Prison workshop #2

I approached the second session in the prison with a certain amount of nervousness. The first one had gone so well – would we be received with more skepticism on this second visit? I wanted to push the guys a bit more, challenge them further musically – would they resist this? Did they want it? Maybe these sessions are more of an opportunity for them to chill out, than to build skills. Music can be a fairly hardcore discipline when you start to develop skills. It takes focus. I didn’t want to set up things that would give anyone a negative experience, or sense of failure.

Here is what I was aiming for:

  • Work with rhythm and pitch separately to start with – try to encourage more detailed listening from the group, awareness of other parts, working in sections, adding more complex layers.
  • See if we can stimulate some deeper expressive/emotional responses musically – in particular responding to R’s idea (R is our cellist) to use an extract from the Dvorak cello concerto as a stimulus for reflections on separation from home and loved ones.
  • Try to build on the quiet ensemble singing that came spontaneously in the first workshop, during Y’s improvisation on Just the Two of us.

Getting through security takes time. We have to sign in, have our irises scanned (one by one – we are already on the system of iris recognition so this is faster than it was on the first day); we put our personal items that we don’t need for the workshop (wallets, mobile phones, keys, ID tags for the orchestra office) in a locker; we transfer the small items we need for the workshop into see-through plastic bags, and put these through the x-ray, along with our instruments. Then we walk through a walk-in X-ray machine, kind of like a cone-of-silence pod, one person at a time. After this we get scanned with the hand-held metal detector one by one (arms outstretched, back then front), collect our instruments and other x-rayed items, then go three at a time into first a sound-lock room, in which we do the iris scan again, and then out into the corridor and into the large light room where we do the workshop.

As always, we came to the workshop with a few unknowns to contend with. The first was the news that the prison officer who had sung so freely in the first session, and who clearly had the trust and respect of the guys, would not be with us for this session. So I pushed the singing idea a bit further back in my mind. We’d do it towards the end, if we had time. I felt happy to wait and see if the prison officer in question could work with us again in session #3, and it was worth holding over the song work for then, just in case.

Then, we learned that we would have a group of about 6 guys who had worked with us in the first session – the rest would be new. Some of our original group had moved on – sadly this included the guy who had done quite a bit of street performing, writing and performing poetry in particular. Sadly for us – hopefully a positive outcome for him.

Before we started the session I called everyone’s attention and talked them through my ideas for the session. (Was relieved to have a much more positive hearing this time!) Then the guys wandered in, and took their seats – this week we had agreed with the prison staff that we’d like to sit in a more ‘mingled’ way rather than with the orchestra people on one side of the room and the prisoners on the other – and we handed out instruments and got started.

We had a lot of observers from the prison and different stakeholder groups. It is never that comfortable to do a workshop when you are being observed, and in any case, I wasn’t sure who everyone was, so figured noone else was either. So we started off with introductions. I introduced myself as the director of the project, and gave a brief explanation of what I do at the Orchestra. Next in line was J, who introduced himself as a percussionist. Then next was one of the guys.

“Hi, well… my name’s John. And, as you can see, I’m a criminal.”

Everyone laughed. Not a bad ice-breaker. Later one of the officers matched it by introducing himself as a ‘screw’ (prison slang for officer, not exactly a friendly term. Different kinds of smiles and chuckles greeted this). There was a lot of black humour today. The guys who were coming back for the second time were relaxed with us, starting conversations, chatting away, cracking jokes, playing the instruments. As we handed the instruments out, and checked if anyone had brought along any musical ideas or lyrics for us to work with, one of the guys commented on how little they ever learn about each others’ outside skills.

“In prison, in the yard, people only ever talk about three things – what they did (to get in here), drugs, and women,” he said, with kind of heavy humour. “No-one ever talks about what they’re good at, no-one ever asks. And that’s why the guys who’ve been here for ages just don’t tend to get into conversations with anyone anymore. They’ve heard it all before.”

