Music Changing Lives I: ‘Inspiring Change’

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the different ways music can be used in the community, and I’ve decided to write a series of posts about a few that have made the news in recent years and their social impact.

I’d like to start with a lesser known but hard hitting project, called ‘Inspiring Change’ which took place in 2010. Its rather bland name gives no hint of what the project was actually about – it was a pioneering collaboration between Motherwell College, a dozen arts organisations and the Scottish Prison Service to provide arts outreach to those inside Her Majesty’s prisons. The arts organisations involved were Scottish Opera, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the National Galleries of Scotland, the Scottish Ensemble, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, the Citizens Theatre and the Traverse Theatre, and funding was provided by the Scottish Government and the Scottish Arts Council. The project included rigorous evaluation so that the benefits that it brought could be recognised and applied to future projects of this sort.

Scottish Opera and the SCO collaborated on a project working in HMP Shotts, where the offenders were involved in creating an opera from scratch, including writing the libretto, music, designing costumes and sets, then staging a performance of their work. Reading violinist Rosenna East’s account of the project in the Herald, I’m struck by the enthusiasm and eagerness of the prisoners to participate in the project, especially to sing, when we are constantly told by the media that classical music, and especially opera, is for the elite and is definitely ‘not cool’. Rosenna writes, ‘Only one man says to me that he will get “slagged” if he has anything to do with the project’, and that this man eventually ended up in one of the music writing groups. How many of us would expect this reaction if an orchestra and opera company were to walk into a prison or young offenders institute? I find it surprising and wonderful that the stereotypes don’t fit.

The project at Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institute Polmont was divided into three separate projects: the Scottish Ensemble’s Music for Change, which focussed on learning tp play and record music, National Youth Choir of Scotland’s VoiceMale, which was a series of vocal workshops culminating in a performance, and an art project by the National Galleries of Scotland in which individuals constructed life size human figures. A research paper (which can be found here) summarised the outcomes of these projects, and contained the following reactions from some of the young offenders:

‘I’ve never really had a chance to do anything like that. Never really had a chance to put on a show for anybody’

‘At the end of the performance I actually got compliments. They said it was good and I should carry on when I get out. It was surprising and it was good to hear, you know what I mean?’

‘I was just more eager to do it. It was something you wanted to do… Other things you wouldn’t want to put the time and effort into. I actually tried. I tried and made an effort for it.’

‘They [the arts practitioners] told you what to do but they never pushed you or forced you. They helped you. They weren’t too bossy. And the way that they did it, it worked out good, you know what I mean? You learned from them.’

 ‘Music gives you extra skills…it can open your eyes and you say [to yourself] I didn’t know I could do that before I came here and it turns out I can and I’m quite good at it’.

Overall the report emphasises the improved engagement of the young men: the sense of meaning and purpose the projects gave them, and the improvements in confidence and self esteem that being involved with others focussed on a common goal brought about. As the report stated, ‘engagement in the arts projects seemed to challenge the passivity of prison life.’

More information about Inspiring Change can be found on the SCO Connect’s page about the project here

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