lvera Voth recalls when one of the vocalists approached her after the East Hill Singers had just delivered a stellar concert performance.
The man confided to her, "Do you have any idea what it feels like to get a standing ovation when you've been told all your life you are absolutely nothing?"
"That put it all in perspective for me," says conductor Voth, who founded East Hill Singers a decade ago. "These men have had failure after failure. They don't know how to get from A to B. That's really not their fault. But I don't want to sound like a bleeding heart, because I'm not. I'm tough on these guys."
That tough attitude and dogged perseverance has helped Voth build East Hill Singers into an acclaimed musical force capable of handling complex choral arrangements.
The twist is that nearly half of her choir are inmates from the East Unit of the Lansing Correctional Facility - the minimum-security part nicknamed East Hill. Each year she recruits 18 to 20 of these men and combines them with 32 Lawrence, Kansas City and Topeka volunteers who perform as part of the Arts in Prison program.
Only the blue shirts distinguish the prisoners from the civilians in the choir.
"They learn to work within a community, which most of them have never done," Voth says. "They have to learn that if they miss a rehearsal they hurt everybody. If they hit a wrong note everyone sounds bad."
Verdi, Beethoven, traditional gospel, Russian folk songs and Broadway numbers are all part of the group's repertoire.
"It's done more for my self-confidence, self-esteem and self-worth than anything I have done before, short of getting off drugs and finding recovery from addiction," says inmate Michael Cobal. "That's probably been the number-one most meaningful thing for me. But being a member of the East Hill Singers runs a close second."
Among the most unconventional pieces the group performs has its origin in prison.
Convicted murderer Essex Sims - a maximum-security inmate at Lansing - recorded a solo rap called "I Wish I Never Hurt You."
"It has been referred to as 'redemption rap,'" says Bob Franz, a Lawrence resident who sings tenor with the group.
"It is expressing regret and sorrow for what happened in his life, and subsequently what happened in the victim's life and the victim's family's life."
During the East Hill Singers show, a CD of Sims' rap is played backed by a live percussionist. Then various members of the choir go to another area of the church and sing a Gregorian chant in Latin.
"Man has been looking for redemption throughout the centuries, and we combine the latest form of musical expression with the very earliest form," Voth explains. "Then at the end, as he repeats 'I wish I never hurt you,' our last line is 'Dona nobis pacem' - 'Grant us peace.'"
Although the incarcerated Sims is unable to witness the song performed live, Voth did meet with him at Lansing to discuss how the concept would come together.
She remembers, "I knew he would never in his life know what Gregorian chant was, so I took him a CD and said, 'I want you to listen to this.' He listened to it intently with his head kind of down. When it was finished he said, 'Now that's pure.'"
Not free from controversy
Not everyone agrees that the union is so pure, however.
During a Jan. 8 appearance at the Blessed Sacrament Church in Kansas City, Kan., the East Hill Singers had to endure a protest by around 50 members of the Rev. Philip Wolfe's congregation. The K.C. chaplain was reportedly incensed that rap music was going to be performed in a Catholic church.
"Of course all four (K.C.) TV stations were there in no time," says Voth, whose group had never been objected to before. "Then all the police came, and the whole thing got way too much coverage."
Voth had printed the words of the song in the concert program. She tried to give it to the protesters and also invited them in to hear the rendition. They elected to stay out.
"One of the things I regret terribly is that the Lansing men took it personally and thought that people were protesting them. That's not true at all," she says.
"I was not only surprised (by the protest) but very disappointed," says the Rev. Ray Fancher, interim senior pastor of Lawrence's First Presbyterian Church.
"The notion that rap music ought not to be in the sanctuary, that's such a very limited view that somehow God speaks only through certain medium. It also says that there is something by its very nature that is sacred about the wood and stone that comprise our sanctuaries. For folks to not even be open to what is being said or experienced - and out of which that kind of experience comes - is really sad."
Fancher doesn't anticipate any similar demonstrations when the East Hill Singers appear at his church on Sunday.
"We have talked about this both in the church and in our decision-making body," he says. "I guess it's always possible, but I'm certainly not expecting any kind of protest."
Most of the inmate members of the East Hill Singers previously had little to no formal music training. Voth admits some have trouble matching pitch at first.
"I'm becoming (a better singer)," says inmate Cobal, who is serving a sentence for aggravated robbery. "The volunteers that practice with me tell me I'm doing fairly well. My family and friends that have come to hear me sing say that I'm OK.
"I actually had trouble watching my parents from the audience because they were getting teary-eyed. To keep myself from getting choked up in the middle of the song I had to refocus."
The Lawrence show will feature 13 songs. Between each of the selections a different inmate narrator will talk about the piece of music or some aspect of their life at Lansing.
"My whole approach to the project is I want the men's minds to be active," Voth says. "Most of the men who are there never in this life dreamt they'd sing in Russian or Italian. It proves they can do what anybody else can do."