Tuning Up - Britten Sinfonia

Tuning Up

“That was an absolutely fantastic afternoon. The atmosphere in the hall was pure, living and breathing Rehabilitative Culture. It’s one of those awesome days I will always remember.”
– Will Styles, Governor at HMP Whitemoor

In 2015, criminal justice organisation Lemos & Crane approached Orchestras Live to become a key partner in a new project bringing orchestral music into prison settings. Lemos & Crane has a longstanding programme of work which focuses on improving long-term outcomes for offenders in prisons (The Good Prison: Conscience, Crime and Punishment, Gerard Lemos, 2014). The potential benefits of this new partnership between orchestras and prisons were manifold including a new interest in the classical genre, educational, therapeutic and rehabilitative work which nurtures collaborative relationships between prisoners and staff, and a sense of positive achievement and wellbeing.

Coping with a long prison sentence is inconceivably difficult, explains Gerard Lemos, author of The Good Prison: Conscience, Crime and Punishment. “How do you keep your hopes up? How do you get to do new and different things? How can you do something you are proud of? These are some of the questions for residents in long stay prisons. There’s not much point in thinking about a job or finding somewhere to live when you get out. You’ve got time on your hands; maybe it’s good to do something creative, unfamiliar and challenging working with residents and staff as well as really talented ‘outside’ people.”

Making Connections

At a seminar led by both organisations they were approached by Craig Nethercott, the Head of Security at HMP Whitemoor. He felt this was the exactly the sort of project they needed at HMP Whitemoor – a Category A high security prison for men serving long sentences for serious offences. As the prison is in March, near Cambridge, they invited Britten Sinfonia to lead the musical elements of the project. Funding from Arts Council England National Lottery Project Grant was secured and the pilot project Tuning Up ran from April – June 2018.

30 HMP Whitemoor residents took part in six immersive music workshops, working with facilitator and musician Jason Rowland and six Britten Sinfonia musicians. They used Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as their musical starting point, a classical piece which showed the potential of genre fusion. Residents then added elements of their own musical heritage – rap, reggae, jazz, rock – and devised new compositions which they performed as a band in a finale concert to fellow residents, staff and special VIP guests. The concert was recorded and a podcast was made to document the process.

The impact on everyone who was part of the project – Britten Sinfonia, Orchestras Live, Lemos & Crane, HMP Whitemoor prison staff and management and prison residents – has been profound.

“I think this is vital work to do for an orchestra. Although prisons can be a potentially challenging environment to be in, the participants should be given access to quality music making and be encouraged to explore their own creativity.”

– Paul Archibald, trumpet

“At first they seemed slightly hesitant with regard to the more ‘classical’ of the music content. Pretty soon they realised their own musical ideas could be heard alongside this, and the fusion of the two was something a lot of them hadn’t experienced before.”

– Dawn Hardwick, piano

It led to further development of the programme and investment from all partners as well as the Austin and Hope Pilkington Trust. Pre-2020, plans were in place to create an annual arts festival at the prison, and the inaugural event of this kind took place in October 2019. We focused on the music of Beethoven and Steve Reich, two musical pioneers almost two hundred years apart. As well as the music workshops and performance, the visual arts classes will exhibit works inspired by the music of Reich and the art of Gerhard Richter. The residents’ families were invited to join us for percussion sessions, colouring, and to see and hear the positive contribution their loved one had made to the project.

We hope to return to HMP Whitemoor in 2022 for the next Tuning Up Festival!