Three years ago, the vocal program at the women’s state prison at Shakopee was basically four women and a karaoke machine.
Jim Verhoye, the facility’s education director, wasn’t satisfied, and went to the University of Minnesota on a hunt for help.
That search led him to Amanda Weber, and she’s been at the helm of the Voices of Hope choir ever since.
The daughter and granddaughter of Lutheran ministers, Weber grew up in North Carolina and earned her bachelor’s degree in music and art at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa — “I’ve led the most Lutheran life, ever,” she said with a laugh — and a master’s in choral conducting at Yale University’s Institute of Sacred Music. In May, she completed her doctorate in conducting at the U.
But on Sunday afternoons for the past three years, Weber has conducted 90-minute rehearsals at the state’s women’s prison, where nearly 650 women are incarcerated in a facility that looks like it could pass for a community college set in a quiet residential neighborhood. Except for the large black iron fence that surrounds the property.
When people learn about Weber’s role with Voices of Hope, the whole aren’t-you-afraid question inevitably arises.
“And that’s such a joke, because I couldn’t be working with nicer people,” she said. “They’re so eager to learn and to make music, and they’re so grateful that you’re giving your time. They’re far more rewarding than any college choir.”
A new choir program begins every 12 weeks, and the most recent edition garnered 45 singers. Each three-month term concludes with a popular hourlong concert, staged in the prison’s gymnasium.
June’s performance featured the world premiere of a song cycle, with text written by members of the choir set to music by St. Paul composer Linda Kachelmeier. The Voices of Hope is the only choir in the state’s correctional system.
“It’s a great enrichment program,” said Verhoye. “The more that the prison looks like the outside community, the better prepared the women will be to transition into the community.”
Weber’s first brush with prison choirs occurred as part of a Yale research project. A second key moment in her path as a restorative justice-conscious musician was when she conducted a homeless women’s choir. Weber just signed on as interim director of choral ministries at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, and plans to remain with the Voices of Hope.
Prison choir logistics are no picnic. One performance was postponed because of a 10-day lockdown. Financial pressures are ever-present. Expenses range from buying sheet music to paying an accompanist and supplementing Weber’s occasional modest stipend. For a summer program, Weber is seeking donations via givemn.org.
Putting aside the joy of making music, Weber’s long-term goal is to launch a post-incarceration program for women.
“Which is so funny to even say, because I’m not prepared for that, at all,” she said. “But I’ve learned that being a choral musician is not something that you do in isolation. The more I get into this work, the more I feel that I’m actually more of a social worker. The dreams of connecting these women with the community has grown out of our making music together.”
That’s one reason why, over the past three years, Weber has invited more than 200 outsiders — students from the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College, members of church choirs and professional vocal ensembles — to travel to Shakopee and sing with the Voices of Hope.
“I really encourage everyone to find a way to visit a prison,” she said. “Just go, even once. Every week I drive down thinking, ‘Why am I doing this?’ and on the drive home, I’m exhausted, but it’s, ‘How did I think for even five seconds that I didn’t want to do that?’ ”