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Music behind the walls

Music therapist Bente Almås been holding concerts and workshops in prisons and other institutions together with her students since 2011. We joined her on her tour to Bredtveit Prison, Oslo Prison and the National Police Immigration Detention Centre in Trandum.

The objective of the project Music in Prison is to lay the groundwork for new human encounters through concerts and joint music activities in various prisons.

A prison, as a concert arena, is different from the venues where students usually present their music – an arena that has an impact on everyone who participates. Being behind the walls means encountering an everyday life marked by isolation and restrictions.

For the inmates, too, the concert situation is unique, since they have not actively chosen to go to a concert. All the same, reports indicate that the music and this type of experience are very meaningful, and many inmates have expressed their gratitude that the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH) has brought music to them.

Bente Almås, project coordinator since 2011 and associate professor of music education, wants to find out what effect the prison concerts have on the students. Do they enhance awareness of communication and dialogue? Do the students’ attitudes change? Do their views of the inmates change?

Music therapy student Marie Løvås reflects on the experience.

“It made an impression to go through the large gates and the security controls, and to meet people I had never met before, who many people have preconceived notions about. I felt that we gained insight into a world not many people are allowed to see, and it has an effect on you to present music to an audience you have never had an opportunity to play for before. We often place ourselves in situations where we feel safe, and experiencing a community that is such a reversal of this was very special and rewarding. I feel that our common humanity, what we share, becomes so clear when we encounter each other through music, with all the emotions it encompasses.”

The project is open to all students at the NMH, and can be part of the main instrument instruction, chamber music instruction or other subjects in the programme.

Marie Løvås sings at Bredtveit. Photo: Milad Gholami

“I was at a concert at Oslo Prison in 2011. It was fine, but I thought that it might not be so easy to focus on the body, sex and rock’n’roll. Then I had the idea of presenting different genres, to counteract the idea that inmates in a prison are like a certain kind of music,” Bente explains. Her northern Norwegian dialect makes her sound tough as nails, but her voice is full of care and consideration when she talks about this – her pet project.

She says that the students who apply for the prison project come from both performance and music education programmes. The music therapy programme at the NMH also recruits a number of people from Staffeldtsgate NLA College and similar institutions. What is most important is that they have achieved a high level on their instrument.

What has happened since it started?

“New prisons and institutions keep contacting us, wanting to collaborate. I have unfortunately had to say no to some of them, because we don’t have enough capacity. Trandum, for instance, called me after having spoken with somebody at Ullersmo.”

Trandum isn’t defined as a prison. How do you notice the difference?

“Places like Ila and Bredtveit are based on the idea of rehabilitation. The people there are going to go out and be somebody’s neighbour. Trandum is just a kind of storage facility. There is a lot of anxiety, restlessness, desperation. Last year one of the students sang “Drøm” (“Dream”) by Erik Bye, and in the prison she talked a little about having a dream before she sang. When we got to Trandum she said, “Bente, here I can’t say anything about having a dream. Here I just have to go straight to the song.” That’s more or less applicable to Trandum as a whole, actually.”

“New prisons and institutions keep contacting us, wanting to collaborate. I have unfortunately had to say no to some of them, because we don’t have enough capacity.”

Bente Almås Music therapist and project coordinator for Music in Prison

Almås explains that the experience can be powerful for both parties. After eight years she feels that she is still not neutral.

“Many of the students need a time-out while they’re participating, because these encounters can trigger memories of their own stories, too. A lot of dilemmas can arise. For instance, when you meet someone incarcerated at Ila, where there are many people sentenced for sexual offences and violence, it’s easy to ask yourself how you can find it so pleasant and positive to be there. We spend a great deal of time talking to people there, which makes us re-examine our ideas of who a prisoner is. I remember one student who reflected on the fact that he had spent lots of time bringing music, the most precious thing in his life, to people who had potentially committed horrible crimes. But I have never experienced someone coming to the conclusion that it isn’t worth it. Never.”

What do the inmates say about the concerts?

“They are grateful that we take the trouble to do them – that we think it’s worthwhile. We don’t only play, we have lunch and talk with the inmates, and have an opportunity to find out how they feel about being addicted to narcotics or doing jail time. It’s these encounters that I try to arrange, and I feel that they have become more and more important for everyone involved as the project has developed. At Ila, we have organised a clinical internship for a Master’s student in music therapy. The NMH has become very visible and highly acknowledged for our contribution to the care of convicted criminals,” Almås says.

Løvås sums up the touring week.

“It was an intense week, with a multitude of impressions packed into a few days. I have thought about how random it is which family you grew up in and which community you are part of. Because basically we human beings are very much alike. We all want contact with other people, we want to be understood, we get angry, we get sad, we laugh. Music lets us meet each other with these fundamental emotions, and I think that this helped to make our conversations with the inmates afterwards much more natural than if we had just come for a normal visit.”

