For the players from the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra who help run the Platform Programme at Christchurch Men’s Prison, the goal is not to turn the participants into accomplished musicians but to use music to build qualities such as perseverance, confidence, motivation and self-esteem.
“Watching the development of tū ora [the name given to the men at the prison by the local iwi, Ngāi Tahu] is so rewarding,” says first violinist Cathy Irons, who has been involved with the Platform Programme since its beginnings in 2017. “At our initial meeting they’re often a bit anxious or maybe a bit stand-offish. By the end of the eight weeks, they are strong and empowered and able to express themselves.”
They can also beat out an impressive rhythm on a plastic bucket, one of the key instruments used in the programme, along with ukuleles, guitars and recorders.
“Learning some basic skills on a bucket drum is actually a really complex thing to do,” says Cathy who until recently was the orchestra’s head of community engagement.
The success of the Platform Programme was recognised in Te Putanga Toi Arts Access Awards 2021 on Monday 5 July, when it received the Arts Access Manatū Taonga Community Arts Award.
In their comments the judging panel said: “We were deeply impressed by the versatility of the CSO as it extends and connects with its audiences through a transformational process of music and performance. Also impressive is its commitment to collaboration to help overcome fear and enable communication and pride in performance. World-leading in how it functions as an orchestra, its community outreach, research-led and strength-based approach is outstanding. This programme has had a profound impact on the participants in Christchurch Men’s Prison and on the musicians.”
Transformational effect of the Platform Programme
Cathy first witnessed the transformational effect of the Platform Programme during a pilot course held in the prison’s youth unit in 2017. She and two other musicians from the orchestra visited the unit daily for a week, taking their own instruments and some plastic buckets and ukuleles.
At the end of the week the men performed in a concert attended by whānau members as well as the rest of the unit and Corrections staff.
Everyone was blown away by the concert. In fact, one long-time Corrections officer said it was the best performance he’d ever seen in the youth unit. The young men themselves – most of whom had never performed before an audience, let alone been applauded for it – felt a huge sense of pride in what they had achieved.
Since then, the Platform Programme has become a regular programme at the prison. The focus is on adult tū ora in the Navigate Unit and preparing for release from prison. Instead of running every day for a week, the programme now runs once a week for eight weeks.
“We find that the impact of doing it over eight weeks is a lot deeper,” Cathy says. “It gives the men time to absorb the information and a chance to think about what they’ve learned in between times.”
Cathy says the final concert at the end of the course is a vital part of the programme.
“It gives the men a purpose and a goal, and it also helps them realise it can only happen if they stick at it,” she says. “The guys often say they are amazed at how much they enjoy the experience of pushing through and absorbing information.”
Working with the Pathway Trust
The CSO worked with Christchurch-based prisoner reintegration organisation Pathway Trust to set up the Platform Programme. It’s one of a range of programmes delivered by community groups that make up Pathway’s pre-release initiative, Navigate.
In 2019, the orchestra commissioned an independent report on the Platform Programme. The report found it builds a range of skills such as confidence and motivation, as well as an openness to new learning. As one tū ora observed, “If I can learn these skills, then I can go out and learn other things.”
Another tū ora pointed out that it helped them understand the importance of perseverance: “If I try something new and I keep at it I’ll get good at it.”
The relationship between the CSO musicians and some of the tū ora has continued even after the men leave prison. In May, the orchestra hosted a group of now-released former Platform participants and their whānau at a concert featuring singer Tiki Taane and guests.
CSO Chief Executive Gretchen La Roche says that for most of men it was the first time they had been in the Christchurch Town Hall, let alone heard the CSO live. But that didn’t stop them from catching up with some of the players after the concert and sharing their favourite parts of the night.
“It’s great to see everyone growing from their shared experiences,” she says.