Tuning Up

Tuning Up, in partnership with Britten Sinfonia and Lemos & Crane, works to improve the mental health and self-esteem of residents at HMP Whitemoor through the collaborative creation of new music.

What we wanted to achieve

Whitemoor is a long stay, high security prison. Most residents are serving life sentences. Mental health, self-harm and suicide are all serious problems for residents and for the prison. The key goals for Tuning Up are to improve self-esteem, mental health and coping mechanisms for prison life, collaborative skills and empathy, develop better relationships with prison staff and family members, ongoing musical engagement and to change public perception of prisoners’ abilities.

Credit: Bish Patel, HMP Whitemoor

"It’s discovering. It’s seeing how far they can go with it, getting their ideas and incorporating it all together. One of the fiddle players, he started doing fast bowing and he discovered tremolando. I said, ‘that’s fantastic,’ and he just naturally did it."

Suzanne Loze, violin

The thing that really struck me was by the end we were like we were playing in a band. It wasn’t them and us, it wasn’t we are the orchestra.

~ Nathan Williamson, piano

What happened

The first project was delivered in spring 2018. 30 residents participated and, through workshopping and improvisation at six creative sessions led by Jason Rowland with Britten Sinfonia musicians, the men composed four original new musical pieces inspired by Gershwin, fusing jazz, reggae, rap, grime and classical music. Prisoners and invited guests were treated to a special concert at the prison. Will Styles, the then Governor of HMP Whitemoor, played in the band for the entire concert.

The impact of the project was so significant that the prison asked the partners to continue to work with them. In 2019, working with the same partners, we co-produced the Tuning Up Music Festival, a one-day event designed to involve prisoners’ families and nurture talent from the first project. Enabling prisoners to remain in contact and sustain a positive relationship with their family and children is a key outcome for the prison service.

In October 2019, in the visitors’ centre at HMP Whitemoor, nearly 200 people gathered for a one-day festival of art and music for the staff, residents and family members with the musicians of Britten Sinfonia. Family members visited for the whole day, some travelling considerable distances to be there. In the morning there were music workshops, art activities and face painting for the children and families. In the afternoon, a newly formed orchestra, complete with a string section, a brass section, percussion, piano and woodwind, of nearly 50 players - Britten Sinfonia musicians with residents and staff from HMP Whitemoor - performed a concert of new compositions inspired by Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and the work of the minimalist composer Steve Reich.

Involving the families was a big step forward, requiring prison staff and management to undertake a complex logistical exercise in a high security environment, but the considerable effort, way beyond the call of duty, was repaid by the warm response from the audience and the benefits for the men. Many people present, both residents and family members, were extremely impressed and appreciative of the extraordinary efforts of the staff to make such an ambitious project happen and with such spirit.

I found the Britten Sinfonia very fun and different to any music I’d done in the past … it gave me an opportunity to work with the general public in a professional and respectful manner which should show I have the skills to do that upon release.

~ Participating Resident


  • Staff and management of HMP Whitemoor report that residents who participated in Tuning Up 2019 are more engaged and positive with life and activities in the prison after their involvement in the programme.
  • Two of the band members have moved on to less high security parts of the prison estate – a success for them in their rehabilitative journey. We hope their participation in Tuning Up made a small but valuable contribution to their successful progress.

In the context of a long stay, high security environment where maintaining morale and wellbeing are high priorities for people who are very unlikely to be released any time soon, these are important positive outcomes in themselves.

Credit: Bish Patel, HMP Whitemoor
Credit: Bish Patel, HMP Whitemoor

"D took part in the pilot project in 2018. He was polite, helpful and positive towards the experience but chose to play the drums and take a back seat. This year he wrote two songs, sang on his own and presented part of the concert. He is now completing his teacher training and next year wants to mentor residents new to the programme. That’s the sort of rehabilitative culture we want to nurture.”

Sarah Rennix, Creative Learning Director, Britten Sinfonia

Read the second year Tuning Up report:

The atmosphere in the hall was pure, living and breathing Rehabilitative Culture. It’s all had an utterly brilliant impact around the site. It is one of those rare awesome days I will always remember.”

~ Will Styles, former Governor of HMP Whitemoor

Next stages

In normal circumstances we would have been planning the next phase of Tuning Up, developing the family-focused work to include the children of prisoners in the creation and performance of music, establishing music rooms on each wing of the prison and increasing access to music tuition as part of the education programme of the prison.

Following the lockdown of the prison as a result of covid-19, the men only had limited time out of their cells every day, morale was falling and life, as for all of us, but increasingly so for people in prison, was challenging. In consultation with the prison, and with our partners Lemos & Crane, we worked with the music leader of Tuning Up, Jason Rowland, to produce a CD that contained recordings of all the music from the two previous Tuning Up projects and a series of creative tasks.

These creative tasks used Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro which Britten Sinfonia was due to perform in June 2020 at the Aldeburgh Festivals Opening Concert. “Elgar was well known for jotting down ideas and tunes that he would hear and borrow for his own works, so it made sense to me that we now borrow his tunes and make our own,” Jason explained. He suggested two song ideas borrowed from the piece as starting points for a range of rhythm and melodic tasks the men could develop. He also thought it would be good to think about the state that we find the whole world in now, saying: “We are all in lockdown and having to experience this as a world together with the worries and hopes that go with this. That felt like a good starting point and strong collective focus and I really hoped that residents will work on these and when we get together again we can give continue to develop their ideas.”


Britten Sinfonia, Lemos & Crane, HMP Whitemoor