A cup of tea with Artistic Director Sara Lee

Two Sides; The Visit - Tea - Lizzie Coombes

Sara was approached by the Taylor family to set up the Trust in memory of Irene Taylor in 1995. Irene had been part of the Butler Trust panel which had recognised Sara’s excellent work as a music teacher at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. The Trust started small, operating from Sara’s living room, with just three prison projects in our first year.

As we now approach our 21st year, much has changed, with the Trust growing organically to add programmes in the community (Sounding Out and Making Tracks) to our well-established Music in Prisons projects. Sara’s achievements have been recognised with a fellowship from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where she originally studied, and this week brings the news that she will be the recipient of a coveted Travel Fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust.

ITT: Congratulations on being awarded a Travel Fellowship by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. What will this allow you to do and what do you hope to bring back?

Artistic Director, Sara LeeSL: Thanks! It’s such an incredible opportunity. I’ve decided to look at the role music can play in resettlement and crime prevention and will be travelling to the US and also to Norway, giving me the opportunity to look at two quite different prison systems and how they use music both inside and through the gate.

When deciding on the countries and programmes to visit, I wanted to focus on areas of our work which we are currently developing in order I can use my new knowledge to enhance the programmes when I return. I’ll also use what I learn at a strategic level, speaking to those who make the decisions on what we actually do with people when they are given custodial sentences, to remind them of the wide-ranging and transformative effects music and the arts can have and how it should be a non-negotiable part of the rehabilitative process.

ITT: You’ve been working with music in criminal justice settings for quite some time now (for the Trust since 1995, and 11 years before that at HMP Wormwood Scrubs); what keeps you so interested in this work?

Sara Lee quoteSL: There’s never a day where I feel I don’t want to be at work, whether I’m delivering a project, planning the future with colleagues or simply wading through piles of paper wondering what to do first. It helps when you work with a wonderful team, there’s always something to talk about, discuss or learn and then of course there are the people we work with who, for the whole time I have been doing this work, have been a constant source of joy and inspiration.

ITT: Do you have any particular highlights from the Trust’s lifespan?

SL: Too many to mention! I really enjoy everything that goes into devising and delivering the bigger, collaborative special projects we have embarked on – such as A Bigger Sound with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Rideout – and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to take our work overseas for others to learn from.

However, the best thing for me is always being in a room with a group of participants about to start a project and remaining with them until the end, witnessing all the experiences they have whilst navigating the ups and downs as we create music together. The people we work with are and always will be the focus; they give me the biggest laughs and the most emotional moments, often happening just minutes apart. They are absolutely what the work is about.

ITT: Can you tell us a bit about your own musical background please? What is it about music that inspires you?

SL: I played the recorder when I was young; this led me to the clarinet which I ended up studying for three years at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When I was young I used to sit in my room playing along to Glenn Miller records, picking up the tunes by ear and working out which parts were which and seeing how many of them I could learn and play. At college I was classically trained, instilling a great discipline which has stood me in good stead with the work I do now. Quite simply, the inspirational thing about music is the joy it brings me as an individual, whether I’m by myself or in a group; either listening, creating or performing.

Sara Lee with CSOITT: As well as the exciting travel projects for the WCMT Fellowship in North America and Norway, you have another project planned (alongside project leader Nick Hayes) in Chicago with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this Spring.  Can you tell me a little about what you have planned for this third project with CSO?

SL: We’re actually delivering two quite different projects in Chicago this year, which will be an exciting challenge. The first is with teenage parents who are in touch with various services across the city, helping them write Lullabies to give to their children. Following this, we’ll be returning to work with young men in temporary detention in Cook County. As always, we’ll get the chance to work with some of the brilliant CSO musicians, which is always a real buzz and great fun.

ITT: You have quite a zest for adventurous travel in your spare time. What do you love about travel?

SL: I’m quite inquisitive when I travel, preferring backpacking and camping in places that are off the beaten track. I love it because I enjoy working out how to get by and travel from place to place using languages I don’t understand. My favourite trips are always the ones based round seeing stunning physical geography or being with animals.

ITT: Do you have a standout memory from your recent explorations?

SL: During my most recent trip, I worked for 3 weeks as a volunteer at a monkey rehabilitation centre in South Africa which, as well as being an incredible experience, opened my mind to all the additional opportunities there are to become involved in unusual and beneficial community projects around the world.

Sara monkeying about

ITT: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

SL: It was more a general piece of advice really and it was, ‘what’s for you won’t go past you.’ I always think of this when something doesn’t quite come off in the way I hoped or expected, remembering that something even better is likely to be round the corner. It’s the ‘glass half full’ scenario!

ITT: Thanks Sara!

SL: You’re very welcome.

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