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The month of December is filled with music. Seasonal music dominates the radio, community choirs offer free concerts and music students prepare for what is often their first-ever recital.
The Wasatch Music Education Program had no intention of missing out on that latter tradition or initiation, whichever way you look at it. But the atmosphere is a little different at this music school, where the students and most of the teachers are inmates at the Utah State Prison.
Program director Kenneth Green came to the school in 2007, not long after the program's inception. He realized when he took the helm that the school had potential, but needed a bit of organization. And as a retired director of Air Force bands, pianist for the Utah Symphony and high school music teacher, Green felt confident that order was something he could provide.
"It wasn't a big stretch for me to come in," he said.
Music classes at the prison are taught, for the most part, by the inmates themselves. After a minimum of three months of music lessons, they may apply to be tutors and teach classes themselves. More experienced tutors are allowed to use one of the prison's computers to write music and organize their own music groups.
The inmate-directed structure of the music school gave rise to a diverse program for Saturday's recital. The offerings spanned everything from beginners' brass choirs and orchestras performing familiar carols like "Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," to modern pop songs and even a cover of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo," plus a handful of original numbers.
One of those originals, a modern country-inspired Christmas song titled "Snowflakes," made its world debut at the recital. Composer Casey Perkins said the song was the result of a collaboration that took place just last week.
Keyboardist Revere Burnett had come up with an idea to write a song about a boy who wants to give a snowflake as a Christmas gift, only to become depressed when his perfect gift melts in his hand.
"It's kind of like my life, you know," he said. "When I realized that life wasn't about what you get but what you give … I guess that's how it was inspired."
Perkins has a fair amount of musical experience under his belt he said he wrote his first song, with the help of his younger sister, about 27 years ago, when he was a teenager.
Composing the first draft of "Snowflakes" took the group about 20 minutes, he said.
While there is certainly talent among the incarcerated musicians, Samuel Seager, who helps organize the music school, said that's ultimately not what the school is about.
"I'm not so concerned about how good we sound," he said, "it's that the inmates are applying themselves. For the first time many of us are actually working towards something and not quitting."