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PhD student Sarah Nussbaum's 'Music in Prisons' project

A PhD Music student has taken a hands-on approach towards her research by making ongoing visits to a prison in order to gain an insight into how music-making can be used in prisoner rehabilitation.

Sarah Nussbaum is currently researching her PhD on musical participation in prisons and chose her subject as it was not only interesting and stimulating, but has the potential for new and innovative research.  Sarah explains, “This is still quite a new area for academic research, and one which few people have the time or resources to pursue. I’m able to dedicate three years to looking into this area and have funding available to me, so it's an exciting opportunity to look into the concept in great depth.”

Working in partnership with the charity, the Irene Taylor Trust, Sarah has been regularly visiting a prison since June 2015 where the organisation contributes to in-prison programmes for recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. During her time she has observed and participated in sessions and workshops with prisoners.  Sarah says, “There are weekly sessions of a few hours each, where a small group of prisoners can learn to play instruments, write songs and rehearse together. I've been able to visit every few weeks to observe and often join in with the musical activities, which has been a lot of fun. I also was able to spend a week there during one of their intensive Music in Prisons weeks in the summer when a larger group of prisoners wrote songs, recorded them onto a CD and ended the week with a performance to staff and peers.”  

Sarah’s PhD covers two aspects of music in prisons.  One is to investigate how music can contribute to the ultimate goal of reducing reoffending, perhaps by developing confidence and social skills, or by providing an emotional outlet to help deal with issues of addiction and past pain.

Another aspect of the research looks at the process of music-making, considering how people learn to play and looking at effective strategies to teach people music, often from scratch.  Sarah says that we can learn much from this in terms of musical education and participation.

During her time working in the prison, Sarah has been impressed by the standard of musicianship she has seen. “There are some incredibly talented musicians, who write some really good songs” she says. “Joining in with the sessions has also helped me to develop my own musical skills, as I’ve been playing a wide range of instruments which I wouldn’t normally have tackled!”

An example of the impact that music-making can have on an individual can be seen by one of the prisoners that Sarah has observed during her visits.  A person with learning difficulties and who wasn’t very socially confident was noted by Sarah as always remembering his base riffs really well between sessions, so much so that the others playing with him looked to him to take the lead. As sessions developed, Sarah observed a great improvement in his communication and social interaction skills.

Sarah’s prison visits are due to continue until September 2016. She says, “I’m finding my research fascinating and my prison visits extremely rewarding and am really looking forward to seeing the prisoners continue to develop their talent, confidence and personal skills”.

Posted on Monday 7th December 2015

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