Our Musical Director Gareth reflects on how we support participants post-release, prepare them to perform to public audiences, and the impact that this has on both performers and our Musicians-in-Residence.
Most of the work of Changing Tunes happens behind closed (and locked) doors. Our Musicians-in-Residence run weekly music sessions in prisons, which their participants often describe as the part of the week that they look forward to, where they get to feel human, and where expressing who they are is welcomed – and safe. Our concerts outside prison are as close as most people can get to having a sense of what happens behind those closed doors. They are uniquely valuable to us in connecting with our supporters and the wider public. There is no hard sell or sob story from us to tug the heartstrings. We have found that the key to connecting with our audience is to remove as many barriers as possible between performers and spectators, to create a space where trust and vulnerability is possible. Empathy does the rest.
Our participants represent a wide range of musical abilities; from confident and seasoned performers to those who recently discovered music and look to their supporting Musician-in-Residence to guide their way through the performance. Throughout the concert participants talk about their chosen songs; what they mean to them and their significance to life in prison and rehabilitation. To waive their anonymity, stand in front of a room of strangers and speak about their past is a simple but profound gift. Our Musicians’ role is to create the same welcoming space as their prison sessions – but under a spotlight, in front of an audience.
What this requires of our Musicians is an attitude that says, ‘we’re going to aim high but mistakes are ok’, in fact, they are a welcome part of the process. Hearing and responding to the needs and fears of individuals is more important than having everything go to plan, and genuine connection is far more engaging than a slick show. Ultimately, giving our best performance to those who make up our audiences is something we strive for, but more important is how the “show” really does show something of the performer’s true heart.
Taking part in a public concert is a milestone for our participants. From their first session in prison, their Musician-in-Residence was asking, ‘What music are you into? What inspires you? What do YOU want to aim for and achieve?’ Through a journey of months or years in prison, our focus is on helping participants to find their own connection to music and their unique voice. One day they will walk back through the gate to the outside world, and soon after their Musician will be in touch to offer them an initial post-release meeting to ask, ‘What do you want to aim for now?’ Whatever the response to that question, we find that most needs are met through our post-release group sessions, held in one of our four hubs around the country.
Each group is run by two of our Musicians, sometimes supported by volunteers. The aim is to create an atmosphere that is familiar to those who know our prison sessions; welcoming, and facilitated in such a way that each person is supported to reach for their musical goals. Sometimes the group will be rehearsing material they know well and everyone plays their part with confidence. Other times it will feel more like live karaoke, with a core band of Musicians and volunteers giving strong and empathic support to singers and instrumentalists who are flying by the seat of their pants and loving the adventure. As far as possible we aim for a flattened hierarchy, with each person (participant, Musician-in-Residence, volunteer) bringing what they can – their taste, skills, enthusiasm – to create a couple of hours of shared music-making.
It is hard to quantify what is created during those sessions; there is nothing concrete you can point to. When we talk about making music, we are talking about something which exists temporarily in the air between us. But we each take something away that goes deep, and is impactful and even sustaining. The key to the role of Musician-in-Residence is the ability to see that treasure is often disguised in everyday moments and small wins. It is the turning on its head of the X-Factor model of success, where music is seen as a pathway to one day finally achieving stardom and, only then, happiness. This misses the true value of music that is available to all of us in each moment. We say to the world that connection is the gift of music: Connection to ourselves, to our feelings, to our memories and stories, and – incredibly – to each other.
Our concerts could be seen as a public celebration of the simple power of music. It’s not rocket science – it’s magic. We love the chance to bring that hidden truth out into the open.”
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