Late last week Steve Slade, a local Whitehorse musician and teacher, gave a group of students their last music lesson before their holiday performance in front of their families.
Unlike most of his classes, he is teaching guitar and harmonica to this group of students at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre.
Slade has been teaching students at the jail since the summer, after the jail used some of its recreation budget to buy six Yamaha guitars. Craig Cameron, the jail’s drum-playing manager of programs, encouraged Slade to make a proposal to provide lessons for the inmates.
“In this session I’ve done everything from Disney to Metallica to Johnny Cash to the theme to the Friendly Giant. But everybody starts with something well known, like “Happy Birthday.” The theme of the Friendly Giant seemed a little out of the ordinary.
“We were working out of the healing room, which has these tiny little castle-like windows that look out, and the one guy says something to the effect of: ‘Man, this like looking out of the Friendly Giant’s window.’ So I went online, found it, listened to it and wrote it out for guitar and harmonica. Brought it in next week.”
The inmate was quite pleased, Slade said with a laugh.
Slade’s students range in age from their early twenties to late fifties. Some have been meaning to learn guitar for years.
“All the guys want to play guitar,” said Slade. “This is part of the rite of passage for the basic, ‘If I play guitar, the chicks will all love me.’”
Slade has been teaching in small communities of northwestern Canada for 20 years now. “I’m used to working in the rural schools where I’m working with a lot more behavioural problems, which will disrupt your classes a lot more if you don’t find ways to deal with it.”
Such is not case at the jail, where guitar lessons are a privilege, not a right.
“The guys that come in appear to have a handle on, ‘OK, this is something I want to learn, I’m getting something out of it, etc.’ As opposed to if you’re nine years old or 12 years old, you don’t have that maturity to look at that. You may be having fun and like it or maybe you’re not having fun and don’t like it and you don’t really know why and you’re just expressing the fact that you don’t like it.”
Unlike the kids he has taught in schools in the past, “The difference is that at WCC the guys who are old enough and mature enough to realize is this is something they can utilize. They come and ask me for help, making the initiative to take the skills I’m giving them and pursue it on their own.”
Slade uses some of the same tried-and-tested techniques at the WCC for teaching guitar with his students. He restrung all the guitars with neon-coloured strings, making them easier to identify during the class.
In addition to the classes, WCC staff volunteer their time to come in to practise and play with the inmates. Slade also records songs and put them on a USB stick for the inmates to play back on a computer. Videos are also available for them to practise and learn.
Teaching harmonica is a recent addition to Slade’s music lessons.
“The beauty of a harmonica is in its simplest form it’s just breathing in and out, and as long as you’re breathing in and out in the proper rhythmic fashion, some of the simplest songs are right there.
They’re cheap and portable.”
Slade once brought 360 harmonicas to Inuvik and taught the whole elementary school a few songs. After the concert, he said he left town as soon as possible, because they can be “incredibly obnoxious instruments.”
“I got the hell out of town before they tarred and feathered me.”
Valerie Moser, the jail’s deputy superintendent of programs, said the music program’s benefits were clear to those who attended the holiday performance.
“Especially one individual, who’s been practising, who’s never played the guitar in his life, to have his family watch him play and see how proud he was. He’s not just sitting here doing time. This is a voluntary basis that you can take these music lessons. So to see the pride on his face was amazing. I think he wanted to do more jamming on it, but we stuck to the Christmas celebration stuff.”
Contact Alistair Maitland at