Postcards from Bergen: Music in Prisons visits Norway

Norway visit 2019

In October 2019 we were delighted to return to Bergen prison, Norway, following a successful practice sharing visit in 2018 funded by Erasmus. Our Creative Programmes Director Jake Tily kept us up to date with these ‘postcards’ on our Facebook and Instagram pages:


Day 1

Anddddddddd we’re off! We’re excited to be returning to Norway this week to deliver one of our Music in Prisons projects in Bergen Prison. Stay tuned for updates on the project, obligatory selfies and photobombing.

Day 2

The prison we’re working in is one of a few in the country (and possibly Europe) that houses both men and women. From an outsider’s perspective this feels more humane and a more realistic reflection of the outside world they are going to be released into. That being said, there are of course plenty of situations and reasons why this wouldn’t always be appropriate or safe to do so. On speaking to residents, opinions around this are mixed. Women are the minority in the prison, and they only mix during education, work or religious service. This is becoming less common though and it sounds like it may eventually be abolished.

Today we finished the three songs that were started yesterday and begun two new ones. We have some strong musicians in the group, many of whom receive weekly 1-1 tuition with the music instructor here and also rehearse in different prison bands. After the afternoon session we visited another prison to catch up with some people we’d worked with last year and to hear some of the music they’ve written since the project. It was really humbling to see the care they’d taken over the welcome, the music and the food they shared with us.

Day 3

“Why should music projects happen in prisons?”

Today I asked staff, residents and instructors this question, and these are the responses I got:

“There is not much joy in prisons. Music is a joy. Music is another language.”

“I truly believe that we need creative activities and the arts to help complete life.”

“It gives you memories of freedom.”

“If you feel bad or pain it releases the pressure.”

“There’s not much from the outside world we can take in apart from music.”

“It’s fun. It’s a very boring place. We need the stimulation of it.”

“It is life important. It gives people something to look forward to and to escape in your mind. It can save lives. It saved my life. They can get another network on the outside. Something that isn’t drugs or criminals.”

“The creative part is important. It makes people develop their creative parts.”

“Prison is meant to be a form of rehabilitation. It’s a good form of therapy. Without it I would isolate myself.”

Day 4

Today we rehearsed and perfected the six songs that have been written this week, ready for tomorrow’s performance.

Whilst there are some striking differences between Norwegian and UK prisons (as our Artistic Director Sara Lee discovered when undertaking her Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship research) there is also a lot of familiarity with regards to delivering projects:

Residents missing sessions for the different appointments they need to attend makes rehearsing for a gig tricky (although going for horse riding lessons and doing online banking aren’t appointments we’ve heard of before.)

Managing group dynamics is often challenging. A group may often consist of some who appear quite fragile, some who struggle with working in groups, some who feel the need to exert their dominance and some who are incredibly laid back and flexible. All of them will have varying degrees of musical proficiency.

Lyrically the topics and themes people want to write about are also very similar: Fractured and unhealthy relationships; love; sadness and regret; and hope for the future, feature in a great number of songs that are created on our projects.

Day 5

Wow, what a great way to finish off the week! Today we performed to around 30 residents, outside guests and staff in a very small library. The band was incredible and the vibe amazing.

Prison staff and teachers all came to see the work their students had been doing and said they’d had no hesitation about letting them have time off their usual activities to do this project, as they’d known the positive benefit it would have on them.

Whilst we know well from delivering many projects the positive impact they can have on wellbeing and confidence, it was interesting in the debrief that the residents identified that making music was of secondary importance compared to how it felt to be praised throughout the week as the project progressed.

Thank you to our hosts for another incredible project – see you in 2020!

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