Running Music Workshops in Prisons — Clean Break



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A photograph of a woman playing drums.

Music Workshops in Prisons

Artistic Director of the Irene Taylor Trust writes about the transformative work of music in prisons.

In Clean Break's play Typical Girls, which was a co-production with Sheffield Theatres, a group of women in prison discover the music of punk rock band The Slits and form their own group. In this guest blog Sara Lee, Artistic Director of the Irene Taylor Trust, talks about the transformative work they do delivering music workshops in prisons, and what best practise looks like.

“Miss, are you mad, it’s never gonna happen”.

This is usually the response when we mention we’re going to write four or five new songs and then perform them to an audience at the end of the week. It’s a key moment, the whole project can fall apart at this point if the reassurance doesn’t come quicky, along with a guarantee that we are going to guide them through it and be there to the end. We know we can get a group of non-musicians through a creative process with people doing things they never thought possible, but at this point, the women don’t.

“Miss, none of us have ever done this before.”

“That’s what every group says, and every time so far it’s worked.”

“But we might be the first group where it doesn’t work…” followed by lots of laughter.

At this point, some commit and others teeter on the edge needing more reassurance. Only very occasionally is it a bridge too far or too big a risk for someone to take at that time. Trust needs to be gained very early on and if the group sees you’re professional and authentic then you’ve got yourself the best start.

Making a project work in a prison is a series of negotiations with everyone and everything you encounter. If we’ve been to a place before, staff are confident because they know us, they know what happens, and they know the women will end the project with new skills, a new outlook and a huge sense of wellbeing. If it’s a new prison, then the negotiations are the same you’d have with your group, and involve listening, understanding and reassuring. Getting a van load of musical equipment into a workspace requires trust and communication, and right from the start, your actions need to show that you are working alongside staff to achieve the same ends for the women, albeit in a different way than might happen on the wings.

Supporting the women to have the best experience takes patience and understanding. We want to celebrate their achievements in a space where they probably never thought they could achieve anything at all. Staff are huge allies at this point, as we are rarely aware of anyone’s back story and how, potentially, writing a song about something precious which they may have lost could affect them. Staff are with them every day and can keep an eye out, to support where necessary or maybe celebrate an important step in the healing process. The kind of engagement we get in a creative space is often different than it is on the wing so it’s important to work WITH staff rather than be there to disrupt. Saying that, the arts SHOULD disrupt and make people think, but in a sensitively balanced and regime-driven environment, the disruption needs to be ‘safer’, more of a shakeup than incendiary. You achieve this by bringing people along for the ride and involving them in what’s happening.

It takes skill to achieve a high quality, artistic outcome within a restricted regime. Time is often against you, women don’t show or get transferred, the space you’re working in is booked or they have visits or other appointments they can’t miss. And we often have to navigate the subject of lyrical content. We discuss who may hear the tracks and how the recording is how each of them will be remembered by those who listen. If you broach the subject fairly and openly, the response will invariably be positive.

Balancing personalities, regimes and everything else in order to produce the best outcome means you can’t take your eye off any of the balls in the air. Artists need to be at the top of their game with their artform and the logistics, whilst at the same time guiding a group of women through a new process where there’s every chance they may remember the past, fear failure and quit. They’ve placed all their trust in us to make it work at this point and this is one of the challenges for the artist. Projects don’t work effectively if you alienate anyone and working together has longer term benefits. At the end of the project, staff and women have something in common, they’ve both fully engaged to make it work and because of that, the outcome is ultimately thrilling. You hear the words, “Miss, you were right, we did it”, and then you watch them leave the space, high fiving their mates and hearing staff tell them they were brilliant. There’s not much to match that feeling of joy for any of us.

There is nothing negative about the arts. Everyone benefits, even if it’s to express why they prefer something else. They have engaged with it, thought about it and expressed an opinion which is just as valid as the next persons. Those who have created it have dug deep to convey something important to them, and then been brave enough to offer it to others. This is so valuable in prisons where individuality can be lost. Music and the arts brings prisons to life, whether it be a mural on a wall or the sound of a band rehearsing in the chapel. Prisons are undoubtedly better places to live and work when arts subjects are embedded in the regime and recognised and celebrated for what they are and the impact we all know they have.

Find out more about the Irene Taylor Trust and their work in prisons and the community.

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