Walking across the yard, women sitting about in prison greens, I hear a voice call out, ‘Hey Bronnie, I’ve got a kick-arse song to play to you later’. I’ve just been checked in through security at the Correctional Centre for Women and am about to start my weekly songwriting and guitar class.
The idea of the program had surfaced more than eighteen months before. But I had no idea to how to approach the prison system, find funding and get it up and running. Through some unplanned but perfect steps, I met a fantastic woman who was highly knowledgeable about the private philanthropy sector in Australia. She happily shared her knowledge with me on ways to bring the idea into reality and continued to educate and help me enormously. She also introduced me to a theatre group working in the Victorian prison system. It turns out that I’d been living right next door to them ten years earlier and they were already running their program then. So I was able to ask them even more questions.
One step led to another, my confidence growing, realising it was now an achievable goal. The willingness and support from the Education Department at the prison helped me to hang in there when funding applications continued to challenge. Eventually a grant was approved, enabling the program to get underway. I have learnt a great deal about philanthropy as a bi-product of this journey. While it is at times a long and frustrating process, the knowledge gained is an unexpected gift not wasted.
Many of the inmates are there for drug and alcohol related crimes. Most, though not all, come with tragic histories of abuse, family dysfunction, incredibly low self esteem and a tough exterior shielding deep wounds. It was from a healing perspective that I chose to teach, creating the curriculum around writing from the senses, expressing emotions and allowing wounds to be released.
It took my best and driest humour to crack a smile in that first class, while they were all sussing me out. Before long, the women started warming to me and by the end of the class some were contributing well to discussions. By the second and third week, laughter and tears were flowing freely.
Sometimes regulars won’t be in class. There are some very hard days for them when they just can’t face anyone. Most have kids in foster homes through Community Services, some are waiting on hearings, which can be delayed month after month, some can’t face each other due to relationship tensions, and some just come up with the craziest excuses. Generally though, the class is now one of the highlights of their week and all are regular students.
I was told to shut up at the start of one recent class as they were ‘busting their arses’ to play me a song. Shut up I did. It was beautiful. The women also play their guitars now out in the compound, bringing music to other inmates who would not be hearing live music in any other way. Their pride and improved self esteem is the biggest and most rewarding change so far.Class is a supportive environment and while all show different levels of talents, each woman is a valuable contributor to what we all share.
Most had never even played guitar before and are initially incredibly nervous to perform. Nerves that totally cripple them when hands shake too much to hit strings, voices choke up and breathing almost ceases. Having come from that place once myself, I now also cover the power of the mind and the rewards of mental discipline. Watching a student go from that level of nerves to playing solo in front of over a hundred people left this very proud teacher unable to hold back her tears.
One student is planning on studying music on her release. Another, a former songwriter, has reconnected with that part of herself after more than a decade. Another said that this is the first time that she has been inside that she hasn’t been constantly thinking about heroin, as her songwriting ideas are taking up more time. And yet another, who has never written a creative piece in her life, arrives in class on time every week, sits in the front row and comes out with verses that would challenge the very best of songwriters.
I do cover technicalities, song structure, guitar tuition, writing exercises and basic music theory. But I have chosen to teach much more from an emotional point of view. And teaching women with such vulnerabilities and lives of sadness, this is proving to be the best way.
It is easy as songwriters and musicians to write off ideas to be a teacher, comparing ourselves to others in the field more skilled. But knowledge is for sharing and by approaching teaching as a gift of giving, one cannot help but receive so much more than ever given.
The joy of music transcends prison walls and cultural differences. It is about music and through those stories comes healing, sharing, inspiration and eventually laughter.
There are tears too. But sometimes they are tears of joy, from a teacher who counts her blessings, for the courage to have made this dream a reality.