September 15, 2013
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #295: Hallelujah!
This week the prison held another graduation ceremony for those who have completed their GED, and several guys who had been in the pre-GED class with me in May finally were graduating. Some have been in the GED class for several years, which makes me grateful all over again for my own education!
The La Palma Community Choir was expected to perform (for those of you keeping track: my fourteenth graduation in prison), though I could only select four inmates to attend along with our ever-faithful volunteer, Sister Peggy.
It is never a pleasant task to ask some guys to stay behind when they’ve attended every practice preparing to perform for the graduates and prison staff. Besides the fun of performing for a group of 100+ people, the graduations are really a privilege for the guys. Not only does it provide an opportunity to do something a bit different from the daily routine, but the guys also look forward to the special food the graduates get for lunch. (I’m working with the staff to allow me to bring the whole choir in the future.) Subway sandwiches and cake is all it takes to get my choir guys motivated to practice. (Me too.)
I’d been looking forward to this performance in particular because we’ve been preparing “The Hallelujah Chorus” for a few months now. The Universalist Unitarian group we sang it for loved it, so I felt confident in our skills and ability to sing the difficult piece, but this event would not be the same as a church service, and the audience would not be the same as those in the U/U service. I knew we faced a challenge, and that made me nervous.
First off, though most of the top brass at the prison attend the ceremony, and many including the warden speak, I’m always interfacing with Dr. DelSordi, principal over our compound. He has heard me play piano, sing solos, perform original songs, choir numbers, and even perform special request pieces. Yet every graduation it seems he wonders whether or not I’m capable of bringing something awesome. (I am.)
His limited knowledge or understanding of music is also troubling. He didn’t know “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was a patriotic song, and this time I told him we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he requested the national anthem “instead.” Umm, sure. That sounds like a great idea.
The other issue is the musical ignorance of the crowd. Not too many inmates are classical music fans, and even the staff—who live in rural Arizona—aren’t your typical symphony goers, so we faced a bit of a challenge.
I got permission to sing “The Hallelujah Chorus” once I’d convinced Dr. DelSordi that it was a timeless classic, unlike his skinny jeans. Then, when I introduced the song, I gave a brief overview of its history as I used to do at concerts with my brothers years ago. I let them know that it is musical tradition to stand whenever the “Hallelujah Chorus” is played or sung, and I asked the graduated and staff to please stand with us as we sang, I didn’t care whether or not they stood, and whether or not they were standing for tradition’s sake or to honor the Messiah spoken of in the song. I was just glad to present the relevant message that He is “King of kings and Lord of lords,” something worth standing for.