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Singing behind bars: The community choirs changing lives ⏱ 3 mins

    Read how one choir director ignored her detractors and turned her dream – to take community choirs into prisons – into a reality.

    Most people spend their lives trying to stay out of prison but not MJ Paranzino. The singer and musical director battled for ten years to get into HMP Wandsworth.

    Why was she so keen to get behind bars? MJ had a vision: to give prisoners the chance to experience the transformative power of group singing. 

    She’d seen it work its magic in all sorts of settings, including Springfield Psychiatric Hospital in South London. If choir singing could change lives in a secure psychiatric unit, why wouldn’t it deliver the same benefits in prison?

    “It doesn’t matter how tough someone is, or what their image is,” MJ says. 

    “Singing is wonderful and universal. You relax, and you giggle, and you laugh together. It’s just a groovy thing to do. No matter what your mood is, it’s contagious.

    “This strange thing happens with singing, and choirs especially. When you leave, you have a skip in your step, you have a smile, and your burdens have been lifted for an hour or two.”

    Changing attitudes

    Prison bosses vehemently opposed the idea of MJ bringing community singers from ‘the outside’ into HMP Wandsworth for regular choir sessions. It took a decade to change their minds. 

    MJ reveals on the Singing Teachers Talk podcast how she finally got the prison community choir up and running, and why she’s so passionate about making group singing accessible to all walks of life.

    Liberty Choir

    MJ, and the charity she co-founded, Liberty Choir, now have choirs in HMP Wandsworth, HMP High Down and HMP Downview. 

    About 70 Liberty Choir ‘graduates’ have stayed in touch after their release from prison. Some have joined one of MJ’s other community choirs (she runs Brighton City Singers, South London Choir, West London Choir and The Hastings Town Choir).

    Next steps

    Covid-19 has played havoc with in-person Liberty Choir rehearsals, but two choirs are now back to face-to-face sessions in prisons. MJ hopes the charity can expand in the years to come – she’d like to see a community choir in every gaol in the country.

    “It’s great to do a good deed and go in and do a two-week performance or a one-off session,” she says.

    “But it’s another thing to go in every week, year-round, and interact with people and be there when they come out and be available.

    “You’ve developed comradeship, friendship and fellowship with them through music. You’ve met people at the worst time in their life, and you’ve accepted them – that’s powerful.”

    MJ’s never-give-up story will provide a welcome boost for any musical directors struggling right now or anyone finding it hard to bring an idea to fruition. Listen to it here.


    More from the BAST Blog: Discover how singing can help people with Long Covid.