Those who walked through one Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) hallway on a recent Thursday night likely heard a cacophony of angelic voices singing classics ranging from "Hallelujah," "Jingle Bell Rock" and "I Am Light."
Inside a small room nearby, a group of singers smiled, cheered on soloists, slapped high-fives and relished the catharsis.
"It's a release," said Danielle Hevener, a CCCF adult in custody (AIC). "We live in a dorm, and we try to keep things quiet. It's nice to be able to belt out anything."
The CCCF choir met once a week for the past 12 weeks, practicing about 10 songs in preparation for a concert with members of the Oregon Symphony, which took place Tuesday, Dec. 10. The women honed their voices with the help of volunteer choir director Sarah Allan.
"These are some of my best students," said Allan, who has led other student and community choirs. "They're grateful, motivated and are willing to take risks and have the deep experience of experiencing joy and acknowledging pain."
The concert marked the third straight year that the Oregon Symphony has collaborated with the choir, which is for AICs who signed up to join and who meet certain behavioral standards. The 16 women in the choir are split up into groups based on voice octave, like soprano and alto, and some are given solo parts. The concert was open to both fellow AICs and visitors, and an Oregon Symphony string quartet was there to
accentuate the womens' voices.
"What I learned was how their instruments make the music different," said Hevener, who also participated in the concert in 2018. "It makes it more powerful and it comes alive."
Hevener sang in a high school choir and forgot about her love for singing until joining the prison choir a couple years ago.
"Hallelujah" is her favorite tune on the song list — in part because it reminds her of her children (the song is used in the movie "Shrek"). In the choir, Hevener views herself as a motherlike figure. When they feel trepidation before concerts, Hevener reminds them that singing in a concert likely isn't the scariest thing they've ever experienced.
"When they realize that, they go 'Oh, I can do this,'" Hevener said.
Self-expression has been a common theme throughout Hevener's time in custody. Along with the choir, she is also in a theater group and recently wrote a play based on her childhood. It was then performed at the prison.
"This (these activities) allows you to be your own person instead of someone else's portrayal of you," Hevener said.
Patricia Kluss, a fellow choir participant, has had a trying time in prison. With substance abuse a chronic problem in her life prior to being incarcerated six months ago, she is coping with withdrawal. And Kluss said that a fellow AIC attacked her, leading to one of her eyes being temporarily swollen shut.
Despite the adversity, Kluss is beginning to make the most of her prison experience, recently joining the choir and starting an art therapy program in her dorm.
"It changes who you are," Kluss said of being incarcerated. "I was an angry person who was always trying to fight everyone."
Kluss has enjoyed bonding with her fellow choir members and being able to sing, which she has loved to do her whole life.
"It makes me feel alive," Kluss said.
Choir member Melissa Bigelow says prison life can be chaotic. But she finds beauty in finding harmony literally and metaphorically with the group.
"When we come here we are unified," she said. "I like when our sound comes together as one."
Bigelow, who garnered one of the choice solo parts in the concert, has been singing since she was 2 years old and plans to join a choir when she is released.
A few minutes after performing the song, she said the message of "I Am Light" resonates with her.
"It's the message that we're not the crime that put us in here," Bigelow said. "We're people who made a mis-
take and that shouldn't define us."
Allan selects the song list, choosing pieces that are easy to master in a short period of time and might resonate with the women.
"I try to focus on themes like light, hope and love," she said.
And Bigelow said Allan is adept at helping the group improve and coalesce for the performance.
"She commands us, and we respect that," she said.
Allan is proud of the fact that the AICs view the choir as a place where they feel safe and comfortable. And though getting the choir ready for concerts can be challenging at times, she said rehearsals are the highlight of her week.
"It's the most meaningful music-making in my life," Allan said.
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