Ukuleles are making their debut at Bigfork Elementary.
Elementary art and music teacher Heather Epperly used proceeds from an art fundraiser to purchase a set of ukuleles last spring.
“I’ve always played in orchestra and stringed instruments are kind of my jam,” Epperly said, who started playing the violin in fourth grade and learned the mandolin a couple of years ago.
Ukuleles are a beginner-friendly introduction to stringed instruments according to Epperly. Ukuleles typically have four strings and are similarly shaped to acoustic guitars. Their small size makes them easy for children to handle.
“You can have success the minute you pick it up,” Epperly said. “Truly, with the ukulele, if you can play three chords you can play a lot of songs.”
This is the first year Epperly has taught the ukulele to second through fourth grades. There is also a ukulele club for fifth-graders who also learn to play the recorder — a time-honored tradition in U.S. elementary schools — with high school band teacher Randi Tunnell.
Students had their first ukulele performance for Gov. Steve Bullock who visited the school in October. Students will perform again at a winter concert in January.
Younger grades start out learning simple chords as they familiarize themselves with the instrument.
“The little guys are really learning about how to take care of an instrument, how to play really basic, simple songs, and sing at the same time,” Epperly said.
Singing and playing at the same time is challenging.
“That’s hard to do for kids because they have to train their minds to do those two things at once,” Epperly said.
On Nov. 15, a group of fourth-graders arrived at Epperly’s classroom. Black, blue, green, red and white ukuleles hung in a row underneath a dry-erase board in front of the room. Two students at a time were called on to get a ukulele.
After sitting down they tuned their instruments by playing “G, C, E, A,” using the singsong phrase “my dog has fleas.” Epperly walked around the semi-circle of seated students helping them with tuning.
Sitting in front of the group, Epperly asked them to find the “C” string. The strings are labeled with color-coded stickers to help with finger placement.
“One, two, ready, my turn,” Epperly said as she sang and played, “Ta, ta, ta, ta.”
“One, two, ready, your turn,” she said in a singsong voice as the students joined in.
“I’ve been watching some of you giving it a hug right here,” Epperly said flattening her hand around the top of the ukulele neck. “That’s not going to allow you to move your fingers.”
Epperly loosened her grip and lengthened her fingers, creating space between her palm and the instrument.
“So let’s repeat, ta, ta,” Epperly said, pausing, “I want to see your instrument in ready position — third finger on the red dot. OK, here we go.”
The group then transitioned into playing and singing with “Are You Sleeping,” followed by the French version, “Frère Jacques.”
Some students played with unabashed enthusiasm and others with careful concentration.
“To put the two together you have to train your brain to do that. It’s not easy for everybody to sing and play at the same time,” Epperly said.
After playing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” Epperly made it more challenging by having them play in a round. One side of the room began while the other half joined at the words “merrily, merrily.”
“Stay strong,” Epperly said.
Experiencing success, she introduced a new chord, “G7.”
“It’s easier to transition through your progressions if you learn G7.”
This is the first stringed instrument that fourth-grader Abby Hansen has played. While Hansen said it is a lot of fun, she noted to her teacher that her fingers were sore — a common occurrence when starting to play stringed instruments. After playing another song, Epperly had the class take a break to massage their hands. The students also have picks to use as an alternative.
Fourth-grader Brinly Youso said she attempted learning guitar, but has found more success in learning the ukulele.
“I like how it’s easier than guitar,” Youso said.
The students once again pick up the ukuleles as Epperly teaches them the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land.”
“Do you know where the redwood forest is,” Epperly asked bringing out a map of America.
When one student asked why Montana wasn’t included in the song, Epperly took the opportunity to conclude the class by teaching the state song.
“Montana, Montana, glory of the west. Of all the states from coast to coast, you’re easily the best, rah, rah! Montana, Montana, where skies are always blue. M-O-N-T-A-N-A Montana we love you,” the group sang in unison.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.