Good Vibrations: Music, education, and opportunity in a Prison setting

Photo by: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The gamelan is an orchestra of percussion instruments from Indonesia, made up of various metallophones, xylophones, gongs and drums. It is a particularly communal form of music-making where participants are compelled to work together. You can see and hear one at HMP Peterborough here.

Good Vibrations runs intensive projects which support people to improve their well-being, become more engaged in learning, develop confidence and motivation, develop transferable life and work skills and see themselves with positive self-identities and positive futures.

Since 2003, Good Vibrations has worked with more than 3,300 participants in 53 different prisons, Young Offender Institutions, and probation services in the United Kingdom. It runs week-long projects where groups of up to 20 participants work together to learn to play a gamelan orchestra from scratch. They learn traditional pieces, compose, improvise and conduct, and also learn about Indonesian culture and associated art-forms, such as shadow puppetry. The projects are available to any person convicted of an offence in contact with these services. They are particularly well-suited to people with mental health needs or personality disorders, vulnerable prisoners, and those not engaging in work or education.

Sessions are punctuated by reflective group discussions, which support participants to develop communication skills and social skills. Participants can also gain modules of nationally-recognised team-working or Musical Ensemble Skills qualifications. Throughout the week, participants work together to devise a concert, which they perform to their peers, staff and others on the last day. As well as receiving a completion certificate and professionally-mastered CD of their music, Good Vibrations offers progression support to participants as they return to the community, through their ‘Keep in Touch’ programme.

The choice of medium — gamelan — is crucial, for a number of reasons. It’s novel, so people tend not to form prejudices about it; it’s accessible and adaptable for all abilities; it’s formed of layers, so as you fit your part in, you grow listening and non-verbal communication skills; it can be played without any prior musical training or knowledge of musical notation; it’s communal, so everyone’s contribution is equally important.

What the research tells us about Good Vibrations

Research evaluations of Good Vibrations have consistently found positive outcomes for participants, these publications have investigated the impact that the charity’s interventions have had both with the general prison population and on women, older men, young offenders, and men convicted of sexual offences. Research methods have included focus groups, interviews, psychometric measures, case studies, participant observation, pre and post programme measures, questionnaires, skills rating, adjudication reports and emotion scales.

Gamelan supports isolated prisoners to develop inter-personal and team-working skills that can help them cope better with being in prison, and so contribute to reductions in self-harm incidents and suicide. A significant finding in the research on Good Vibrations to date is the increase in communication skills and social skills that participants experience. Through communal music-making, people who don’t normally socialise have discovered they can cope better in group environments.

Post-project, participants have identified that they are more able to express their emotions, especially in-front of people they did not know. Research has found that participation in gamelan projects can improve participants’ listening skills, and the experience gives much needed space to less extrovert individuals to find their voice within a group.

Many of the people Good Vibrations works with in prison have rarely experienced a sense of achievement in the past. The professionally-produced CD of their work that is made on the project, therefore, demonstrates a highly-significant achievement whilst inside, which creates positive discussion points for visits and communication with the outside world.

The projects have helped reduce anxiety levels for participants, enabling them to feel more relaxed and cope better with stress. Some participants have even reported stopping self-harming during a project week. Furthermore, others have commented that they consciously avoided acting on their anger and having confrontations with other people during the project because they didn’t want to mess up the performance, after having worked so hard on it. Several participants were pleased and surprised that they had managed to control their anger in this way.

The gamelan projects help participants develop more trust in their own ability to make meaningful, valid decisions and an ethos of collective responsibility grows. The facilitators encourage a culture of shared leadership and joint decision-making, which enables participants to become better at communicating with, and listening to others.

The impact on engagement, learning and progression

With the ending of Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS) contracts this year, prisons and governors have increased flexibility and control over education budgets and the range of provision they can commission. But, however the landscape changes, research and current practice points to the fact that Good Vibrations’ interventions are remarkably effective at connecting with prisoners, motivating them and making them ready to engage with further prison education and work. Crucially, these projects act as catalysts for change — participants take learning and memories with them, which act as foundations of positive change to build on.

Researchers have concluded that Good Vibrations’ courses act as gateways into further learning — getting many prisoners into the education department, enrolling on English and Maths courses, who would never previously have done so. This is largely due to gamelan’s uniqueness; in the gamelan ensemble no one is an expert, and everyone is equal. This removes intimidating elements that are often found in formal education. On one project, for example, half of the participants enrolled on subsequent learning courses in prison, whereas before the project they had chosen not to do so.

Due to dislike of the education system; feelings of inadequacy; and fear of failure, people with poor educational backgrounds are sometimes reluctant to engage with formal prison education. However, after completing a gamelan course, participants’ increased confidence allowed them to push their boundaries further. Participants experience sustained positive emotional and psychological impacts after attending Good Vibrations’ projects, which spur on further positive behavioural change.

Participation develops skills, which lead to positive change such as progressing onto formal education, and coping better with the experience of incarceration. All participants said that their social skills had improved — that they could communicate better, were more co-operative team-players, and were more effective leaders. Given that motivation to change is influenced by positive interpersonal relationships with peers, Good Vibrations courses have been found to have the potential to motivate offenders to change.

Summary

Working together to learn to play a gamelan orchestra, Good Vibrations’ participants develop skills through a culture of collective responsibility, shared leadership, and joint decision making. A substantial research base exists about Good Vibrations, and tells us that participants develop social and group skills, improve their communication skills, experience achievement that for many prompts engagement with formal educational programmes; report reduced anxiety levels and an increased ability to cope with stress; and improve their anger management skills.

ICRD is based at @wlv_uni, we care about social justice, positive change, evidence-informed policy and practice, working in partnership to improve lives.