To Make Sure Voices Go Through Walls

Amanda Weber has brought her love of music and outreach to a choir that offers hope to prisoners

At various points along her path, Amanda Weber has found ways to integrate social justice and goodwill into her work. Her latest effort has her behind the walls of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, leading a group of inmates in a spirited prison choir, and bringing U of M student choir members there to comingle talents.

When Weber, a doctoral student in conducting, came to Minnesota she was introduced to Jim Verhoye, the education director at Shakopee and a U of M alum. Verhoye knew the power of music, having had a son in choir, and was looking for someone to work with a small group of inmates. Weber, coincidentally, had done research on prison choirs around the country as part of her master’s program. Kismet. 

Amanda Weber Amanda Weber, Doctoral student, conducting

School of Music

She began weekly sessions with the new Voices of Hope choir in October. “Choir intrinsically has so much value in terms of building community and rehabilitating people,” Weber says. “You have to listen to other people. You have to evaluate yourself. … You’re going to make mistakes that other people will hear. And it’s not about the mistakes, but how do you recover from them?”

A small community engagement grant through the School of Music allowed her to bring students from her Campus Singers Maroon choir to visit the prison. As part of a final project in December, 15 students traveled to Shakopee, sat in a circle—with inmates in every other seat—and discovered a new community ground in music.

“There was just the most incredible energy in that room for two hours. After every single song, everyone would clap and cheer for themselves,” Weber says

“Music is such a powerful way to communicate with others. It breaks down all barriers that we have between each other.”

Weber’s students have written reflections on the experience, as have the Voices of Hope singers. “The best part about performing for them is that we were singing and dancing together,” says one student. “The worst part … maybe it should be the most regretful part, is that we could not give a hug to each other.”

The words of an inmate are even more poignant: “What took place for me personally in that two-hour period was nothing short of miraculous, for I was reunited with the girl I had lost somewhere along the broken road that brought me here. The girl who sings in the shower, the one who lets music crawl into her heart sending shivers up and down her spine, the girl who allows music and voice to fill the vast emptiness inside of her with hope.”

All that was on display again for Weber, her students, and a few selected guests at a special Shakopee graduation ceremony in January: the music crawling into hearts, the shivers up and down spines… and the hope.