The Starting Five, 2/24/2015


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. 


NUVO: You must have had some remarkable experiences while facilitating these workshops. Any particular memories stand out?

Blevins Hinkle: In the prison system there's quite a bit of racial segregation. I still remember one gal who came to the class. In the last week we always talk about what we learned and experienced and one of the women expressed her amazement that she would be able to come and sit and make beautiful music with people of the opposite race. It doesn't get any better than that in terms of outcome. It's really about finding our humanity while making exquisite music.

NUVO: Do you encounter a lot of challenges specific to the prison environment?

Blevins Hinkle: I really have to be flexible as a facilitator because I never know from week to week what's happening at the prison. It's taught me to be a super-good listener and to be really present to what they were needing to do. I remember one week I arrived and it had clearly been a very challenging week at the prison. I could see it by the way everyone was sitting and the way they were talking. The improvisation that day lasted 40 minutes. Every one of the women stepped into the space that day and sang about what had been going on. Some of it was hilarious and some of it was heartbreaking. And they made some of the heartbreaking stuff hilarious by singing about it. It allowed me to teach something and transform the experience into something different. It's powerful stuff.

NUVO: How are your workshops viewed by the prison administration? Was it difficult for you to bring this program into the facility?

Blevins Hinkle: No, it was not difficult. We have to continuously build relationships with the staff and the chaplain. I think when they walk by the door and watch us they think we're slightly crazy. Because we are doing some crazy stuff in there, making amazing sounds. When you improvise there's beauty and chaos in equal parts. But there's been nothing but support and graciousness from the prison system.

There seems to be a lot of creative talent inside the prison population. That's interesting isn't it? It makes me wonder about creativity that's been misdirected. And there are a lot of folks there who have learning disabilities, or are just different than what we might consider the normative. It makes me wonder if that's part of the reason they're ending up in prison. Not that they're doing something wrong, but we don't always know how to deal with those people who are super-creative.

I think it's so easy for us to imagine that the people in prison are the "other people" and that would never be us, or that would never be someone we know and that they deserve to be there. When you are sitting with these women and they are singing out their joy and pain you realize the expression, "There but for the grace of God go I." You realize they are not different from you and I at all, and that we are all on the same journey. Theirs is a lot harder.


Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.

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