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Musical leading with Sing Inside

The vice-president of our Cambridge committee, Andreana Chan, shares her experience of leading - and attending! - a Sing Inside workshop for the first time in HMP Wayland.

Going on the recent Sing Inside visit to HMP Wayland was certainly one of the most moving and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

It is hard to prepare yourself for the feeling of entering a prison for the first time. You are surrounded by locks and alarms, and it seems like a different world, with phones and electronic devices confiscated at the entrance. But as soon as you meet the people who are serving sentences, you realise that we are all human and all share equally in the joy of making music together. The enthusiasm of the group we worked with was magnetic: some of their first words to us were “I was so excited that I couldn’t sleep last night!” Their faces light up once they start talking about how they are learning to play guitar and forming bands.

Most of the day was spent in singing workshops, which people in prison and volunteers take part in together. We worked together towards a recording at the end of the workshop, giving everyone a sense of accomplishment. It is truly uplifting to experience the genuine joy that singing together can bring, even in places like prisons.

As we were saying our goodbyes at the end of the Wayland visit, one of the participants said to us, “The journey back for you is long, but it’s still freedom.” You really do come out of the visit feeling much more appreciative of everything you have and understanding how important it is not to take anything for granted.

Musical leadership

My role on the Cambridge Committee is vice-president, which is a primarily musical role. I help plan and prepare the music alongside the rest of the team. Sing Inside runs musical leadership training which introduces musical leaders to Sing Inside’s approach to pedagogy; some specific tools and tips for working in the prison environment; advice and guidance on planning repertoire, and the opportunity to practice leading something yourself.

When choosing music, we aim for a mixture of well-known songs and songs that may be slightly more challenging, as well as music from a diverse range of cultures.

Some of the workshop participants may not have sung before, whereas some may have had extensive musical experience. Musical leaders must therefore teach the music in an accessible yet stimulating way – one particularly effective method is call-and-response methods. Another useful way to prepare is to identify potential difficulties in each song, and come up with vocal exercises to build up technical skills relevant to the songs. For example, on a recent visit, we sang Over the Rainbow, a song which leaps to great heights in the vocal range. To make the high notes feel more comfortable, I led the participants in singing sliding octaves, which led to a lot of laughter and a room that sounded like revving motorbikes…

A key aim of our work is to bring joy and happiness through music, so musical leaders also spend time thinking of fun warmups, musical games and rounds. One of our favourite warmups is the song “Tony Chestnut”, which has a deceptively simple start but ends up involving the entire body.

During the visit, the most important thing is to bring genuine enthusiasm and energy to the room. Flexibility in your approach is also essential: timings may vary and skill levels may be different from expectations, so you may need to think on your feet. On the last visit I did, the participants sang Yellow Submarine so well that I spontaneously decided to teach them to sing the chorus in harmony – so having this ready to go really helped.

It is such a rewarding experience and although the first time may seem daunting, I would definitely encourage everyone to have a go at becoming a musical leader with Sing Inside!

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