Professional singer and songwriter Essence Goldman held a workshop called Finding Your Voice on Dec. 20 at San Quentin’s Interfaith Chapel, to share the power of healing through music.
Finding Your Voice is typically a virtual retreat, which is intended to cultivate life-changing power by channeling your inner rock star. The goal is to improve communication skills and become better speakers, leaders, and team members, according to Goldman’s website.
Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Paul Shleffar introduced the songwriter to about 20 San Quentin residents. “It’s an honor to be here, and I am extremely happy,” Goldman said. “Music has gotten me through some difficult times since I was a kid.”
Goldman makes her own records and teaches people to sing. The purpose of her workshop at San Quentin was to create healing out of illness and past trauma through music with the men in blue.
She told the incarcerated to use the power of voice to improve communication. Goldman has taught people to use their voices and presence to unlock creativity and hold onto the audience.
She instructed the attendees to sit upright, their feet square with their shoulders. Then she told them to dangle their arms alongside their bodies, close their eyes, inhales through their noses and exhales through their mouths.
The singer guided the residents through the breathing exercise and then asked them to think of their favorite song and sing the lyrics in their mind.
The room grew very quiet. When the exercise was complete the men had looks of eagerness on their faces; they seemed to have connected with something.
“Music has an ability to open people’s hearts,” said John Zeretzke, San Quentin’s Jewish music clerk. “Men at San Quentin deserve to have musical experiences; the art should be an integral part of rehabilitation and restorative justice.”
In the next exercise Goldman told participants to stand up, grab each side of their faces, pucker their lips, and blow air through them. Some people’s lips were rattling, others were whistling, while others struggled with the exercise.
Goldman explained that in this fun and empowering experience, we learn to banish our inner critic, unlocking creativity and enhancing collaboration and teamwork.
The singer/songwriter conducted more songwriting exercises and voice training throughout the evening, which the participants enjoyed.
“Music breaks down all the boundaries of race, allows everyone to build a community of friendship with their talents,” said Gordon Kimbrough, a percussionist in the music program. “A drummer is the heartbeat of music.”
Ukuleles and violins donated to the chapel’s music program were on the table next to Goldman.
Zeretzke told the residents about the history of violins, and how the instrument developed into what it is today. He played it near the ground like a cello, then on his knee, and lastly under his chin.
According to a San Francisco Chronicle article dated May 11, 2018, Goldman h as collaborated with Bernie Dalton, who wanted to leave a legacy of song behind for his children. Dalton suffered from an aggressive form of the incurable motor-neuron illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
He was unable to sing or talk, but Goldman persisted in helping him communicate through song. After he lost some of his motor skills, she took his scribbled notes and turned them into a song using her own voice, the Chronicle reported.
Goldman was raised by San Francisco natives — hippies, or “flower children” who experienced the city’s famous summer of love in the 1960s. Her sound reflects the influence of songwriting legends like Tom Petty, Lucinda Williams and Dolly Parton, her website says. She has released six albums on independent and major labels and opened for artists like Jason Mraz, Tom Petty, and Sarah Mclachlan. Goldman has performed for audiences of up to 80,000 people. Her songs have been on network TV and film.
This was not Goldman’s first visit to San Quentin, having previously attended a Jewish Sabbath service. She said she would return.
San Quentin resident Daniel Chairez was one of the participants at the event. “It was a different interaction that took me away from this environment,” he said. “It was therapeutic and very refreshing.”