Visits to Whitemoor have been a highlight of our work in recent years, and Wednesday’s workshop and performance continued this trend. This was my third time in the same prison, and perhaps more than ever, the volunteers were struck by the spirit of openness and hospitality created throughout the day. Our team of eight singers arrived in the prison chapel at around 8.45 am for a workshop with around 30 residents. We spent the morning warming up before learning four upbeat songs in ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Walking on Sunshine’, ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and a canon of three spirituals. These pieces were then performed in an afternoon concert alongside a swing-time arrangement of Amazing Grace performed by the volunteers. We were impressed by the exceptionally powerful and confident sound made in the workshop, a promising sign that many residents were engaging with the music to the full. We were delighted to see so many residents attending the concert. As always it provided a wonderful opportunity for a free exchange of conversation and ideas, and one resident even suggested a new workshop initiative. We love going to Whitemoor since we are made to feel so welcome there, which was epitomised by the curry cooked for us by the residents followed by a quiz hosted in the chapel. We look forward to the next visit!
After I published an article in our Christ’s College alumni magazine ‘Pieces’ about what Sing Inside does, I made a connection with an alumnus named Don, who volunteered in a local prison, HMP Highpoint. He asked if we would be interested in making a connection with the prison, and providing a workshop there. Always keen to expand, Clover and I went to visit the prison, establishing links with the chaplain and organising our first visit for March 23rd 2017.
The workshop was just a morning this time, but gave us plenty of time to explore the songs and chat to the residents. With a folk theme, we taught favourites such as Scarborough Fair and Molly Malone, as well as the lively Drunken Sailor and the very beautiful Welsh tune The Ash Grove. The chapel space and community were wonderful, and the residents (as ever!) personable, intelligent and interesting. We found out some amazing things and heard some amazing stories, as well as some truly inspiring attitudes to the direction of their lives now, and overcoming the difficulties they had faced. Many of them said they felt uplifted and inspired by the music, and affirmed that seeing hopeful attitudes from the outside gives them renewed optimism and strength. We also uncovered some incredible talent – some wonderful voices sang out confidently, and the group picked up the music really fast.
We are so looking forward to returning to Highpoint and cultivating this relationship. It is wonderful to work with alumni (do get in touch if you are interested in our work!) and to keep making new connections. Hopefully we can start to incorporate some afternoon workshops and performance elements into what we do there. The first visit to this prison was really exciting – I can’t wait to see how it grows!
The Sing Inside team returned to HMP Whitemoor for their annual Christmas visit on Wednesday 14th December. Many Cambridge chapel choirs often attempt to add some spice to their annual sequence of carols and readings, which can seem rather homogeneous year on year. This might involve using a cello to accompany the choir, say, or maybe singing a contemporary composition which involves placing sections of the choir in different areas around the building for an arresting stereophonic effect. Despite these efforts, however, it is often debatable whether a Christmas carol service actually lingers in the minds of the members of the congregation (and the musicians) for long after the event. Not so in the case of Whitemoor chapel. Here, the Christmas carol service is fashioned only for the highest levels of spontaneity and musical variety.
There were staple carols such as Deck the halls, Hark the Herald and O Come All Ye Faithful; and the Cambridge choir also performed some chamber pieces, including Tchaikovsky’s The Crown of Roses and Charles Wood’s Ding Dong Merrily on High. It is always a pleasure to take part in workshops in prison chapels, but not least when the day culminates in a service rather than a concert; the atmosphere is always slightly elevated. The chaplain’s sermon was focussed on reflecting on the year at Whitemoor, and inmates were invited to come up to the lectern to speak and share their thoughts, one of whom shared a C.D. recording of his poetry set to a house beat – full marks for spontaneity and musical variety! All of the readings too were read by inmates. As always, it was an excitable group who attended the workshop, and it was encouraging that many of the group had attended the workshops before and had visibly grown in confidence.
