It’s Monday evening after dinner and Nancy Klingman is getting her choir students together. This night there’s one unusual problem: about half the choir is missing. Why? Because Klingman is teaching choir at Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, and in preparation for the closure of the prison, inmates are already being transferred to other facilities.
“We’re just going to have to make up for them,” Klingman said to the four remaining women. And then the group started warming up their voices with breathing exercises and loud “woos” and “zoos” followed by some stretches.
Then Klingman sits down at the little Yamaha keyboard, and as the sun sets over the fences the choir begins with “Amazing Grace.” For a moment the visitors room, where practice is held once a week, feels more like an ordinary classroom than like a prison.
“I have never taught in a prison environment before,” said Klingman, a voice teacher at Holy Names Music Center. “But singing is good for you. It releases endorphins and, you know, the people here can’t leave, but just for a moment it is like singing takes them out of here.”
Faculty at Holy Names Music Center are encouraged to participate in programs like this one – in high-need or unusual settings – because the center’s philosophy is to spread the benefits of music instruction and performance to people who may otherwise not have access to it.
“I sang as a child, and I sing to myself and to the Lord,” said Christine Jones, who’s serving time at Pine Lodge. “I heard about the choir and decided to give it a try. It feels good. After I sing, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. That feeling lasts for a bit.”
Klingman said some of her choir students have grown a lot during the short time she’s spent with them.
Kate Little is one of them.
“I was very much not a singer,” said Little, smiling shyly. “But being in the choir has helped me gain self-esteem. And the self-esteem issues I had were part of the reason for the self-defeating behavior that landed me here at Pine Lodge in the first place.”
Little added she may continue singing when she gets out.
“I’m church-involved, and I’m excited about being in this choir,” Little said. “It is something I look forward to.”
As the women work their way through a repertoire of Elvis Presley, Righteous Brothers and hymns, their posture changes: their shoulders relax, they stand more erect and their toes wriggle as they begin to sway back and forth to the music.
“We’ve done this since early January and they have improved a lot,” said Klingman. “I feel like if we’d had six months together, or maybe a bit more, we really could have built a choir.”
No matter how many women are left by May 1, Klingman and her group are determined to go ahead with their planned Mother’s Day concert at the prison.
“We are really trying to do something good for the institution,” said Michelle Garza, who’s also in the choir. “No matter what happens to Pine Lodge we are still performing, we are still going out with a bang.”