Currently I’m hunkered down in Champaign-Urbana at the Illinois Summer Youth Music camps. I have had the pleasure of teaching the ukulele elective and soon I’ll be putting up a resource page with charts, fun exercises, and places to get cool ukulele gear. To those of you I had in class last week I miss you already and those of you I get to hang out with this week, I cannot wait. Stay tuned for the update, It will be up shortly.
The last couple of weeks are a little hazy (much like this photo), but I am happy to say that all the ukes—every last one—is now strung and somewhat in tune! Applying polyurethane with an HVLP (high volume, low pressure) sprayer was great for the ukes, but easily one of the most exhausting tasks I have ever undertaken. After that, we still had to string them, but I’ll detail that process on the uke project page soon.
This week in class, I was reminded of why I wrote the grant that led to the craziness that has been life over the past couple of months. We played. We sang. We made mistakes. We learned something new. We laughed, and we had FUN. I sincerely hope that the experiences we have had throughout this project are just the beginning for my students. They have created a unique instrument from scratch, and have shared that experience and the experience of social music making with their peers. We have given them what they need to enjoy a lifetime of music making in whatever capacity they wish. Perhaps they’ll continue to play and advance in their abilities. Perhaps, they will write their own songs, teach a sibling how to play, or just play casually every now and then with friends and family. Whatever their choice, I’m happy they have the abilities and experiences to make it.
On Monday, International Ukulele Hero, Jake Shimabukuro, will join us via Skype. Early on in the project, we reached out to Jake just to let him know what we were up to; and soon, we were trying to figure out a way to include him in our project. The kids’ first introduction to the ukulele was a video of Jake talking about ukulele and how playing it has changed his life. It is fitting that we will culminate the project by coming together with Jake to play for each other, share some music, and have fun. I encourage you to do the same this week. Come together with some friends, share some music, and have some fun.
I have spent the better part of this school year dreaming up, fleshing out, and now realizing this idea to build ukuleles with my students. Even with close to 300 partially built ukuleles staring me in the face each day, it still doesn’t feel completely real. The students are so eager to begin in earnest, as am I. However, at this point, I have reached an impasse, as my need to control the situation is coming into conflict with the reality that I cannot.
In my teaching (and especially with this project), I have attempted to learn to balance planning with the ability to “go with the flow.” At the least, I realize the need to balance these two aspects, and I’m try to bring it to fruition in my daily actions. Anyone who knows me is aware that “going with the flow” is not my strong suit. I like to plan, and I like things to go just as I envision them. Over the past month, I made “test” ukuleles for my sisters to develop my luthier skills and to encounter any problems that my students may face as we undertake the process. While making their ukes, I made regular trips to the hardware store, brainstorming with the staff about problems that I had encountered.
After unsuccessfully mixing the epoxy on my sisters’ ukes four times and realizing we had nowhere to dry them while school was in
session, I concluded that we (myself and several dedicated teachers) would epoxy the necks to the bodies of 290 ukuleles over Spring Break. In one day (approximately 7 hours), we had 281 successes, 7 epoxies that didn’t take, and 2 ukes that were defective—not too shabby!
That day, I let go of some control and put my trust in my colleagues. They didn’t let me down. They made me smile and bought into this crazy idea I had. I know that I am not able to foresee all of that we will encounter with this project; but ultimately, I am able to see what can happen when you trust. When students know that you trust them with the task at hand, they are empowered. They’ll buy in too and the experience will be their own. This is not to say there won’t be mistakes or missteps, but those are a part of life and a part of the learning process. So, April 23rd, regardless of whether I feel truly ready, the ukuleles will be in the students’ hands, and the project will be fully underway.
When you love something so much, you talk about it, you can’t contain it. If you find something that you think is the greatest thing in the world, what teenager is quiet? There are none.
Megan Jasper, Sub Pop Records
Before we make the ukes with the kids, we thought a couple of “test” ukes would be a good idea. The above picture is my third attempt at epoxying the neck of the ukulele to the body. After 24 hours of curing the epoxy was still gooey and I could easily peel the neck off of the body. BLAST!
After exchanging emails and texts and two visits to the Home Depot, I came to the conclusion that the only possible error could be in the mixing of the epoxy. Chuck at the Home Depot was very helpful at getting all the gooey epoxy off for me and also in educating me about epoxy. Epoxy or polyepoxide comes in a syringe with two separate compartments that contain a resin and a hardener. When you push the plunger and the resin and hardener come out you only have a limited amount of time to fiddle around before it sets. Each epoxy is different and the box usually denotes how much time you will have.
As I have learned, ratios are super important. Making sure that you have the same amount of resin as hardener and that the two are well mixed is paramount. Just a little too much of one or the other will prevent the epoxy from hardening and cause you a considerable amount of grief.
What I have learned from my three failed epoxy experiments and eventual victory on my fourth try:
- The ratio of resin to hardener must be exact. Squirt a little bit of the epoxy out onto some cardboard before applying to your surface to make sure that both compartments are flowing equally and at the same time.
- The resin and hardener must be mixed, thoroughly. You can use the syringe to mix them or your finger(fear not, it will wash off, I promise!), but you must make sure that they mix together!!
- Don’t use too much, or too little epoxy. Too much causes a mess, but can be sanded away. Too little is problematic, make sure that both surfaces have an even coat of epoxy covering them. A little seeping is ok– I’d air on the too much side always.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. I spent much of this week trying to epoxy the neck to the body and failing miserably. Ultimately getting my hand a little dirty was what made the difference. Epoxy is smelly but it’s not caustic and it does wash off.
