Tuesday 16th April

A new musical pathway at Christchurch Men’s Prison

Zoë George

First published on Radio New Zealand Upbeat on 12 April 2019. 

Music filled the halls at Christchurch Men’s prison yesterday. It was performed by a combination of visiting professionals and inmates.

The Navigate Initiative brought four members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra into the prison over the past eight weeks to pass on music skills, culminating in the performance yesterday.

Members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra perform with prisoners Photo: Christchurch Symphony Orchestra

Nine men participated in the workshops. Many have never had the opportunity to play music before.

One says he’s never even tried to play music, but he’s learnt important skills from the course. “[The most enjoyable thing is] learning something new and now I’m starting to make music and it makes sense,” he says. “This is something I can teach my kids when I get home.”

It’s also taught him patience and to not give up. “I’ve really enjoyed these sessions and I want to continue with it, so if there’s a chance, I’m up for it,” he says.

The project involved making music on buckets, ukuleles, bass guitar, bass clarinet, viola and violin. Participants were taught an adapted section of Gareth Farr’s Little Sea Gongs, and an original piece was created for the buckets.

A Duke Ellington jazz standard was included, and Bach was fused with an original phrase created by a participant on the keyboard.

Another participant first experienced classical music and musicians in 2016 when they came to the prison while he was in the Youth Unit.

He says the most challenging thing in this course was learning to drum on buckets. He enjoyed “listening to the instructors playing their instruments. [For example] the violin, viola and bass clarinet”.

While it might be fun to have musicians come in to teach inmates how to play music, it also offers important life skills which help participants reintegrate into society once released.

Jo Harrex, Prison Director of Christchurch Men’s Prison says arts, music and culture are an important part of the rehabilitation of prisoners.

“Through art programmes people often discover a new interest and ability they weren’t aware of, as well as a whole new group of skills. Group art projects, in particular, support people to develop new communications skills, confidence and new forms of expression,” she says. “Prisoners often surprise themselves with their natural abilities, and find they are able to share a message or story they may have found hard to communicate in other ways.”

Public safety is the top priority, she says, but it’s also important to do as much as they can to reduce the likelihood of prisoners returning to prison. A range of initiatives, help pave the way for rehabilitation, and the prison encourages “prisoners to develop new, prosocial interests, to engage in education and training, and to prepare for employment and life in the community”.

CSO Community Engagement Programme Leader Cathy Irons says it’s important for all people, regardless of circumstance or situation, to have access to what the orchestra does. This course was modified from the CSO’s music in schools programme.

“Music connects people. When we play together, it’s as if no barriers exist and we are all in it together. Music builds self-confidence as we try new things, we need to communicate and listen to play together, we find our place as part of a team and get a sense of belonging, we respect each other,” she says. “We perform not as individuals but as a group and likewise we share the pride and accomplishment in what we achieve together.

“What has touched me, are the moments of intense concentration interspersed with laughter and smiling throughout the process. Making music together is an uplifting and unique experience.”

Yesterday participants performed in front of an audience of supporters and prison staff. Certificates were also presented marking “a celebration of the men’s perseverance in mastering a new skill, their commitment and accomplishment in the sharing of music with others”, Cathy says.