by Aiden Sheehan
At HMP Parc everyone was very polite to me, from the prison officers to the inmates. Yes, understandably there was very high security (I had to provide proof of ID, leave certain items locked in a secure area etc) and all for good reasons so I did not mind at all.
The first group of learners I worked with were situated in the education block near the library. All were really eager to get involved. I was told the list of people wanting to attend was too big and the staff had to trim it down to ensure all the attendees would get the best from their learning experience.
They were certainly, demonstrably keen and love music. They have music lessons with Richie each week – I soon met Richie (their in-house music tutor) who is a really nice fellow, and inspirational to his students. One of the group could already play harmonica reasonably well, having learned in the outside world. Four others in the group were able to play keyboards, guitars or drums. Most of them looked in their twenties. There was a varied ability range within the group and some strong personalities. I had brought with me twenty harmonicas and ten Irish bodhran drums with their beaters. I was told by all the officers I met to “keep an eye on my stuff or it will disappear” – I therefore kept everything in one place and arranged the attendees into a “learning circle” which is not like a school room. We could all see what was going on and all be encouraged to get involved.
Initially I used harmonicas, going through a series of very user-friendly exercises to enable the learners to get used to their instruments. The instruments were brand new. From the very start the inmates wanted to know if they could keep them. I spoke to the group and Laurence the prison officer and stated it was a possibility, depending on the “powers that be”. The officer left and checked (leaving me with another officer) and returned saying “put ‘em on the bill” which made everybody in the group very happy.
From the start, the inmates LOVED playing the harmonicas. We learned various pieces including Blues and Rock riffs, some folk-rock and pop tunes (Dylan, Neil Young, Katy Perry, etc) and some simplified New Orleans jazz standards (“Oh When the Saints Go Marching In”, “Mardi Gras Fanfare”). We played some musical games helping them to learn rhythm, to get used to holding and employing correct breathing methods, playing using dynamics etc. To the inmates these began as “just games” and that is how I introduced them, making them non-threatening and amenable. During reflection and discussion periods they realized what the games were for and what they had learned and the many benefits of taking part. The benefits were not always musical, but were always confidence boosting via good communication skills, patient tutelage and being supportive of each group member depending on their individual needs within the group as far as was reasonably practicable. For example, at two points in workshop I sub-divided the group into “buddies” who helped each other to learn and then presented what they had learned to the whole class in a quieter way. This was to give some time “out of the glare of the spotlight” and giving some time to reflect, find solutions and discuss matters one-to-one. I let the attendees work out tasks for themselves and see what could be achieved (using my initial guidance of course) and finding their own solutions. This is self-actualization and gives the attendees the opportunity to make choices, work as a team, use individual skills and create a good learning environment where they are not just receiving information but are proactively part of the core learning process itself. We integrated some percussion into our musical mix. We sang; they played my guitar. I gave some basic guitar tips; the lunch bell sounded too soon. At the end everyone shook my hand. Nothing was stolen (“That was great – when are you coming back?”). This scene was replicated in the secure unit in the afternoon with the excluded prisoners (from an older age range). People yet again had to turned away as the room was getting too full for a constructive learning experience. The attendees had brought their guitars along with them. We had a band by the end of the session, singing, drumming, strumming, playing harmonica. I was told by three inmates that this was the best musical experience they had ever experienced in Parc. Several people asked if I was coming every week; they were all disappointed when I said I was not. Three music-based tutors from the prison (Richie, Matthew and one other whose name I do not recall) had sat in and observed my lessons, all shaking my hand and congratulating me on my good work (their words not mine).
People asked me beforehand why I had chosen to work in a prison and wasn’t I frightened. My answer was that I can’t and won’t judge, that was for others to do. I was working with people who wish to learn and I helped them learn and that was my only concern. I admit that the clanking of keys and the slamming of metal doors was quite chilling at times. I could not think on crimes committed or people who were hurt as I was there to do a job and concentrated on the task in hand as I ought.
Staff-members Denise, Richie and Laurence all said the workshops were highly successful, and Denise said that it’s possible I will be invited back.
I am glad to have been able to help.