The Sweetest Christmas Music You'll Ever Hear (With Some Help From Behind Idaho Prison Bars) 

An expert Braille transcriber, who is also an inmate, helped bring the concert to life

Dana Ard (front center) and the Boise Choristers performing at their annual Christmas concert Dec. 11.

Glenn Landberg

Dana Ard (front center) and the Boise Choristers performing at their annual Christmas concert Dec. 11.

The essence of a good Christmas story is often a journey. Consider Ebenezer Scrooge's life-changing odyssey down memory lane in A Christmas Carol, or the sojourn of Joseph and Mary to the tiny town of Bethlehem.

This Christmas tale also includes a journey, with stops at the Idaho Commission for the Blind and the Idaho State Correctional Center before the final destination: Cathedral of the Rockies First United Methodist Church in the North End, where we hear some of the sweetest sounds in this or any other holiday season. The cast of characters on this journey includes individuals usually found in a Charles Dickens novel: a blind woman, a man serving a life sentence for murder and an all-female choir.

For the better part of a century, the choir, known as the Boise Choristers, has presented its annual holiday concert with proceeds going toward scholarships to further music education in Idaho. On Dec. 11, the ensemble lifted its collective voice at the Cathedral of the Rockies and performed more than a dozen Christmas songs, including some old ("White Christmas"), some new ("Text Me Merry Christmas"), some sassy ("Santa Baby") and some sweet ("Christmas Time is Here"). The group opened the concert with a song penned in 1914 by composer Mykola Leontovych known as "Carol of the Bells."

"Hark how the bells, / Sweet silver bells, / All seem to say, / Throw cares away. / Christmas is here, / Bringing good cheer..."

With its complex time signatures, the century-old song begins with a precise weave of a four-note ostinato (a repeating musical phrase or motif), but then the melody unfolds into a rainbow of complex patterns. In the hands of accomplished singers, "Carol of the Bells" is a wonderment and never feels old.

"We have some of the most amazing singers you'll ever hear, and one of our altos, Dana Ard, is a true asset to the Choristers. She has a gift of perfect pitch, which means even without hearing the pitch from an outside source, Dana could sing it perfectly for you," said Carole Knight, director of the Boise Choristers.

Knight, who has two degrees in music from Boise State University—including a Master of Music in Vocal Performance—took control of the Choristers five years ago. She starts as early as June preparing the repertoire for the Christmas concert.

"The thing about Boise Choristers is how very, very willing they are to work very, very hard. The hours that these ladies put into our preparation is stunning," Knight said. "Then there's Dana with her perfect pitch. Dana is a real leader in her section, because she's such a strong singer. She's also very good at learning the music as soon as she receives the sheet music."

Apart from being pitch perfect, Ard is a senior counselor for the visually impaired and the current president of the National Federation of the Blind of Idaho. She's an accomplished singer and musician, and an integral member of the Choristers, but her sheet music is unlike that of the other singers: The paper is thicker and much taller, and the sheets are bound in a notebook. At a glance, the pages look blank—but they aren't. Ard is blind, and her sheet music has been expertly transcribed and printed in Braille.

"As soon as our director selects the music for our Christmas concert, usually by late fall, we then have to send the pages of sheet music to the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired," said Ard.

That's just the beginning of the journey. Naturally, ICBVI gets frequent requests from businesses, schools, restaurants and individuals who need materials transcribed into Braille. What may come as a surprise is that much of the transcription takes place in prison. On a regular basis, ICBVI sends stacks of textbooks and documents to the Idaho Department of Correction, which takes over the responsibility of transcribing the materials into Braille.

The Master-Level Braille Transcriber

Inside the Idaho State Correctional Center is a modest classroom where qualified inmates learn a trade—perhaps masonry or electrical wiring—or get a high school diploma or GED equivalency certificate. Donald Young, Inmate No. 17560, is a fixture in the classroom.

Young, 56, was convicted 38 years ago for first-degree murder and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime. He received a life sentence. Pointing to a large stack of sheet music and textbooks to be transcribed into Braille, Young said, "This is my life now."

At any given time, a few dozen ISCC inmates are in the classroom, which is called the Robert Janss School after an educator who volunteered for years at the old Idaho State Penitentiary. The school is state-accredited.

