December 21, 2014
Sunday, 8:00 p.m.
Letter #362: Concerts on the Yard
For several weeks now, the Community Choir has been preparing to sing for the yard concerts. Sister Peggy and I picked out Christmas music to perform, aware that we’d be the only group doing so. The other groups had prepared original music in specific genres: one group is R&B, another does rap, one does hard rock, and the other does punk. I was fairly certain we weren’t going to hear any “Christmas Wrap” though the variety would prove to be interesting at best.
From my first day working for Unit Manager Lohman, I’ve been preparing for the concert, collecting sign-up sheets, creating passes, and distributing the handwritten passes to those who signed up. We anticipated a strong interest in the concerts, mostly because no one had anything better to do: no vacation with family; no boating trip planned; just that daily game of dominoes they’d have to postpone.
More than three out of every 10 inmates signed up in each pod, resulting in around 650 inmates who signed up to attend one of the two concerts. Most had no idea who would be performing or even what type of music would be presented.
I knew from the outset that I had a tough assignment ahead of me. I knew the choir was going to stick out like a sore thumb at the concerts, since our typical music is so vastly different from the other groups’ music.
To help give some variety to our songs, I worked with a drummer to add orchestral-style percussion to the slower songs (“Silent Night;” “Where are You, Christmas?”), while I kicked “Angels We Have Heard On High” into a fun rhythm. We also did the newer “Mary, Did You Know?” and a couple of fun songs, “Feliz Navidad” and “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime.” We had just a couple of practice sessions with the full equipment set-up, since all the other groups use the equipment full-time, but we felt prepared enough to do a great job.
The day of our first performance dawned with a cloudy sky and all the forecasts pointing to rain in our neighborhood. The fact that we don’t live in a neighborhood doesn’t seem to faze the forecasters. Or the rain. We had planned and prepared, with all the right permissions granted for this specific date at this specific time, so there was no turning back. Rain or shine, it was show time.
The best place for concerts at every prison is on the prison yard. Most prisons in California have large grassy fields where everyone can sit while even outside groups can perform. No grass out here in Arizona, and our “prison yards” are more like an expanded dog run with a basketball court inside each one. Each compound has three of these concrete yards, one per housing unit, so we would be performing in the center yard with one building’s inmates, while the other units’ inmates would flank us on the left and right. I’ve performed in my share of awkward venues, but this one is pretty high on my list of Most Awkward, with caged men surrounding us.
We set up the sound equipment, including microphones, electric guitars, electronic drums, and keyboard under the awning that covers a small portion of each yard. Normally a shelter from the Arizona sun, we hoped to outlast the rain under its protective shell. (Spoiler Alert: We didn’t.)
By the time everyone arrived after lunch delays, last-minute staff concerns, and unscheduled individual pat-downs, we were pressed for time. Each group would need to cut their 25-minute song set down to 18 minutes each: I cut middle verses from a few of our songs and scrapped two entire songs, bringing us down to about 15 minutes as I scrambled to make sure the choir adjusted their music to reflect the last-minute changes.
The first day’s concert kicked off with our choir leading, as planned. After just three songs, we were given the “cut” sign, and our set was over. I’d timed us at 11 minutes, then watched as every other group got far more time than us. However, I was just glad to be given any time to perform.
The rain forced a second day run for half of the groups, then we trekked over to Compound Two for the final concert and another 300 inmates. I voluntarily cut the choir down to just two songs, realizing that some of the other “Music Tutors” who helped plan for and prepare for the concert aren’t big fans of the choir. They botched our sound check, and one guy in particular was in a foul mood, so I just steered clear of him. Since I’d lived on this compound for three and a half years, I had a whole cheering section behind me as I played, and everyone seemed to really enjoy what we did.
After our set, I met with a few old friends of mine, an electric guitarist and a drummer who played for me when I led worship at Soledad Prison in California. Both agreed to join the choir as accompanists in the future, which should help us bring our musicianship up a bit.
We got lots of nice compliments from inmates and staff alike, especially since not many had ever heard the choir perform before. However, one of the greatest indicators of how much we were appreciated wasn’t even at our prison. As we performed on Compound One, we could see in the distance, across a neighboring field, Red Rock Prison, and something we’d never seen before; hundreds of orange jump-suited bodies, pressed up to the fence, straining to hear the sounds of live music, and loving it. I’d like to think we helped make their Christmas and the hundreds of others at our prison, just a little bit brighter.