She always loved to sing, but would only mumble the words in public. Too many people, including her mother, told her she had a terrible voice. Ironically, it is while being incarcerated at the Edmonton Institution for Women that Rochelle Lalonde finally found someone to get her in tune. She was a member of the New Beginnings choir, under the direction of Eva Bostrand.
“Now I’m doing solos in front of a camera,” laughs the inmate, referring to our Global News camera at the choir’s fall concert. “That’s the miracle (Eva) works. She shows you that you really can do it.”
Bostrand is an exceptional voice coach and choir leader, according to her many students. She recognizes how, in the prison environment in particular, it takes a lot of courage for people like Rochelle to participate in an activity considered “un-cool,” exposing themselves to potential ridicule by performing in front of fellow inmates. But these choir members say Bostrand has helped them to overcome their fears and given them a sense of belonging and respect as individuals, regardless of their pasts.
Bostrand also believes it teaches them rules. As the conductor, she is also the dictator. The inmates learn trust in their fellow choir members. It builds self-esteem and is therapeutic.
“Research shows that people who are involved in choirs are healthier. They live longer and they have fewer depressions,” says Eva. “One of the hormones we generate when we sing is oxytocin, which we usually associated with nursing babies and child bearing. It’s a hormone that makes it possible for us to bond. So when you sing, you bond with the people you sing with.”
Bostrand began her own singing career as a teenager in Stockholm. Her potential as a gifted soprano was recognized at an early age, but she was shy. It was choir and several great coaches and mentors who brought her out of her shell.
“It was through choir that I made all my friends and found all my boyfriends,” her eyes light up. “I also did all my traveling through choir. And, every year, we became better at what we did and many of us continued with careers in music.”
She was a soloist and ensemble singer with the Swedish Radio Chamber Choir, touring and recording extensively before she was asked to come to Edmonton to join the Pro Coro Choir. Here, she performed as a soloist for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, but teaching was her passion.
“I was very interested in the music, but not so much putting myself forward delivering the music,” she says. “I found that what I like most about performing is to experience the music from the inside, to be IN the music at the moment when we make it. Not so much being the front person.”
Eva taught voice at Alberta College, Concordia University College and Camrose Lutheran College, then got her Masters in Teaching at the University of Alberta, where she continues to work as a sessional instructor. She bought a building on Edmonton’s south side and set up a studio for private lessons, renting space to other teachers as well. Then, driven by a belief that anyone can learn to sing, she hatched an idea she’d been thinking about for some time, based on a popular concept in Sweden — a choir for people who want to sing, but don’t believe they can. A Joyful Noise started with 35 singers. Within just a few years, word of mouth made the choir so popular, Eva created a second group of 80 people. Now that choir is full as well.
“Joyful Noise is about having a good time,” says Eva. “We’re making noises and we’re happy when we sing. And since we are sticking to the process, the noises we make become more and more beautiful all the time. So at concert time, the choir sounds very, very good!”
Among the Joyful singers will occasionally be a few inmates, under guard, from the women’s prison choir. These Temporary Escorted Absences are arranged by Eva as part of the healing process of the New Beginnings program.
“To come and be in the middle of a huge choir, to be at the front of a church or a performance space, being in the middle of music, being looked at, being applauded,” says Eva. “Many of the women I deal with have never been applauded. They have never had the opportunity to shine.”
Those same inmates are offered scholarships when they are released from prison, to cover their fees for another choir if they move outside the Edmonton area, or to pay for their continuing private voice or piano lessons, which Eva offers at the institution at no charge. The scholarships are covered by the Sing for Life Society, founded by Eva with private donations and contributions from Corrections Canada. Last month, the prison got a new piano, also paid for through Eva’s fundraising efforts.
Eva says she continues her work at the prison because she is enriched every time she goes there. One of her favourite stories is about what happened when she held her first choir practice there in 2006, and only one person showed up. inmate was so shy, she didn’t dare sing. It was close to Christmas, so Eva decided to sing “Silent Night.” With Eva, the piano accompanist and the inmate, they sang the song together. Then Eva added a second part harmony, and as the inmate gathered more confidence, Eva added a third.
“We were singing ‘Silent Night’ in three-part harmony and she was in heaven,” smiles Eva. “After she left, we looked out the window and we could see her skipping across the yard in the snow. The next week, she brought one friend. And from then on, it just grew.”
Lesley MacDonald is the producer and host of the Global Woman of Vision series. Stories can be seen the first Monday of every month in the News Hour at 6 p.m. on Global Edmonton and online at GlobalTVEdmonton.com