preconceived notions, we might have our sense of having to be right or having to prove anything drops away. Life is fleeting and fragile. Our friends and loved ones will one day be gone. We're all struggling to find our way, but it braces me to see how exercising our vulnerability and courage in this way, walking through our little corner of the world, we can't help but learn from each other.


Shorner-Johnson:    45:16          We offer a blessing to you. Listeners, may we see each other with a mother's eyes, a love that refuses anything but the totality of our beauty. A love that peers light into darkness and turn sound into song. The doxology of connectedness, restoring, imagining, connecting, walking.. Together in beauty. Special thanks to Dr. Mary Cohen, the people in the Oakdale choir community, the staff and administrators at the Iowa medical and classification center, especially warden James McKinney for permission to use recordings in this podcast. We also recommend that if you are looking for a creative nonfiction book, redemption songs, a year in the life of a prison choir by Andy Douglas is a beautiful, heartfelt exploration of criminal justice, restorative justice, singing and spirituality

Speaker 9:          46:24          [inaudible]


Shorner-Johnson:    46:25          as we work to build our community. We welcome your help in reviewing us on iTunes and if you do post to review, please go to to have a thank you card, laptop sticker and classroom posters sent your way as our way of saying thank you for your support. This is the music and peacebuilding podcast at Elizabethtown College. We host a master of music education with an emphasis in peacebuilding and world music drumming, thinking deeply. We reclaimed space for connection and care. Join us at music

Speaker 10:         47:21          [inaudible].

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