Fine & Performing Arts, University News
CSP’s adjunct professor of choral literature, Dr. Amanda Weber, was recently awarded the Julius Herford Dissertation Prize by the American Choral Director’s Association. Her 2018 dissertation, “Choral Singing and Communal Mindset: A Program Evaluation of the Voices of Hope Women’s Prison Choir,” examines the experiences of incarcerated singers and their impact on the outside community.
Weber grew up in a very musical family with professional musicians for parents, though it took her some time to discover that she wanted to follow the same career path that they had. “It was, in fact, in founding and directing a choir for homeless and low-income women in Washington, DC that I had an “aha!” moment, where I truly realized the power of music and the value in bringing together diverse communities to sing,” Weber explained. Weber holds a Bachelor’s degree in music and art from Luther College, a Master’s degree in Choral Conducting from Yale University, and a Doctorate in Conducting from the University of Minnesota.
During her time as a conductor, Weber has worked with college-aged choirs, church choirs, a choir for homeless women, and even a high school choir. She’s well aware of the positive influence that choirs can have on people, so when the former education director at the Minnesota Corrections Facility reached out to her with the idea of starting a women’s prison choir, she was quite interested.
“While it wasn’t my idea to start it, I had just done a culminating research project on prison choirs in my Master’s degree and knew that prisons were a critical space for music-making in terms of individual healing and building a communal mindset – two things that contribute to an individual’s success upon re-entry.”
Weber has now been leading this choir, Voices of Hope, for over four years, and it isn’t too different from the other choirs she’s directed: “We do warmups, learn various repertoire, and perform like any other choir. The benefits of singing that people experience are equally experienced by the incarcerated women.” Unlike most of the other choirs, Weber doesn’t feel as though she has to coax the sound from these women as choir is one of their only moments to feel free.
“This choir is unlike any other because of the challenges of incarceration, the trauma these women experienced before coming to prison (and the retraumatization of the prison experience itself), and the challenges working within the criminal justice system, which is not always so accommodating. These women are literally singing for their lives. There’s more urgency to the work we are doing. Weekly rehearsals carry the singers from one week to the next, giving them something to look forward to and a way to give back.”
When it came time for Weber to write her dissertation, she was hesitant to write about Voices of Hope as it felt like taking the easy way out. However, her teachers kept encouraging her to do so, and it couldn’t have turned out better. Weber was shocked and thrilled when she found out that she had won the Julius Herford Award for her dissertation. “Winning this award affirmed my work, but more exciting to me, I felt that it was a sign of a shifting focus in my field. I hope many more people will write dissertations that don’t just examine a piece of choral music but look at this field through varying lenses – social, advocacy, justice, racial, gender, etc.,” she stated.
Weber is currently the Minister of Music and the Arts at Westminster Presbyterian Church. She also plans to continue her work with Voices of Hope; her main goal “is that their voices – though confined within the walls of a building in Shakopee – can educate the wider community, transforming perspectives of incarceration and leading to larger reforms within the criminal justice system.”
If you’d like to keep up with Voices of Hope or learn about possible involvement, email [email protected], you can also watch Dr. Weber’s TEDx talk “Voices of Hope from within Prison Walls,” or contribute financially to Voices of Hope at their GiveMN page.