In December, I went into a prison for the first time for a carols workshop and service with Sing Inside. The prison, HMP Bedford, had its own chapel complete with a Christmas tree and nativity scene, and as we waited for the men to arrive at the workshop it took me some time to realise that the two friendly men we had been chatting to were actually two of the prisoners who had come to sing. One of these men had come for the last two years and seemed to have been looking forward to this day for some time, having got all his friends to sign up too. It was this same man who later volunteered for the Once in Royal solo at the carol service to a room full of inmates, volunteers and family members. Although initially nervous, he blew us all away (he had been practising over lunch). When we had around seven or eight inmates (due to staff shortages, inmates get little free time during the day and many preferred to spend their time in the gym), we began the workshop, where we learnt an number of carols and songs including Deck the Halls and Dreaming of a White Christmas. The man sitting next to me was inaudible at the start, and told me he was only giving 10%, as singing in front of people was not something he had ever done before and it made him feel a bit nervous. By the end, he had relaxed a lot and was much closer to 100%! Over lunch we sang a few carols in the hospital ward and although we could not see who we were singing to, the men there seemed very happy to have heard us and saw us off with shouts of “Merry Christmas!” As much as I enjoyed doing the workshop and getting to know some of the inmates, my favourite part of the day was the carol service that Bedford put on in the afternoon. The chapel was full and the atmosphere was one of positivity and festivity. The lessons were moving, the whole congregation sang along with enthusiasm, and of course we all had mince pies afterwards. Those who came expressed the wish that they could have things like this more often, and I can only agree!
The Cambridge Sing Inside team’s most recent visit to HMP Wayland – a workshop in the morning preparing for a carol service in the afternoon – celebrated musical flexibility and re-imagination. Much of the day was taken in good humour; but much of it was notably poignant, especially in the carol service itself. The pieces chosen were deliberately not-so-familiar, but the singers responded with increasing flair over the course of the day.
The morning rehearsal confirmed that the chant “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” was an ambitious choice, particularly given its unfamiliar melody and rhythmic nuances. Things picked up though with Deck the Hall and Sleigh Ride. Some antiphony between the Cambridge upper voices and what became known as the “Wayland Mens’ Chorus” in Deck the Hall was especially spirited, predictably in the “fa la la la la”s. Just before rehearsing Sleigh Ride, a member of the Wayland mens’ chorus presented himself as a drummer and, in doing so, changed the course of the day. His addition to Sleigh Ride transformed the character of the piece into a bossa nova dance number! As a result we used this model to revisit “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” and, by injecting the chant with a pulsating rhythm (and some tasteful reharmonizations from our pianist), the melody and words now all made sense.
We had a good hour before the carol service to continue rehearsing, and many more from Wayland joined us. This offered scope for more antiphony that was already working well, and so in the final hour comic interjections from different sides of the choir were introduced for phrases in Sleigh Ride and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Christmas services can be anodyne, but the response from all in the chapel at Wayland proved that an old order can be enlivened, especially if music is involved. All who had come from Cambridge returned lifted and enriched, and hopefully those for whom it was their first Sing Inside visit will be inquisitive enough to come again.
It beggars belief to read that the original version of “Monkey Man” by the ska and reggae group the Maytals only reached number 47 in the UK Singles Chart when it was released in 1969. At 2pm on October 1st 2015, everyone in HMP Whitemoor Chapel bopped with familiarity after a musically extroverted prisoner had taught everyone there the song. Clearly, there is often little correlation between musical staying power and the charts. Reggae was the theme for the Sing Inside team’s most recent visit to the Category A prison and it went down a storm. In addition to Monkey Man, we sang Desmond Dekker’s “You can get it if you really want” and Bob Marley’s “One Love”. There were also some tastefully improvised fills in the reggae staple “Don’t worry, be happy” and some pleasing harmonies in “By the water of Babylon”. The addition of a band – including saxes, trumpet and bass – lifted the spirit of the room even more. As usual, those who had come from Cambridge performed some pieces separately, which included Byrd, Tallis and a Bob Marley mash up!
Sing Inside continues to grow and the group for this visit included seasoned members of the team as well as some who had come for the first time. At the time of writing, swathes of new students had signed up at the Cambridge University Freshers’ Fair which bodes well for the project’s long-term university presence. Those who came to Whitemoor this time and those who didn’t should be anticipating the next visit around Christmas time with fervour!