The East Hill Singers, Handel's "Messiah" and the Case for Arts Advocacy in Prison

By Heather Paisar.

Published by The International Journal of Social, Political and Community Agendas in the Arts

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The East Hill Singers, a chorus comprised of inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility in Lansing, Kansas and community volunteers from the greater Kansas City area, was organized by Elvera Voth in 1995. Now a part of the non-profit Arts in Prison (AIP) initiative which offers programming in music, writing, gardening, and visual and performing arts, the chorus has grown from 20 at its inception to almost 70 inmate participants of various musical abilities. The group rehearses two times a week and performs two concerts a year. They are known for their performances of a variety of musical styles, from sacred to gospel, spirituals, and even the occasional rap. In November 2011, the choir presented two performances of Handel’s “Messiah,” a project in size and scope unlike any previously attempted by the organization. The inmates—dressed in blue shirts to distinguish them from the volunteers—sang select movements and a narrator spoke to the 700 member crowds about the piece’s history. The tremendous success of these performances, the enthusiasm and devotion of the inmates, and the choir’s dedicated following of concertgoers advocates the development of prison choirs to help bring to light undeveloped talents in the prison populace and emphasize the need for programming to utilize these gifts as an empowering tool for rehabilitation. At a time when incarceration rates in the United States are the highest in the world and various approaches to inmate reform and rehabilitation are under constant debate, the development of such program fosters the belief that meaningful experiences in the arts can help inmates change their thinking and behavior patterns.

Keywords: Prison, Incarceration, Rehabilitation, Music, Advocacy, Music, Choir, Arts

The International Journal of Social, Political and Community Agendas in the Arts, Volume 7, Issue 2, pp.101-106. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 203.352KB).

Heather Paisar

Doctoral Student, Accompanist for the East Hill Singers, Musicology, Organ Performance, University of Kansas; Arts in Prison and the East Hill Singers, Lawrence, Kansas, USA

Heather Paisar received her Bachelor of Music in Church Music from Valparaiso University, Indiana, where she studied organ with Lorraine Brugh, and harpsichord, piano and chamber music with Joseph Bognar. She received her Master of Sacred Music in Organ from Emory University, Atlanta, under the tutelage of Timothy Albrecht. She is currently pursuing her DMA in organ performance at the University of Kansas, where she studies with Michael Bauer and James Higdon. She is concurrently pursuing her PhD in musicology and is working on her dissertation on organ music of the Spanish baroque. She has worked as a graduate teaching assistant and participated in various KU music groups. She has acted as one of the accompanists for the East Hill Singers for the last two years, and was the accompanist for their performances of Robert Ray's "Gospel Mass" and Handel's "Messiah". She currently serves as the organist at Colonial Congregational United Church of Christ in Prairie Village, Kansas.