Founded in 1995, the chorus has grown in size and prominence to include up to 50 inmate singers. The unique aspect of the chorus is the addition of volunteer singers from the surrounding community who are also chorus members. Normally, the chorus is comprised of about 50% inmates and 50% volunteers.
Typically, the chorus comes outside the prison walls to present 4 public performances per year. Performances are held in various locations in the state of Kansas, most often churches. The chorus performs frequently in the Kansas City area, and has traveled to a number of cities such as Atchison, Topeka, Wichita, and Lawrence. Kansas City area performances have been held in Overland Park, Prairie Village, Leawood, and Kansas City, KS.
Inmate singers are housed in East Unit, the minimum-security unit of the state prison at Lansing, KS. Some may have had musical experience in the past, but most have never sung before. Rehearsals begin months before each scheduled performance. The inmates learn vocal technique and a wide variety of choral literature, but they learn much more than that.
They gain important skills in collaboration — being respectful of others’ abilities and efforts, accepting responsibility to the group and making and honoring commitments to the group’s goal. The volunteer singers serve as informal role models and mentors. The appreciation of the audience for a job well done is an experience most of the singers have never before had. It makes a life-long memory of a successful effort – working toward a goal of creating excellence and beauty, and being honored for that.
The experience of singing in the chorus has an impact in individual inmates far beyond gaining the ability to match pitches and follow a conductor. When asked what the East Hill Singers meant to him, one inmate replied, “Hope. Hope that I can do something good when I get out. Hope that I can be accepted back into society.”
And another said, “Caring. I know that the volunteer singers give of their time to come and sing with us, and they do it without expecting anything in return. Someday I want to give back.”