Diary from the prison tour

In the music room at Ila. Photo: Siv Dolmen

Ila Prison Blues

In the music therapy room at Ila Prison, conversations arise on subjects the inmates have never managed to talk about before.

The evening sun strikes the tall barbed wire fence outside the window and fills the room with warm light. There are five men sitting here humming, with their eyes closed, while their feet keep a beat on the floor. “Martin” takes a last look at the hand-written text in front of him, leans towards the microphone, and sings along to the keyboard’s blues chords: “Every day is a fight with themselves, to learn what is right.” With the bluesy sounds and lyrics that bear witness to a dark background, “Ila Prison Blues” conveys a sense of quivering tension. At the keyboard is NMH student Thomas Karu Tvedt.

“This is a voluntary activity that is enjoyable. Music becomes a common denominator that gives us something to talk about right away, even if we are very different,” Thomas points out. Since January he has held weekly music lessons for the inmates of Ila Prison as part of his clinical internship in the music therapy course. He has learned from his encounters with the inmates that music can sneak its way into the emotions, into what has been closed off – and function as a sort of door-opener.

“We can be listening to a song, and suddenly one of them says, ‘I stabbed someone to death, but I called an ambulance afterwards!’ I’m interested in continuing the conversation. ‘Does that mean you felt compassion for the person you killed?’ Being able to delve into these things is worth its weight in gold. I don’t dig more deeply than they let me, but I feel that they open up a lot. This lets us conduct conversations in the music room that they haven’t been able to have before with either psychologists or therapists in prison,” Thomas explains.

Calming effect

“Ken” sings the refrain “Rollin’ on the river”. He discusses the dynamics with “Noah” and “Erik” on the guitar: should they have played a little more softly on the third verse? Is the feeling too raw, or should the background be denser?

Ken says that the music lessons with Thomas have calmed him down considerably. He used to struggle with serious temperamental issues, but now he feels almost like a new person.

“Thomas has some caring qualities that make you trust him totally. At the same time, singing together has given me self-confidence. I get to know the others not only as inmates, but as knowledgeable fellow human beings. As though the music and what we create in this room give us a different kind of respect for each other.”

Noah tries to express how different music feels behind the walls of the prison.

“Before music was just something I enjoyed, but in here you realise that music is vital to your existence. It’s all about coping, and it gives you so much mental strength. A lot of the inmates feel that they have to maintain a tough image, but in my experience those of us who are involved in making music allow ourselves to be vulnerable. There is a huge benefit in that.”

“The days here are so extremely empty. So being involved in a creative process, writing your own songs and creating something, is very meaningful.”

Erik Inmate at Ila

Resource-oriented focus

The first time Thomas came to visit them, his message was crystal clear: I don’t know why you’re in prison. And actually I don’t give a shit!

“We have a resource-oriented focus in music therapy, and concentrate on what people can do – their healthy qualities. Although we don’t acknowledge or praise what they have done, we can still say ‘You’re all right as a person’. It’s important to communicate this,” says Thomas.

Martin says that he has always been uncommunicative, and has struggled with social anxiety. At first he wanted to be alone for the music therapy, and just listen to music, but now he has invited the guards from the entire prison to attend the concert they are presenting next week. He will have his debut as a songwriter and vocalist there.

“The days here are so extremely empty. So being involved in a creative process, writing your own songs and creating something, is very meaningful. You get a completely different sense of ownership towards music in here, and can go the entire week thinking up ideas and suggestions that you’re excited about presenting at the next music lesson,” says Erik, who also plays in the prison’s house band.

Sense of freedom

The fact that Thomas Karu Tvedt is blind has little importance for the inmates.

“We make sure that we don’t put a coffee cup on the piano without asking him, and otherwise we don’t think too much about it. But even though he can’t see, it seems like he is looking at us through other glasses. We’re not only murderers in his eyes,” Ken points out.

“We concentrate on what people can do – their healthy qualities.”

Thomas Karu Tvedt Former music therapy student

The ability to accept people as they are is advantageous for a music therapist. The little music room within Ila’s massive prison walls radiates a safe atmosphere and offers encouraging words to those who might be heading in the wrong direction. Thomas points out that the music lessons also have value as a means of social training.

“Research shows that music has a positive effect in purely physiological terms. Playing together develops good hormones and can lower the pulse and stress levels. But the music lessons also address the concept of working together with others as a group. These people are going to become members of society again, and will be living together with the rest of us. Music increases their social skills, in such elementary areas as waiting your turn and giving other people space.”

At the moment, it seems as though Ken is in total control of the rhythms of the repertoire. His fingers improvise playfully around the wooden body of the cajon. When Thomas begins the introduction to the next song Ken puts the instrument aside, closes his eyes and disappears into the melody. A tear forces its way out. “Often I have the impression that I am surrounded by armour that feelings can’t penetrate, but music puts me in a sort of meditative state. It gives me a sense of freedom.”