"Most of the men here are trying to get high school diplomas or GEDs. We also provide a fair amount of workforce readiness training: carpentry, masonry. We even offer Microsoft Office certification," said Marshall Bautista, a career technical education teacher for the Robert Janss School, who has worked at ISCC since 2003.

"There's a lot of good work going on here. One of the hardest thing for prisoners to learn is Braille transcription. It can take a year or even a year and a half to go through the course," Bautista said. "When you think of it, you're actually learning a new language, and it's not a letter-by-letter replacement of the traditional English alphabet. Plus, a page of text transcribed to Braille turns out to be 50 percent larger than a typical page. I must say, for the few men who have made it through the course, they tell me it's really about them giving something back to the community."

A few feet away, Young, who was sitting at his work station, was anxious to share his enthusiasm for the craft of Braille transcription.

"I'm here at this desk every day. This is my passion," said Young. The classroom is open 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, but Young tries to get as much extra time as possible in order to complete an ever-increasing load of Braille transcriptions. "I would move my bed in and sleep here if they let me."

Young has been transcribing to Braille for nearly 15 years. He's not only the best at ISCC, he's one of only about 40 people in the United States certified as a master-level Braille transcriber. The certification is authorized by the Library of Congress.

"I've actually done special projects for the Library of Congress. Add that to all of the textbooks, sheet music, cookbooks, reference books, bestsellers, you name it ... and tens of thousands of items have been transcribed to Braille here," said Young. "Would you like me to show you how I transcribe some sheet music to Braille?"

Young scanned a page of traditional sheet music and opened the image in a proprietary software program for editing.

"In this particular case, I've been told that this singer is an alto, so I'm going to take out all of the other parts of the music that won't affect the singer," said Young. Serendipitously, the sheet music was from the Idaho Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired on behalf of Dana Ard in preparation for her Christmas concert. "I take out all of the music that this singer doesn't need, then I'll come back to the lyrics and put in the appropriate hyphens and key signatures. Then, I come back through all of the music and enter special notes that the choir director may have included for the singer," Young said.

After dozens of detailed edits and additions, Young turned to a large dot matrix-like printer filled with extremely thick paper. Ultimately, a page of Braille sheet music appeared.

"I think it helps quite a bit that I happen to know music. I play classical guitar, so when it comes to octaves, flats, you name it, I really understand that language," Young said.

Among the many pieces of Christmas music for Ard sitting on Young's desk was a song written in the 1940s that resonated with American soldiers and sailors at the height of World War II that continues to be meaningful to people who are far from family and friends during the holidays. Watching "I'll Be Home for Christmas" being transcribed into Braille from inside a prison, though, gave it a whole new level of tenderness:

"Christmas Eve will find me / Where the lovelight gleams. / I'll be home for Christmas / If only in my dreams."

"No, I won't ever be able to hear this music being performed. I'll dream of it," said Young. "I've been behind bars for 38 years now. How long will I be here? Well, I have a life sentence." He looked at the stack of Christmas music. "But I have my Braille transcription. That's something, isn't it?"

The Sound of Christmas

Just prior to the Dec. 11 Boise Choristers concert, Ard stood among her fellow choir members, getting in one final rehearsal before the big performance. Her seeing-eye dog, a five-year-old yellow lab named Ernest, was curled up near her feet, taking it all in.

"This Braille transcription of my sheet music that comes from the prison is very, very good," said Ard. "What really impresses me is that the transcriber really goes out of his way to include all of the extra notes from the director, making the Braille that much better. I can truly tell he has experience with music."

The Braille-transcribed music may have been only one element of the Christmas Concert, but without it, Ard's gorgeous alto may not have been included.

At ISCC, officials put up a modest Christmas tree in the cafeteria, and one in a room where inmates visit with their families. Apart from those modest touches, and the ham or turkey on the menu, however, Christmas is just another day in the prison.

"But in our own roundabout way, we may have participated in that Christmas concert, helping to bring these wonderful sounds of Christmas that just fill your heart," said Young. "I may not ever hear it in real life ... but I hear it in my heart, you know?"

Young reached for another piece of sheet music to transcribe into Braille. This time, it was "In the Bleak Midwinter," written by Christina Rossetti in 1872:

"What can I give Him, poor as I am? / If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. / If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part. / Yet what I can I give Him? / Give my heart."

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