With two parents who are conductors, it seems like Amanda Weber ’08 was predestined to take up the baton, but that’s not the way she sees it. “My whole life I wanted to do something different from my parents,” she explains. So she double-majored in visual art and music at Luther, but when it came time to make plans for after graduation, she was stumped. She looked to Craig Arnold, then director of Nordic Choir, for guidance. He said, “Amanda, I think you’re really going to love grad school, but I think you’re going to love it a lot more if you know why you’re there.” That sage piece of advice sent her on a course that’s shaped the way she sees herself, her community, and the power of music.
Conducting becomes urgent
After graduation, Weber spent a year with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Washington, D.C., where she was assigned to Luther Place Church, a church that founded a women’s homeless shelter called N Street Village. “That opened up my world to social justice and things I hadn’t really thought about beyond myself and preparing to be an artist,” she says. When her boss suggested she get to know the women at the shelter a little better, she decided to start a choir. She directed Bethany’s Women of Praise for three years.
“It was so instructive for me as I started trying to figure out: What are my gifts and how can I use them in the world?” she says. “I became aware that choir could be used in a really powerful way, and my work as a musician suddenly felt urgent. That completely changed everything I thought about music and where I saw my future heading.”
When Weber left for Connecticut to pursue a master’s degree in conducting at Yale, she figured she’d never encounter something as special as the N Street choir: “It felt like there was so much serendipity involved in the creation of that choir. I thought, Surely I’ll never have an opportunity like that again.” But it turns out that Weber wouldn’t choose her vocation as much as it would choose her.
A second call to conduct
Toward the end of her program at Yale, Weber did a research project with a partner who was interested in the incarceration system. They wrote a paper on music in prisons throughout the country. A few years later, after Weber was accepted into the doctor of musical arts program at the University of Minnesota, her new department head heard about her research, as well as her work at N Street, and asked whether she’d be interested in starting a choir at the women’s prison in Shakopee. She said yes.
“We teach people to pursue a career,” she says, “but sometimes it’s more important to open yourself up to listening to the needs of your community and figuring out: How am I being called to be a part of this?”
The call, in Weber’s case, was loud and clear. Between 1980 and 2014, Weber says, the number of women in prison increased over 700 percent, outpacing the rate of incarcerated men by 50 percent. Weber also notes that the path to incarceration for women often involves trauma, with more than 60 percent of women having experienced some kind of abuse before landing in prison. Seventeen percent were in and out of the foster care system as children. One in three saw their parents abuse drugs or alcohol, and a large majority struggle with mental illness. The challenges these women face are immense, and singing in choir directly address so many of them. One Voices of Hope choir member exclaimed, “It feels so good to be recognized for something positive around here!”
Choir as restorative justice
Weber says that the women in her choir, who perform at the prison for their peers and occasional guests, view their participation as a way to give back to their community. This concept, restorative justice, approaches crime with a focus on healing—for the victim, for the one who committed the crime, and for the entire community. Weber points out that singing in a choir helps inmates build upon their communication, awareness, and leadership skills, and it also builds their self-esteem.
“People have all these negative stereotypes of marginalized populations,” Weber says. “I found the same things working with homeless women. These people are often put into situations where they’re forced to think about themselves, about what they’ve done or haven’t done or what they need to do, so they end up spending tons of time reflecting on how they can become the best version of themselves in a way that you and I don’t. I’ve found the women I work with to be incredibly thoughtful and much more self-aware than your average person.”
Many of Weber’s 59 choir members hope to continue singing after their release, which is something that Weber is trying to facilitate. “It’s a lot harder than it sounds,” she says. “It’s hard for me to be on the inside with these women and realize how lovely they are. But then asking someone on the outside, can this person join your choir? People are just scared. There’s this culture of fear built up around prisons.” Weber notes that a lot of people released from prison end up returning, and she sees choir as an immediate support network, saying, “I’m hopeful that choir could make some really big changes.”
Last fall, Amanda Weber ’08 gave a TEDxMinneapolis talk on her work with the Voices of Hope. “The TEDx organizers said to me, ‘No pressure, but we expect this to be the best talk you’ve ever given,’” she says. In the months leading up to the event, she gave the speech and received feedback from her prep team three or four times. Watch it at lczine.com/AmandaWeber.