Larry Swinson, a slight, 75-year-old retiree, regularly slides into church pews at Lansing Correctional Facility between much burlier, blue-uniformed men with more tattoos and less singing experience.
The Lawrence resident has been volunteering five years for the East Hill Singers prison chorus, where having a guy in the mix who once carried tunes in barbershop quartets can only help when it comes to staying on key. Perhaps his most disquieting moment happened a few years ago at the finale of an off-prison performance when, as audience members smiled and clapped, an inmate standing next to Swinson leaned over and whispered a confession.
"He had tears in his eyes," Swinson says. "He said, 'Nobody ever applauded for me before.' It brought tears to my eyes, too."
That memory stuck with Swinson and helps inspire him to keep working with the East Hill Singers. The chorus of minimum-security inmates, organized through the Arts in Prison program, leaves the prison to perform four times a year, and their last performance of this year will be Sunday at First United Methodist Church in Lawrence.
The last time the East Hill Singers came to Lawrence, several years ago at a different church, it was standing room only.
Sara Wentz, the First United Methodist's director of worship and music, says church members plan to provide a post-concert dinner for the inmates and look forward to opening their sanctuary for the program.
"It's such a unique opportunity for us to have them here, and it allows us to use our space for a great musical opportunity," Wentz says.
Matthew Edwards, 34, an inmate from Lawrence, has written and called numerous relatives and friends about the performance, and he's hoping they'll be in the audience Sunday.
"I should have quite a few people there," he says, his eyes lighting up. "It's an opportunity for me to come to them."
After meandering up a sidewalk flanked by razor-wire fences and into the Lansing prison's East Control Center — home to guards, a sign-in sheet and a very sensitive metal detector — Swinson and fellow Lawrence volunteer George Crawford, 75, make their way across the grounds to the chapel, a mint-green and oak-lined room on the second floor of one of the buildings.
"Heeeey, Larry!" singers greet the pair, making room for them in the pews. "George!"
Shortly, Kirk Carson, the East Hill Singers' conductor and artistic director, is putting the lot of them through the paces, sharing praise and constructive criticism from their last show, performed a week ago in Leawood.
"The crowd loved it," Carson says. "It looked like you were enjoying yourselves, and you were even making the old ladies in the back of the church dance."
Page 2 of 2 - But the singers were also dragging their L's in "Holy, Holy, Holy," could've enunciated better during "Swing Down Chariot" and really — really — needed to lose the Kansas accent in "Bring Him Home," Frenchman Jean Valjean's heart-wrenching prayer from the musical "Les Miserables."
"It's a nice accent when you talk; it's awful when you sing," Carson says.
The singers soak up each practice point.
Some have had voice training in their pasts, but most have little musical experience. Each time they run through a verse, they sound better.
Edwards says he's always loved to sing but never did so in an organized group until the East Hill Singers. Since he's been incarcerated, he says, he's gotten "in touch" with God and likes how the chorus combines singing and worship.
Singing with the group also provides a welcome escape from the monotony of prison life.
"It's something happy in an environment where things aren't necessarily as happy as they could be," Edwards says. "There's not a lot of opportunities to feel good here — this actually puts a smile on my face."
Edwards, convicted of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, is about a year and a half into a minimum four-year prison sentence.
More than anything else, he says, he thinks about getting out. He's consciously participating in the chorus and other programs that have been shown to decrease the rate of recidivism, and he has his first day, week, month and beyond of his "fresh start" already planned out.
"I'm trying to beat the statistics," he says. "I don't ever want to come back here."