This second session ended up being very focused, very intense. We followed my basic plan to start with, but worked for longer on each task – which is a good thing, because it meant the group was building its own momentum. Here is what we did:

Rhythm tasks

We started working just with rhythm, and left the guitars and tuned percussion out of it for a while. I had a syncopated rhythm to use as a starting point – but in teaching it I broke it into two parts. We asked the guys to sit in sections, so that all similar instruments were grouped together. I played them the whole rhythm on the djembe, but then broke it down into its first section, and taught this to guys playing the lower drums. J, our percussionist, encouraged people to practise on their legs first, to get the feel of it right. It was a more challenging rhythm than had emerged at any point in out first workshop.

Then I taught the second part of the rhythm to another section. With those two groups playing, all the other instruments began to join in. I asked those who already looked like they were itching to play to come up with their own riff, and had suggestions to offer those who looked like they wanted a bit more direction. We stayed on this riff awhile, and I did a number of cut-offs, where I’d indicate to just one section or instrument to keep playing after the cut-off, do a sudden stop with everyone else, so that we could all hear this one instrument/part on its own, then come back in again.

Our second task was similar, working with a starting point I call the Cycle of 8. It is just a cycle of 8 straight beats. Each section was asked to choose 2 or 3 numbers between 1 and 8, and 2 or 3 different sounds on their instrument (eg. a slap and a bass tone on the djembe). They would then have to play their chosen sounds, on their chosen numbers, in each cycle of 8. It is easy in theory, but hard to do accurately each time because you really need to concentrate, and some beats can be more awkward to prepare for and play on, than others.

Again I conducted certain players in and out of the texture, which gave everyone a chance to hear the different parts that had been invented by choosing different numbers, and to hear and experience how all the parts started to lock in together, like pieces in a jigsaw.

As I looked around the group, I could see how hard everyone was concentrating. One guy was just sweating he was working so hard. He kept shaking his head at the intensity and effort of it all, but he also kept at it, and with each cycle of 8 beats got more accurate, and more confident. I worried at that point if this was too much, too focused an activity, not what they wanted to be doing. Too dry?

Later though, in the debrief with the musicians and staff, several people commented on how much they had loved this task, and how much the group seemed to draw from it. They loved seeing how focused the guys were, how determined to play their part. The breaking down of sections in our stop/starts allowed everyone to experience all the layers in the piece. Often as leader of a group in a creative task you can miss all that is going on. I am always concerned with reading the group, but some responses are more covert, or fleeting that others. Be looking in a different direction and you could miss it – especially with adults. It is always rewarding to have the opportunity after a workshp to find out what other people saw in the responses of the group.

Bringing in the melody…

After this task we brought the guitars in. I asked the players to choose together a chord progression, and set that up. At this point, everyone in the group is just ready to play. Their instruments are in their hands, and it is really difficult not to just start playing. But I was hard-line about it, wanting the group to give the guitars time to let their chord progression settle, to work out the strumming pattern, and be able to hear themselves while they were doing this. Once it was settled the percussion sections could come in again.

This was a good tactic also, as it meant that the whole group listened out for the guitars a little more intuitively, more automatically. They didn’t get drowned out as easily as they would have if people hadn’t paid this early attention to what they were setting up, and been asked to fit in with it.

About a third of the way in, I asked Y to come in with a solo. Y, violinist, had his electric violin with him that day. What he played was perfect – just sublime. It brought out the sweetness of the chord progression, yet used the darkness of colour that the electric violin has, and its grunt and extrovert brilliance (the brilliance is of course more to do with Y, than the instrument itself!). The solo reminded me a bit of one of the slower tracks on an album I have by contemporary Irish group Kila, a bit Celtic in feel).

This solo held everyone – held their attention, held them in the music. We began to find our ending (undirected – there was just a shift in the energy that enough people felt that began to lead us towards an ending). Instruments dropped out one by one, but stayed still, stayed listening. In the end we had the guitars, the violin, cello, the Japanese temple bowls playing ‘pings’ in formation, and a small, simple little counter melody on the kalimba (thumb piano).

