Case study: Beckenham Concert Band prison concerts

Philip Emery, Chair of member group Beckenham Concert Band, and Director of music charity Changing Tunes (London & South East), explains how they approached putting on prison concerts.


The Beckenham Concert Band is a community band with about 40 members, playing for our own enjoyment and to continuously improve. A central focus for the band is that a many of its concerts are to raise money for charities and support good causes.

Beckenham Concert Band in action

Over the years a good relationship has developed between the band and many different local and national charities from community causes to organisations like the RNLI. My work in prisons provided the opportunity to investigate extending this ethos to play a concert for the benefit of prisoners in prison where the music and the experience of a concert could have a direct and positive impact for the audience as beneficiaries. The impact of the experience for band members proved unforgettable, too.

Of course it helped to know staff in the prison and know the establishment from working in the prison. This case study concentrates on a concert at HMP Bronzefield, a modern prison for female prisoners in Ashford in Surrey, fairly near to Heathrow airport. It is a ‘local’ prison serving the courts, where much of the population stays for a few weeks before being transferred to other prisons for the majority of their sentence.

For many of the women there it is their first experience of prison. From the first year the prison opened, music has been an important part of the regime, ranging from a full-scale production of the musical, Chicago, in partnership with the music charity, Pimlico Opera, to the use of music therapy and the weekly sessions delivered by the Changing Tunes Musician in Residence.

The positive experience of music in the prison and support from the prison governor, along with the track record of charitable work by the band were a recipe for a successful scenario: a receptive prison and an interested concert band.

The Challenge

It is difficult to organise a new initiative in a prison, as everything is subject to strict security regulations and this makes everything take longer. However, the plan was very simple: take a community concert band into a prison to provide a concert experience for the benefit of both the prisoners and the band members. There were no lofty aims and objectives. The concert would be an extension of the work of both the band and the prison. There were some reservations from some band members naturally anxious about playing in such an environment. However, my experience of work in prisons was helpful in assuaging such anxieties and demonstrating the potential benefits of bringing more music into the prison.

What we did

Initially, the band planned for the event like any other concert: find out who is available, select and rehearse the music for the concert and work out the practical arrangements such as timing and transport.

Clearly, my contacts and experience in the prison made the requirements for visiting HMP Bronzefield easier to manage. However, the main tasks were around the provision of information in advance for security checks, such as full names, addresses, NI numbers and dates of birth for attendees and the details of instruments to be brought into the prison. However, this is not that daunting as it is, after all, quite similar to the preparation needed for a band tour abroad.

On arrival at the prison the band members would all need to be security checked against the information provided in advance so it was easier to book a coach so that we all arrived together. The biggest challenge was probably the practical one in the prison gatehouse of searching all the instrument cases before being allowed into the prison. This probably took about 40 minutes, so be prepared for waiting around – also required when being escorted from one part of the prison to another. The concert took place in the prison chapel and, on arrival, we set up for the concert like any other concert in a church and awaited the arrival of the audience.

The results

We played a 45-minute set for two different audiences. For some members of the audience it was the first formal concert of this type that they had ever experienced and so audience participation was much more in evidence, but this was just right for the occasion and the light programme was chosen with this in mind, including the familiar ‘Liberty Bell’ to open the concert and ‘sing-along’ selections from musicals like the ‘Lion King’.

The audience response was like no other the band had experienced and it was uplifting to every musician there because of it. What an opportunity it was to be part of someone’s first concert, whatever the circumstances!

The feedback from the prison afterwards was so positive as it was from the prisoners themselves, who clearly had participated in something new, liked it and wanted more of it.  The impact on the band members was also like no other concert with which we had been involved and had a lasting effect on quite a number of the musicians who had learnt that prisons were not like the places described in tabloid newspapers but places where there were some fragile and needy individuals and that music could make their lives a little better.

What we learnt

  • Knowing someone with work experience in a prison environment helps, although this is not essential.
  • Research potential prisons in your area in advance to find one where music is valued.
  • Develop a good relationship with key staff at the prison so that arrangements run as smoothly as possible.
  • Take time to talk through the plans together in the group so everyone is aware of the potential impact as well as the extra requirements of prison security, so plan the whole event well in advance (Police National Computer checks can take some time to process).
  • Clear your head of preconceptions about prisons and go and find out what they are like for yourselves

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