HMP Huntercombe Residency, 9-12 December 2019
Updated: Feb 1, 2020
The Oxford branch of Sing Inside is only in its second year, but already we were ready to take on our first 'residency' in HMP Huntercombe, a prison which holds foreign national offenders. We hoped that our four-day series of workshops from 9-12 December 2019 would develop residents' musical skills, encourage leadership qualities in our volunteers, and create a deep sense of togetherness while breaking down barriers through music. This project was run in collaboration with the Oxford Faculty of Music, and was used as a student placement for the Music in the Community module. We are very grateful for the Faculty's help with funding and supporting this great project.
It's safe to say that on the first day everyone was nervous and not entirely sure how to react to challenges we knew we would encounter. The residents arrived in dribs and drabs, all as nervous as we were. There was quite a lot of small talk as we tentatively gave out name labels: some residents quickly stood out as strong characters, people who would influence the rest of the room. Much to our delight, we noticed one of the larger characters have a moment of indecision, before throwing himself into the warm-up. This enthusiasm in the face of nerves set the tone for the rest of the room, as participants slowly began to come out their shells - as did we.
The full day of workshopping songs allowed everyone to grow in confidence, and as we finished with Jingle Bell Rock, we had a frenzied conversation on how to end it, with several participants coming up with ideas.
"The week was super great. Working together as a group was a really positive experience. I feel a lot more confidence in singing and opening up in general. The week has brought a smile to my face I'll be keeping for months." - Resident, HMP Huntercombe
On the second day, everyone seemed a lot more confident, now knowing what to expect. The anxiety of meeting new people had lifted and we began to enjoy each other's company more freely. We started the day with a much more physical warm up that the day before, which went down a treat: it helped break any remaining tension, and allowed some quieter characters to let loose a little bit. A highlight of the second day was at the end when we sang White Christmas in three part harmony: this was a real musical achievement, and the room was filled with the team's energy. It meant that the participants who were interested in learning some of the technicalities of group singing and keeping to their own line had this opportunity in the harmony groups, whilst the less confident singers were able to enjoy taking ownership of the melody while experiencing the sensation of singing as part of the group.
Throughout the residency we had regular breaks, which gave the volunteers and the residents and other prison participants to mix. It was great to have the opportunity to really get to know the participants and build up relationships with them. One of the quieter participants felt so inspired by the course that he brought some poetry they had written for one of us to read, and even offered to write a rap for the final concert on the Thursday.
"I feel great, it's been so magical and fabulous, I could do it over and over again." - Resident, HMP Huntercombe
Day three moved to some more advanced singing techniques which went down really well with some of the more confident singers - many of the participants clearly enjoyed being challenged and rising to what was being asked of them. The group had really started to connect as we were learning more about one another: one of the Sing Inside workshop leaders took hold of this and encouraged us all to sing as a choir, focusing on teamwork and our collaboration skills. This was fully realised at the end of the day when we sang Stand by Me in four-part harmony, with all the participants singing confidently and enjoying themselves. Some participants had become so immersed in the experience that they felt comfortable enough to close their eyes and simply feel the music. We finished with a massive round of applause from everyone which made some of us a bit emotional!
The final day was amazing: the group atmosphere and unity we had achieved in such a short time was overwhelming. The participant that offered to write a rap for us had worked together with another resident to create a chorus which we then taught to everyone. It turned out that the wrap they had written was all about Sing Inside, and how much the workshops had had an impact on him. When he first read it out, several of us had tears in our eyes.
"The four days we spent at Huntercombe will, undoubtedly, stick with me for the rest of my life." Millie Cant, Sing Inside Oxford volunteer
Sing Inside received some amazing feedback from the residents: one said that the course had made him forget he was in prison; another said it was the first time he had felt part of a group since being in prison. His mentor came to find us specially to tell us she had never seen him with so much emotion and purpose, which was heartening for us to hear. The teamwork didn't begin and end with the Sing Inside volunteers - some participants formed duos to perform in the concert of their own accord, leading to some surprising collaborations with people who we wouldn’t have thought would play together, but were joined by their enthusiasm to play their own music in the concert. There was creativity in abundance, lots of laughter, and plenty of energy and dancing - we were all so grateful for the week we’d had. Thank you to Sing Inside for this incredible opportunity!
Marianne Sutton, Oxford volunteer
Quotes from Volunteers:
The four-day visit to HMP Huntercombe in December was an inspiring experience and a true example of how music, singing and communication can bring people together. The improvement over the course of the residency both musically and socially was incredible. From nervous unison singing to confident four-part harmony, the group responded so well to the conversations and songs that we learnt together. The residency culminated in a celebratory concert to a further 60 prisoners plus prison staff. Language barriers were broken down and, as Huntercombe is a foreign national prison, we had the joy of hearing performances from across the world as well as a rap written about Sing Inside by one of the men. The chorus of this rap was created so that everyone could join in and by the end of the concert not only the guys who’d we worked with but also the audience, staff and chaplain were on their feet dancing and singing along. Of all the Sing Inside prison visits I’ve been on, I have never seen a group bond so well and within the harsh and often divided environment, to become a community.
Taking part in the HMP Huntercombe course was a real eye-opener. While the prison itself was obviously an unfamiliar environment, I could never have predicted how quickly a musical community would form within its walls! The camaraderie between residents and volunteers at the final concert made me certain that we had achieved our mission aim to make a different for those in Huntercombe. But I also know this was equalled by the huge impact Huntercombe had on myself and the rest of the volunteer musicians, who now appreciate how hard it is to overestimate the value of community music.
Tamsin Sandford Smith
The four days we spent at Huntercombe will, undoubtedly, stick with me for the rest of my life. The personal progress of every single individual we spent time singing and talking with was staggering. The progression from understandable trepidation on the first day to an hour-long concert including residents’ own poetry and song with a standing ovation from a 60-strong audience of residents and prison staff speaks volumes for the power that singing and attention can have. We saw residents grasp the opportunity for creativity, emotional openness, and interaction with both residents and volunteers that they otherwise would not have. I have no doubt in saying that everyone involved is all the better for it.