In this #MeetTheMember blog, we speak to Sara Lee, Artistic Director at the Irene Taylor Trust, a charity which delivers music projects in prisons and the community. Sara discusses her first gig in front of prisoners at HMP Wormwood Scrubs, how the team has continued song writing with prisoners during lockdown, and the power of music to change lives.
What is your background?
My family loved music but couldn’t play any instruments. I learned recorder at school before moving onto the piano and clarinet, and I was accepted to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I had a great time at Guildhall, but I knew that it was unlikely I’d walk into a job in an orchestra or band. The only other option, apart from a career change, was teaching.
What drew you to working in the criminal justice/voluntary sector?
Just as I was finishing my studies and wondering what to do next, a new course began at Guildhall, which involved taking music out to parts of the community which couldn’t typically access it. My first project was to create a gig for long-term prisoners at HMP Wormwood Scrubs. A pre-visit wasn’t possible, so we spent weeks composing, arranging and largely guessing what the prisoners might want to listen to. Prisons were not often in the news at the time and no one really knew what happened inside, so it was a voyage of discovery for us all.
It was the most honest, vibrant and exciting gig I’d ever taken part in. The men shouted their approval and asked questions in between songs. The defining moment in what was an extraordinary introduction into prisons and their residents was when a prisoner who had written a piece he’d never heard played, asked if we could perform it for him. We did, and the response he received from his peers and the musicians was like nothing I’d ever experienced.
The education manager said he’d never seen anything have such a positive effect on the men, and asked if we wanted to teach music at the prison full time. I said yes and that was the start of 11 extraordinary years.
What does your role involve?
When I left Scrubs in 1995, I was asked to form the Irene Taylor Trust. At the start, it was just one other colleague and I delivering creative projects in prisons around the country. We raised the money, made the contacts and slowly grew the organisation into what it is now, 25 years later. As well as the prison projects, we broadened our remit to support former prisoners and young people living in challenging circumstances.
On any given day, I could be delivering a project, training musicians, working with colleagues on strategy and fundraising, building new partnerships, creating new projects or joining with other organisations to promote and advocate for the arts in criminal justice. It’s extremely varied, sometimes difficult but always interesting.
Can you describe your organisation in a few sentences?
We are a passionate and artistically driven group of people who believe creating original music collaboratively has a powerful and positive impact on people’s lives, bringing new confidence, important transferrable skills and raised aspirations for the future. Whether this is writing a song, learning an instrument, or curating a gig, it doesn’t matter — the important thing is making music and working together towards a common goal.
What do you love most about working at your organisation?
Without a doubt, my favourite part of the job is creating new music with a group. It was how I started, it’s where my heart is and it’s how I best communicate our mission clearly and effectively to others.
I love working with people as passionate as I am, who think outside the box to make our projects imaginative and inspirational for the people we work with. All our staff team and musicians fall into this category.
What are your organisation’s biggest focuses right now?
We’re focusing on continuing to support prisoners during this unsettling time, albeit in new and reimagined ways. We’ll also be celebrating our 25th anniversary at the end of the year. This may be tricky if restrictions are still in place, but we’ll find a way to shine a light on all those we’ve worked with in the past and currently support, to acknowledge their part in making the Irene Taylor Trust what it is today.
How is your organisation responding to the challenges of COVID-19?
We’ve had to reimagine how we deliver our services and communicate with prisoners. We’ve continued our song writing project via the post. With social visits cancelled during lockdown, many prisoners have focused on family as a theme in their song writing. We’ve also worked with some freelance musicians to produce CDs and worksheets on different genres of music, which prisoners can do by themselves or with a cellmate. However, we’re looking forward to getting back into prisons and being in a room with people, which is where the real magic happens.
What has been your proudest moment at your organisation?
The big events are always pretty special. When we celebrated our 21st anniversary at Union Chapel, we had all our participants on stage with us, and last year, former prisoners from our Sounding Out programme got together to do a gig at Rich Mix.
For me though, the special moments are the smaller ones, when someone sticks with a project despite it being tricky; writes and sings a song for their family; realises they are good at something; or enjoys praise from someone who has watched them perform for the first time. These are moments where you watch someone grow, and find a new, exciting path in life.
Do you have any routines or habits that help you succeed?
I’m a morning person! If I need to get any good thinking or writing done, I have to do it in the morning. My mind wanders as the afternoon progresses…
Do you have any hobbies?
I have a season ticket at Arsenal which takes up a good deal of my time. I’m also a regular swimmer.
Native Son by Richard Wright was impossible to put down.
Such a hard question. I always gravitate to Leonard Cohen’s Tower of Song whenever I’m asked this.
Jungle Book, purely for the childhood memories it brings back!
It has to be ‘That Peter Crouch Podcast.’ Crouchy and his guests get to the bottom of those crucial questions that hardcore football fans want to know the answer to. I love the humour and nerdiness of it.
What advice would you give to someone else in your role?
For me, it’s all about the team of people you work with. If you are surrounded by committed and inspirational people, then the work will flourish and the difficult days will be easier. You need to remain true to your beliefs and advocate for what you know to be right. You need to be visible and prepared to be knocked back on occasions. It’s a tough sector, no more so than now, so steely determination, tenacity and bravery is also key. Above all else, remain focused on those you support, and always look for the humour — it helps alleviate the sometimes bizarre and often unfathomable situations we find ourselves in.
What do you like most about being a member of the Criminal Justice Alliance?
I enjoy having a network of people within reach who can offer advice, support and new ideas when you hit obstacles, need to understand something or even just want to expand your knowledge. The CJA and its members are great for this.