Learning musical theory from scratch and writing an opera at the same time is a startling achievement, but the informal nature of the Music in the Community set-up in Saughton has made it possible for the weekly classes to become a sounding board for David Price's composition.
Although the theory classes need some formality, the workshops have allowed Price and other prisoners to apply the theory in a creative context with people they trust as non-authoritarian figures. There is an affability between the students and the low-risk, long-stay prisoners at their weekly, two-hour encounter, helped undoubtedly by the warders keeping their distance at a desk at the end of the corridor.
For an outsider walking into the spartan room in the prison's education wing where the classes are held, the teaching method is hard to fathom. For a start the students are not qualified teachers, so traditional didactic methods give way to a relaxed, improvisational approach, and with half a dozen tutors to a dozen prisoners, it is very personal. Students sit around the room with groups of two or three prisoners. Sometimes they get the whole class to write a song, although if the mood is not right they will stick to the tutorial format. Nearly all the prisoners have guitars and the students bring a keyboard to give those studying piano some practice, albeit limited.
Those studying theory are taken through sheets of music and taught how to read them and what the principles involved are. Those working on songs play them to the students, who might suggest ways for them to progress and what rules - staying in key, for example - have to be obeyed. Each prisoner has a favoured genre. Some write songs while others are tackling classical composition. John Lockhart was already a keen jazz musician before he went into prison. He is using the classes simply to make life inside bearable. "You get a chance to be creative with your music. I can give my music to other people to play and that's what really motivates me," he says.
Others such as Jim (who did not want his last name published) come to the workshops just to try things out. He has been writing poetry and wants to set it to music. "I would never have thought of doingthis on the outside," he says.
Tiffany Hughes explains the relationship that the students and prisoners have. Although Price is an exceptional talent, the idea is to generate a basic level of interest and understanding for all the men participating in the project. "We try to find out what sort of mood they're in. They can all write lyrics, so everyone does that. Some of the more experienced musicians then put a chord sequence together and we've got a song.
"It's that easy with the talent some of them have got. They need a bit of theoretical understanding but they are keen to learn. They don't come bounding in, saying 'let's get down to work', but if they were bored, they wouldn't come back," she says.
Bob Motel, the manager of the education unit at Saughton, outlines the value that the Music in the Community project has had for the prison. "It's not about just keeping prisoners busy. It's about learning and giving them the opportunity to work with the outside world and introducing some element of normality. It's about being able to work with other people - and it encourages them to be more mellow. By bouncing ideas off each other they are learning to live together."