For me, the fourth time was the charm. I did it! I’m happy we are testing things out first. Re-epoxying 1 ukulele 4 times is an inconvenience, re-epoxying 300 ukuleles 4 times would be a disaster— fixable but a disaster nonetheless. So, step one (epoxying the neck to the body) is done. Tomorrow we will glue the fingerboard onto the neck, hopefully the wood glue will behave.
Songwriting is an extremely new venture for many of my students, and for me as well. Although I have journal upon journal with a wide variety of poetry, stories, angsty prose and would be lyrics I have never written a song on my own, or really even ventured to do so. Any music I have written has been required of me for a class.
The thought of writing something bad has paralyzed me–until now. A couple of weeks ago I spent a fun night with some friends writing a song of “epic” proportions. It was terrible/awesome/funny/lame and I loved it. So I got over my fear and I am embracing my absolute lack of experience and experiencing songwriting with my ukulele club.
My students and I began by listening to a song written by students of a friend and fellow music educator, Caitlin McGovern. I worried the kids would be overly critical and/or not give the song a chance, but they loved it, we all did. It was catchy and it stuck with us. We even figured out how to play it on our ukes! You can check it out here as well as an article that Caitlin wrote for Leading Notes.
Today we finally made our first foray in songwriting on our own. After some brainstorming we concluded that we would write about cupcakes, ukulele, and a panda with a mohawk. We named him Carl and quickly found, very little rhymes with Carl. It’s certainly a work in process and many updates are soon to follow, but here is what we have so far lyrically:
I was walkin’ down the street, playin’ my uke to the beat
Then I stopped and I stared at a panda with crazy hair
I gave him a fry, cuz he looked like he was gonna die
And he repaid the favor with something I would surely savor
Sprinkles and Frosting
Delicious, Yummy Cake
He made me a treat using a nifty Easy Bake….
We have the rest of the chord structure figured out, we just ran out of time after school. There were moments of frustration and disagreement in the composition process, but in the end we were all pleased with the outcome, much more than any of us would have predicted mid-process.
It’s a silly song, but it IS a song nonetheless, written by us. Going through the process of writing lyrics, deciding on a chord structure and melody was rewarding. We all left the classroom smiling and humming our OWN tune.
The ukulele club is built upon a participatory music making model (based largely on the influences of Thomas Turino and his book, Music As Social Life and Matthew Thibeault and his Homebrew Ukulele Union). We approached our songwriting similarly– with everyone participating in whatever capacity they wanted and with an openness to new ideas and experiences.
Keep posted and hopefully we’ll have a rough recording of our first song to post soon!
Just when you think you have got it all figured out, without fail, something will come along that will challenge and quite possibly change what you KNOW to be true. This past summer I entered my second summer as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. I was prepared for business as usual while I juggled my course load and my job as a camp counselor. I had registered for classes that interested me but were ultimately selected to help me fulfill the requirements of my degree program. The courses, “The General Music Program” and “Genre Studies in Musicology” seemed innocuous enough. Within a week of reading, discussion and interactions in class, I was aware that these classes would teach me much more than what their syllabi detailed.
Although I have been playing music for the better part of the last 2 decades and derived great joy from doing so, I have also felt a fair amount of anxiety and pressure. While I love playing Mozart Horn Concerti, I also hate it. I’m proud of the work I have done to execute runs, lip trills and other technical feats but they are the product of time spent alone in a practice room. I’ve played in bands, orchestras and quintets but I have never felt what I felt this summer, singing and playing ukulele with my friends. I had never played the ukulele and I was less than stellar in the beginning, but I LOVED it. There was something so nice about singing and playing the music I listen to every day. Teaching orchestra and playing in ensembles I developed this persona that listened to a lot of Pop, Rock, Country, Rap and Hip-Hop at home but only “serious” music at school. Occasionally I listen to some Holst or Hildegard Von Bingen for fun (who doesn’t?!), but the majority of what I listen to is not classical music and by extension of a certain frame of mind within the music community, not worthy or valuable. I was living a double life and it needed to stop.
The conclusions I came to this summer are simple:
1. Musical taste and value is subjective. The music I listen to has value.
2. Social or Participatory music making is alive and well in society but not in our schools. Band, Choir and Orchestra are not for everyone.
3. Students are engaged in music, even those not in our programs. Whether they are listening to their ipods, playing in a garage or experimenting with garage band, music is a part of many students lives who are not enrolled in traditional music courses.
4. Music education in our schools should seek to be relevant, engaging, and overall to foster life-long appreciation and participation. The chances a student will pick up their instrument and play the 2nd flute part from “The Stars and Stripes Forever” are far less likely than their chances of singing at church, playing guitar or piano with friends and family or going dancing on a Friday night.
When I returned to school this fall, I began an extra-curricular ukulele group, open to any student or staff member at my middle school. The club’s popularity exceeded my expectations and continued to fortify in my mind and heart how important it was to provide the opportunity for participatory and social music making. With the success of the club as encouragement I began to think about ways to reach more students. I eventually wrote a grant proposal that where every 6th grade student at my school (close to 300 students) would design, construct and learn to play ukulele, culminating with a community music and art festival where they would display their instruments and share music with their peers, teachers, families and neighbors.
The grant was approved by The Glenview Education Foundation and we are set to begin the project some time this April. This blog will document the process and my other endeavors in participatory music making/music education. And so it begins.