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Ukelele Hour grows in popularity at annual music camp

July 4, 2018

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Ukuleles come in all sizes and colors.

At a two-week long music camp at Campbell County High School, young musicians are learning all about playing the instrument. For the first year, Ukulele Hour is part of the daily lessons offered at the camp.

There’s just something about those ukes. It’s hard to feel serious about the tiny ukuleles, even when their strummers are seriously trying learn how to play them.

They are smaller, sometimes twangier versions of guitars. They’re easy to play and a “good gateway” to playing guitar, said CCHS instrumental teacher Jesse Strauch.

Last Tuesday, the second day of the uke class, Strauch taught nine people to play “My Dog Has Fleas.”

He also got them started on “Hot Cross Buns.”

He explained how to play notes and chords on the instrument’s four strings and played “Jimmy Brown, the News Boy.”

But the students didn’t strum a full song.

Among them was Sarah Melinkovich, 13, who brought her own ukulele, slightly larger than ones the other students had.

“I got it last summer and I didn’t know how to play it,” she said. Ukulele Hour is teaching her how to play her own instrument.

“It’s just fun,” she said, adding she also plays oboe (starting that Tuesday, the second day of music camp) and the clarinet.

It is Melinkivich’s fourth year at the music camp. If the ukulele players perform during the Fourth of July parade, she said she will probably have to miss it. The Sage Valley Junior High student will be performing with the school’s marching band instead.

TINY, BUT AWESOME

Steve Oakley, director of the annual music camp, said it was his idea to add ukulele lessons to the camp’s repertoire this summer.

“Everyone, it seems, is really interested in it,” he said. “Especially the kids at Rozet. It’s not a difficult instrument and it’s something to do so there’s no down time this year.”

A record 225 students are participating in the music camp through July 6.

Oakley said the Campbell County Community Public Recreation District awards a grant to hold the music camp program. The camp had some money left from last year and decided to buy 26 ukuleles and tuners in colors like yellow, light blue, purple, red and white.

They also bought a rack to hold the ukuleles. The strings, Oakley said, are nylon and have to be tuned every day until the plastic in them stretches out.

“It’s a silly little instrument. It’s so cool,” Oakley said. “It doesn’t get much more fun.”

Strauch said the four strings on ukes are like the top four strings of a guitar.

“It’s about as difficult to play as a harmonica,” he said.

SURGING IN POPULARITY

For some reason, the popularity of ukuleles are making a resurgence, Strauch said. They were last popular in the 1940s. His cousin makes top-of-the-line ukuleles and said he’s a busy man these days.

Perhaps it’s the size of the instrument.

Few of the young music students in grades 4-12 have a problem reaching their fingers over the frets to make chords.

But they tend to get a bit frustrated trying to keep up with others in class.

“To me, there’s nothing like the timbre of a guitar. It’s a good gateway to learning how to play the guitar,” Strauch said.

He had a dental appointment last Wednesday, so Oakley took over his class, pointing out the notes on each string with the phrase “Good Children Eat Apples” or G, C, E, A.

To play, the musicians need to sit up straight and bring the tiny body of the uke right into their bellies, he said.

“It is not a bad instrument,” Oakley said, adding that players should use floppy fingers to pluck or strum the strings.

Then he went into a quick rendition of “Hot Cross Buns” and had the 11 musicians in the class playing that a few minutes later.

The biggest chord, a G, requires the use of three fingers.

“Make sure every string makes a sound,” he encouraged. “The hardest part of playing these is switching them,” as in going from a C to a G or G to a C.

“If you can play those two chords, you can play 90 percent of the songs,” he said.

When he added a D chord, he told the students they could play every top-10 hit on the radio.

PIECE OF CAKE

“My goal is by the end of today we’ll split the class in half. One will play the melody and one will play the chords, like a real band,” Oakley said.

Soon, he had the musicians doing just that.

“It’s a piece of cake,” he told them. “That sounds really good. Amazing.”

Soon he was teaching them to play “Should Have Been a Cowboy” by Toby Keith and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

All the while, Oakley was strumming a purple ukulele that nearly exactly matched his purple Camels T-shirt. The strains of his strumming wafted over the small class with that unique ukulele sound. Every musician smiled.

“If you can play these three chords, you can play anything,” he said, teaching them a D.

Allison Gingerich, 16, was among the pickers and strummers. Her friend, Lea, had asked her to come to the class.

“She didn’t want to do it alone. I really do like it,” she said, adding she’s tried playing a bit of a uke before.

But not like this.

“I’ve never been able to play a stringed instrument,” she said, practicing for a smooth transition between chords. This is the first year the junior is attending music camp.

“It’s pretty fun. You meet a lot of new people,” Gingerich said. “It will be the first time I’ll be in the July Fourth parade.”

Olivia Fulton, 9, was frustrated by the ukulele last Tuesday. By the next day, she was grinning with her identical twin sister, Eva.

“It’s pretty fun,” Olivia said. “Everyone was faster than me yesterday.”

She requested the students learn “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” a song she loves.

The two have played the ukulele before with Oakley at Rozet Elementary School, they said.

Now they’ll have some new songs under their belts, more confidence and will be more familiar with the colorful ukes of all sizes and their unique sounds.

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Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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