Ukuleles: Officially a Thing

Fifth-graders, from left, Liam Nikkel, Jylee Davenport and Gabriel Edwards play along

Music teacher Susan Berce sang and strummed her ukulele as students walked into class. “There she was just a walkin’ down the street, singin’ do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do.”

Berce interrupted herself to give directions. “Join me whenever you’re ready. Get your ukulele out. Sing with me.”

“There she was just a walkin’ down the street, singin’ do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do. Snapping her fingers and shuffling her feet,” Berce continued. The song went on, students joining on their own small guitar-shaped, four-string instruments. “I’m hers,” Berce sang, “She’s mine,” the class sang back.

A $1,800 grant from the Kelloggsville Education Foundation recently funded 33 ukuleles, or “ukes,” to provide fourth- and fifth-graders with a chance to learn to strum and sing a long. The grant also covered 10 electronic tuners and extra strings.

Ukuleles, invented in the 1880s in Hawaii, have become very popular in teaching elementary students music, Berce said. At about $50 a piece, ukes are an affordable instrument perfect for beginning musicians.

“It’s a great starting string instrument,” Berce said. “They’re super easy to play, super easy to pick up on and a great size for their hands.”

The instrument is catching on in local districts, where they’ve been incorporated into music programs. Kenowa Hills’ elementary schools have added ukuleles to their musical repertoire in the past two years, with grants from the Kenowa Hills Education Foundation. Lauria Majchrzak last year incorporated them into her music classes at Alpine and Zinser schools. Arianne Hulford this year followed up at Central Elementary with a $1,442 grant for 32 instruments and 32 instruction books.

Hulford used ukes to introduce her fifth-grade students to a stringed instrument, helping prepare them for sixth grade’s choice of band, orchestra or vocal music. They learned to play songs with up to three chords, with the aid of a PowerPoint to help them follow along. She hopes next year to make use of them with fourth-graders as well.

Kelloggsville students learn songs using just four chords
Kelloggsville students learn songs using just four chords

They can quickly learn to play chords with only one or two fingers. Plus, students think they’re cool – especially those who heard the instrument in a short film with the movie “Inside Out.”

“It’s a very popular instrument right now, kind of coming back in popularity,” Hulford said. “We’re hearing it in pop music and played on the radio a lot. As soon as you said ukulele, the kids knew what it was and what songs you could play. It got their attention right away.”

East Grand Rapids Public Schools has ukulele clubs in a handful of buildings. At the high school, students meet for practice before school and sometimes participate in school concerts. And despite middle school teacher Harry Coffill’s belief that nobody really wins anything online, enteringa social media contest brought delivery 40 ukes this year from one of the instrument’s makers. A club is forming there, and students used them in the spring choir concert.

Next year Coffill hopes the young ukulele players will perform during the homecoming parade. Breton Downs and Wealthy elementaries were awarded grants for the purchase of ukuleles for student use.

And in Grandville, K-5 music teacher Janell Mergan received a grant in 2014 to purchase 240 ukuleles for all seven of that district’s elementary schools. The Grandville Education Foundation provided $2,400 and the district matched the contribution.

“Ukuleles are not only easier on the ears than recorders,” Mergan said, “but they also help prepare students for orchestra. The young musicians are able to play chords in the first week, and the guitar-like instruments connect them to popular music.”

A Way to Keep Students Interested

At Kelloggsville, Berce said students often start losing interest in music around middle school, and the uke is a great way to keep them engaged. Many elementary students learn to play recorders, but the uke is a “lifelong instrument.”

“You can play and sing with it and you can play hundreds of songs,” she said. “Once they know those four chords they can play so many things.”

The uke teaches basics of how a song is structured and when to change chords. “That stuff, they all inherently start to pick up,” she said. “I see a huge boost in confidence and engagement.

Fifth-grade student Gabriel Edwards said the ukelele is helping him get ready for sixth-grade band, she said.

“I like to come down here to practice,” Gabriel said, following a class session of ukulele strumming and singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “You are My Sunshine” in the music room. “I like how you practice chords and everything. It’s helping me move my fingers easier.”

SNN reporters Charles Honey and Morgan Jarema contributed to this article.

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Ukuleles in Music Class

East Grand Rapids Middle School students hold the 40 ukuleles the class won through an online contest
East Grand Rapids Middle School students hold the 40 ukuleles the class won through an online contest
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2012. Read Erin's full bio

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