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Ukulele strums its way into students' hearts

June 6, 2012

The ukulele is making a comeback in the local school district as a popular teachable musical instrument and extracurricular outlet.

Roosevelt Elementary music teacher Peggy Paar last week led 26 fifth-graders, each enthusiastically singing and strumming their four-strings to tunes such as "Frere Jacques," "Eight Days A Week" and "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

A day later, Longfellow music teacher Will Ulrich would lead 20 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students dubbed "Uke Crazy Kids" as they showed their club talents at the Village Green Street Fair in the village June 2.

Easy to learn

So, why the resurgence in interest among today's students for a funny little miniature guitar, which has historic 19th Century roots and was made somewhat popular in the mid to late 20th Century by the likes of Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim?

Apparently, the instrument's ease of learning has made it a cool musical choice, say teachers and their students.

"Ukulele music is being heard more and more," Ulrich said. "If you listen carefully to commercials, you can notice it. The instrument is a relatively easy one to learn. I teach piano, guitar and drums, and the ukulele is an introduction to those instruments."

Ulrich, a 17-year teacher who has taught in the district for the past 15, said he is merely the club adviser. The student members run the club and select their own music.

Revived and educated

He first detected the popular uke trend in 2010.

"I noticed them being sold in local music stores," he said. "They couldn't keep their shelves stocked."

That popularity eventually reached Paar at Roosevelt when a parent approached her in late 2010.

"I didn't know anything about ukuleles at the time," she said, "so I started to research."

Paar discovered a rich 30-year history of teaching the instrument in British Columbia schools. On her own, she took a vacation there last summer, talked to those involved and came back convinced the ukulele would make a great addition to her school's music program.

"I applied for an $1,800 grant from the EFW and got it," Paar said, noting that the support from Educational Foundation of Wauwatosa it was enough to purchase 26 instruments with cases.

Paar said students learn the ukulele starting in first grade.

"It's easy enough to learn and they can play on their own or in a group," she said. "It has been a lot of fun."

Strumming students

Fifth graders agreed.

"I thought it would be really hard to learn, but it has been fun get to know all the songs," said Maggie Cline.

Nick Barthoff said he knew of the Beatles songs because his parents like them.

"I like playing their music," he said.

Raine Cich, who plays flute and guitar, and Jaelen Alboyd, who plays viola, said playing ukulele was an easy transition.

Paar also said the instrument allows students to pick their own songs.

"When they can play what they want, they are more interested," she said, who believes the uke will remain popular.

A FEW UKE FACTS

Origins: Introduced in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1880s, and is a hybrid of two other guitar-like instruments.

Early mass production: From the 1940s to the late 1960s, plastics manufacturer Mario Maccafeeri produced about nine million inexpensive ukuleles.

Common sizes: Soprano, concert, tenor and baritone

Popular American culture: Played by early radio and television pioneer Arthur Godfrey and falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim (including his 1968 hit, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips").

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