Sara Lee (left) rehearsing an Irene Taylor Trust project

A musical lifeline

We would likely all agree that music makes us better people. Meet Sara Lee, Artistic Director of the Irene Taylor Trust, an inspirational organisation that helps people find their way forward from the darkest places through music.

‘When I was younger, if anyone had asked me what I might end up doing, it’s unlikely I’d have settled on spending 35 years as a musician in the prison system. Being invited to be part of a new course when I was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and a consequent one-off gig in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs in 1984, became the start of my life working ‘inside’ which has continued to reward and enrich me in equal measure.

If this gig wasn't different enough already, the defining moment came when our tutor said 'I've just been given this by one of the prisoners, could you play it for him?' It was a folk tune and, as we were playing, I heard the amazing response the man received from his peers: how they shouted their approval to both him and us, during and after the piece, openly sharing the joy they were experiencing. Having this interaction was very new to us and a breath of fresh air.

The Lullaby Project, in which participants composed lullabies for their children with musicians from the RPO

Afterwards, the education officer at the prison said he'd never seen something have such a positive impact, and would any of us like to come in and teach music? I said yes, and soon found myself in a prison classroom where there were 12 expectant men and no musical instruments. Added to this, I had never taught before, so it was a baptism of fire. I knew that honesty was the only way to go. It was the start of 11 very happy years where two hours a week became a full-time position. I watched those at the start of very long sentences, slowly re-find their confidence and self-worth through playing and writing music, subsequently spending several years immersing themselves in something which would become key to their wellbeing. I got to meet people I would never have crossed paths with, heard stories that would never cease to amaze and inspire me – and help them tell their stories through song.

I founded the Irene Taylor Trust following my time at the Scrubs. As Artistic Director, I develop, support and deliver work with prisoners, former prisoners and young people on the fringes of the criminal justice system. With colleagues, I devise and implement our artistic strategy, but the greatest pleasure comes from helping people who don’t think they can, to write and perform their own music.

Sara working with a group of young men at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago

All our programmes are based on creating original music, and they deliberately link and feed into one another. Each focuses on groups of people who are 'apart' from society in some way, whether they have a wall round them or whether they’re a group that hasn’t had, or doesn’t get, the opportunities many of us do. The overriding aim is to support them all to become an integral and valuable part of our communities, through music. We work in partnership with other organisations and musical ensembles and, over the past seven years, have even expanded overseas, to the US and to Norway to share our model and working practices, and to support the training of younger musicians in such work. We’ve worked with young men in detention, teen parents, and parents who have lost their children to gun crime. But the aim is always the same, to draw on people’s individual stories and help them write songs which they can keep forever.

The Irene Taylor Trust's 21st anniversary gig at Union Chapel

The subject of music always ignites a conversation, making it one of the most accessible art forms. To my mind, this puts musicians in a strong position to make a difference in the world, and we should all continue to think outside the box, to ask how we can use our skills to support our communities. The desire to see, and play a part in, change has always driven my work as a musician. I see social injustice which I aspire to do something about, I see poor quality opportunities offered to marginalised groups, and saddest of all, I see such groups bypassed entirely, often getting nothing at all, which of course does nothing to address the lack of cohesion in our society.

Working in prisons has had a profound impact on me. All those years ago, I stumbled into something and realised immediately the difference it can make to the lives of the people I work with. Over three decades later, I still see the worth of doing it, maybe more so now as our communities are fractured and there are huge divides between the haves and have-nots. It’s always fascinating, always challenging as a musician, and a human, and 100% rewarding, even when things go awry. And it’s a job which is very necessary for society as a whole. Sharing my skills with those that may not be able to afford to go to a gig, might not be able to get to where they happen, or just feel 'it's for others, not for me' helps my belief that music genuinely is for everyone.'

Below you can listen to two lullabies composed by Michaela and Gideon, participants in the Irene Taylor Trust's latest initiative, The Lullaby Project. Recognising that those in the criminal justice system are often distanced or estranged from their children, the project gives them the chance to write lullabies for their daughters and sons, expressing their hopes and pride for each of them. Each participant workshops and records their piece with professional musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Click here to find out more about the Irene Taylor Trust.