Monday, February 23, 2015

Pam Blevins Hinkle talks singing in prison

Posted By on Mon, Feb 23, 2015 at 10:08 AM

  • // Polina Osherov Photography
  • Pam Blevins Hinkle

Like many Indianapolis residents, I'm familiar with Pam Blevins Hinkle through her work as the director of the Spirit & Place festival. I wasn't aware of her rich background in music until last October when I was asked to curate music for TedX Indy. I'd been tipped off that Pam was interested in facilitating an audience participatory music performance. So I went to meet Pam to hear more, and I was significantly impressed to learn of her robust musical activities. From performing with the improvisational music group Thin Air to directing choral ensembles, Pam's contributions to the local music scene are as significant as they are varied. 

One particular project Pam mentioned really caught my ear: a music improvisation workshop she teaches for inmates at the Indiana Women's Prison. I asked Pam to promise that she'd let me interview her about the program whenever she had a free moment. Several months later I caught up with Hinkle during a brief lull in her ever-busy schedule as we spoke about her work at the Indiana Women's Prison via phone.

NUVO: I'm very interested in hearing about your experiences leading music improvisation workshops in the prison system. How did that opportunity present itself?

Blevins Hinkle: I got started when I was artistic director for the Indianapolis Women's Chorus. I was their director for about 13 years. One of the members of the chorus was a volunteer at the women's prison and she came to me and said, "We should really go out there and perform." So we did. And it turned out to be such an extraordinary experience on so many levels. 

I don't think we'd ever had such an incredibly responsive audience before. The women at the prison were so excited to have us. They sang along with us. They were participatory. We were singing in the chapel the first time and unbeknownst to me there was a box of tambourines and shakers that the women knew about and next thing I know we have all sorts of accompaniment to our singing. It was really special. 

That immediately got me thinking that this was important work. These people need music for healing. Music for me in the last 10 to 15 years is less about performance and more about transformation. Music is such a powerful force to experience beauty, to get in touch with what's inside you, to connect with the people around you, and to connect with whatever you define as spirit and sacred. It's a magical force and I could see that at work in the prison. 

So then I began to go out to the prison and begin doing workshops with the band I'm in, Thin Air. We went out and did some performances and started to work with the women in improv classes. I called it Music in the Moment and it was really just about understanding that we're all music-makers and that making music is a birthright, and how you can access that, and be free enough and liberated to access that.

In that prison environment their life is about boundaries and walls and they're very guarded in that incarcerated environment. They're very concerned about their own self-protection. So to have a space that they could be very free about who they are, to find their voice and let it be heard in that space, and also to see how they can spontaneously make something very beautiful with somebody else, perhaps somebody they don't really know. Making music in that way is about learning a language of give and take, about listening to one another and responding in the moment in a way that makes the whole beautiful. It was an awesome experience to watch these women bloom in that way. And wow, some incredible music was made. 

NUVO: Is the workshop primarily based around vocal improvisation? Are you permitted to bring instruments into the prison?

Blevins Hinkle: Vocal is what I'm the most comfortable with and I don't have a lot instruments to take. But I do bring a lot of hand percussion. We often work up toward getting people comfortable through improvising with just words, with spoken word to get them to understand that even when we have a conversation with somebody we are improvising in the moment. Improvisation is a skill we already possess. We start them off building a skill set, building a toolbox for what it means to improvise. 

But we have rhythm instruments and shakers. I use Boomwhackers, which are hollow plastic tubes tuned to the notes of the scale. They're super fun, you make sounds by whacking things. The whole way we do it is game-like. Games that teach simple concepts about melody, harmony and music dialogue. 

Through rhythm we work toward the voice, if they're comfortable with that. Some aren't, some of the women find rhythm is what speaks to them and they stick with that. I also talk about how silence is a contribution. So if you show up one day and you're not feeling it, and you want to contribute silence - that is also a valid contribution. It's about honoring what each person brings into the space. 

The women in the prison are so supportive of each other. I had a couple gals in my class that were so incredibly gifted as musicians. One of them had in fact studied with Angela Brown. They were tremendous and to watch them affirm someone sitting next to them who has never sang in their life and may be struggling, there was such a connection established between the women. It's not just about learning music. It's about building the relationship of community between them. 

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