Lincoln teachers introduce ukuleles in the classroom
By MARGARET REIST
Nov. 18, 2017
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Move over, recorder — you bastion of fourth-grade instrumental music — there's a new kid in town who's hip and cool and the perfect accompaniment for songs from "Moana."
Associated for many years with Hawaiian culture and stripped of coolness by Tiny Tim, the ukulele has made a comeback.
And in recent years the instrument has found its way into Lincoln Public Schools classrooms, like Megan O'Brien's.
O'Brien knew she wanted to use ukuleles with students before she'd graduated from college. She and a friend discovered the instrument while at a local music store looking at guitars. The music education majors who bought them learned to play, and quickly realized they would be perfect for the classroom.
Now in her third year at Zeman Elementary, O'Brien got a grant to buy 27 of the instruments halfway through her first year, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.
All her students learn to play, beginning in kindergarten, when they learn rhythms by strumming their ukuleles. As they get older, they learn chords and songs. They also learn to pick and play melodies.
By fifth-grade, they're ukulele virtuosos, like the 20-some students recently strumming the ukulele and singing a song they wrote about unity — a song littered with C and F chords, and even an appearance of the more difficult D.
"The best part, I think, is it's just so exciting," said O'Brien. "(Students) have a quick success rate — they very quickly feel they are good at something. They learn two chords and already they're singing a whole list of songs."
And those songs aren't just "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" or "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." There's a little Jason Mraz and, of course, "Moana."
Her friend, who teaches at Huntington Elementary, has also gotten a grant to buy the instruments for her classroom.
Lance Nielsen, music curriculum specialist for the district, said he's purchased ukuleles for teachers to use in class, and other teachers — like O'Brien — have found grants to purchase them for their classrooms.
He estimated about 200 ukuleles are being used at LPS, in at least 11 schools, though relatively few classrooms have them for all students. They are primarily in elementary and middle schools; at least two middle schools have after-school ukulele clubs.
And it's not all that uncommon to walk down the halls of a high school and see a student strumming a ukulele by his or her locker, Nielsen said.
"It's kind of the hip instrument right now," he said, in part because it's small and easy to learn.
The ukulele has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in American culture in recent years, after being assigned to oblivion for many years by the advent of rock 'n' roll and Tiny Tim's "Tiptoe Through The Tulips."
The diminutive instrument, which looks like a small guitar with four strings, was first introduced to Hawaii by a Portuguese immigrant in the 1800s and enjoyed mass popularity, especially in the 1920s and again in the 1950s.
Beginning in the late 1990s, popular musicians began to rediscover the ukulele, and Hawaiian artists like Israel Kamakawiwio'ole helped the little instrument regain its status as cool.
And they began to find their way into schools.
This fall, LPS invited James Hill — a professional ukulele player from Canada — to work with teachers on how to use the ukulele in the classroom. He also performed for students.
In Canada, the instrument has been a mandatory part of the fourth-grade music curriculum in many schools since the 1970s and Hill co-authored a series of instructional method books.
If you still think fondly of the recorder you got in fourth grade, don't despair. Nielsen said the ukulele will supplement, not replace, the recorder. The latter, he said, is still a good introduction into woodwind instruments.
The ukulele, like the xylophones used in many classes, is another way to help spark students' interest in music.
"That's powerful right there," Nielsen said. "It's one of my own personal goals in this position (overseeing music instruction in the district): How can we reach all kids," he said.
The year after O'Brien introduced ukuleles to her students, they became the hot item on Christmas lists, and some of her students now bring their own to class.
"I think it's a lifelong instrument," she said.