Slower, quieter, and still the group stayed with us. This had been a long improvisation, and these guys would have been dying to get outside for their fag, but we all stayed with the group and with the music until it was finished, and the last ring from the Japanese temple bowls had dyed away.

Just being able to stay focused on the same sounds that long was a big improvement on the previous session.

At that point we took a break.

Things were more chilled after the break. DF the sound designer wanted to re-record the guitar chord progression in an isolated space, so he went off with them to one of the interview cubicles nearby. He’d only expected o be ten minutes, but it turned out one of the guys in the group had a wealth of original songs that he could perform, so DF recorded all of those too, and some more improvisations. They all came back about ten minutes before the end of the whole session, glowing and raving.

The rest of us worked in the main space, and improvised some ideas inspired by a poem written by one of the guys. We asked him for his thoughts about how we could work with it musically, and tried some ideas out, microphones on the whole time, capturing everything.

We didn’t come up with anything conclusive, but a lovely outcome was the kind of relaxed chat and banter that took place. One guy, who up until that point had been quite reserved, got onto the vibraphone, and with some assistance from our roadie, got started bowing the vibes and creating all sorts of other-wordly effects. The longer he was up there, the more he opened up, telling everyone about his family, and some good news he had had that week.

This got people talking about family and loved ones in general, and I asked how they communicate with their loved ones while they are inside. I copped a fair bit of flack for this question (“You write a letter, put it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, send it.” “You pick up the phone, dial the number, say hello” etc). But it opened up some interesting discussion on sending messages of love that you know will be listened to, or read, by others – others with whom you don’t share a particularly trusting or friendly relationship. No great resentment of this was expressed – they seemed fairly accepting of the fact that in prison, there is no privacy, there are no real secrets… (the previous session, when I had explained about our use of recording equipment, and let them know that if they ever didn’t want to be recorded they could always ask for the microphones to be switched off, one said to me, “Miss, we’re in prison. There are not secrets here. It’s all fine.”)

As one said during this second conversation, it can be hard enough to tell someone you love them in the first place. Imagine trying to do that while people are constantly listening in!

We wrapped our session with some more playing – in particular a request for Y to play a solo – ‘something classical’. Could you play some Bach? I asked him. Not usual on the electric violin, but he complied and once again the room was completely still.

Later, the musicians and I discussed the amazing instant power Bach seems to have to connect with this group. I wonder if it is purely Bach,or if it is also to do with their skills as performers, and the beauty of their playing. It will be interesting to compare the reaction to Bach to the reaction to Dvorak, which I hope we will work with in the next session.

At this point, however, session #2 drew to a close and we thanked and farewelled everyone. We reminded them about the family sessions that are coming up next – for children, partners and parents of people in the prison. Our next two sessions in the prison will be on two consecutive days, but not for another 4 weeks. It is quite likely we will see very few people from this group of guys – they will mostly have moved on by then.

So we packed up all the gear, and DF and J started going through the lists of what they had brought in with them with the prison officers, then repacking it all into the road cases. I have to say that the prison staff have been incredibly accommodating in making this very detailed part of the project run so smoothly. There has been a lot of support for us, without which I don’t think we would be enjoying such a positive response from the guys. There is a lot of goodwill for the project which we need to keep acknowledging.

2 comments so far

  1. tony on

    found this via a google news clip i have going. where are you guys from? (guess i can find that by looking around). i did stuff like this at graterford and a bunch of other prisons in pennsylvania, back in the 80’s. i thought maybe those days were over and there would be no more funding for stuff like this.

    i also got totally burnt out after 10 years of this, being difficult to work with inmates and then deal with guards!!! i even had the Mellon Jazz Fest out at Graterford for 2 years in a row back in the day.

    glad someone is still doing some of this. good luck!!!

  2. tony on

    oh australia! i’m in the states.

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