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Jan. 18 , 2006
Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

KU Ph.D. student studies impact of music education on performing prison inmates

LAWRENCE — A men’s chorus combining voices of minimum-security inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility and volunteer singers from the Kansas City area is breaking ground in music education, according to Mary L. Cohen, University of Kansas doctoral student in music education from Lenexa, who is researching prison choirs.

Directed by its founder, Elvera Voth, the East Hills Singers will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22, at First Presbyterian Church, 2415 Clinton Parkway.

In addition to her research and working as a graduate teaching assistant at KU, Cohen is coordinator of special projects with Arts in Prison, the expanded program that includes the choir and other arts education programs primarily offered at correctional facilities in Lansing and Osawatomie. Cohen recruits, trains and supports volunteer artists and instructors who teach in the program. She has also directed a choir of 12 inmates in an Osawatomie facility, also administered by the Lansing warden.

“We hope the Lawrence concert will prompt university faculty and staff interested in the education of incarcerated people,” Cohen said. The Arts in Prison program began with proceeds from a 1998 benefit sing-a-long led by the late nationally recognized choral director Robert Shaw at Bethel College in Newton. Cohen notes that Shaw had worked with Voth and offered to help when he learned of her work in prisons. Not only did the event raise more than $25,000 to fund the Arts in Prison, but it also attracted Bethel faculty as volunteers in arts education programs for the incarcerated.

When Cohen took leave in 2003 as an elementary music teacher from the Blue Valley School District to work on a doctorate, she considered researching Voth’s award-winning work with inmates. Her KU faculty adviser, James Daugherty, encouraged Cohen to do so partly because Voth’s work has influenced to other facilities in Kansas but largely because little research has been done on music education in prison populations.

“(Mary’s) research is expanding our views of music education beyond schooling and ‘art for art's sake’ contexts,” Daugherty said.

Cohen has spent about two and a half years examining some of the therapeutic concepts that Voth senses from a lifetime in music education as well as more than 10 years directing inmate choirs. Voth, a Walton native who has taught in Newton and other Kansas communities as well as in Alaska, told a Kansas City Kansan reporter: “With music, we are trying to make better neighbors of these folks (inmates), some of whom will eventually get out.”

Voth often tells reporters of one inmate’s astonishment when the choir received a standing ovation. Voth thinks the experience of learning to sing, following the discipline of rehearsals and learning to perform in harmony teaches many inmates to work in a community, an experience they may not have had.

Cohen notes that most of the inmates not only learn to sing and to read music, but they also learn to sing in classical music pieces often in other languages.

The Lawrence concert “How Can I Keep From Singing” will be an eclectic mix of works by Beethoven, Strauss, Schubert, Verdi’s “Va Pensiero” (a paraphrase of Psalm 137), “Down to the River to Pray” and “Rap of Redemption: I Wish I Never Hurt You,” a unique and powerful blend of an inmate’s rap lyrics with Gregorian chants.

In one of her research projects, Cohen interviewed and surveyed inmates and volunteers in the Lansing choir. Her survey indicates “inmates tend to view performing in the choir as learning something about themselves — developing musical and social skills, and expanding their musical tastes — while volunteers reported that they have learned to view inmates as individuals.”

Cohen says she thinks there is so much to learn about music education in prisons that she is convinced her research will continue after she completes a doctorate possibly this year or next. Although she has not yet selected a specific dissertation topic, Cohen says it will focus on some aspect of music education in prisons.

Cohen earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from KU’s Department of Music and Dance in the School of Fine Arts. She and her husband, Matt Cohen, also a graduate student at KU in film studies, live in Lenexa. She is the daughter of Paul and Louise Shinogle of Wichita.

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