Four strings, three chords, two verses and one musician.
Add 17 elementary school teachers and staff and it’s time for ukulele lessons to begin.
Instructor Quinn Fitzpatrick leads his students through some warm-up exercises, then reviews chords for the first song.
“The second bar is going to be a down/up,” he says. “Remember, your default strum is always down strum.”
Fourth-grade teacher Rachel Kizer can’t resist a quip.
“And it’s not de fault of the operator,” she says.
Although it’s dark as night outside at 4:15 in the afternoon, laughter and lightness fills the room, along with funny new lyrics to familiar melodies.
Since October, various staff members at South Whidbey Elementary School have met for an hour after the school day every week to take their own class, Guitars (and ukuleles) in the Classroom.
They are a mix of teachers, administrators and librarians and they face a nerve-wracking final exam — performing in the school assembly Friday.
The national nonprofit educational organization, Guitars in the Classroom, provided $1,000 worth of instruments, music books and other supplies.
Locally, it’s supported through a $1,7000 grant from the South Whidbey Schools Foundation.
“We were excited to fund this program again,” Shelly Ackerman, president of the foundation, said. “Music speaks to us all differently, and this is yet another way educators can engage a variety of ages and learning styles for years to come.”
Seated on institutional tan metal folding chairs one Tuesday afternoon, the novice uke players studiously stare down at music sheets as they strum and sing about a killer whale named Bubbles with a little curled up fin:
“Most of the other orcas/
Used to look at her and say/
‘Bubbles you silly orca/
Fins aren’t supposed to look that way.’”
Inclusion, of course, happens at the end of this tale, just like in the original version.
“It’s sung to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” laughs Valerie Brown. “Hopefully our audience will recognize that.”
Brown, a library media specialist, loves to rewrite songs. The group will also be performing Brown’s “Living in a Whidbey Wonderland” and “Winter Break,” sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”
Making up new lyrics to well-known “anchor” songs is part of the lesson plan of Guitars in the Classroom, known as GITC. Headquartered in San Diego, it teaches teachers how to integrate music into the learning process.
Started as a pilot program 1998, it now reaches about one million students every year. Teachers learn the basics of music composition as they learn how to play a guitar or ukulele.
Research shows music affects learning in several ways because it activates so many parts of the brain.
Listening to familiar music stimulates the hippocampus, which manages long-term memory storage. Listening to music also triggers the release of dopamine, “the feel good” brain chemical.
Performing music increases memory and language skills and it increases learning capacity and helps with retaining information, studies show.
Figuring out how to incorporate the role of music into language arts, math, science, social studies, even English as a Second Language classes, is left up to the educators.
Kizer, taking the class for the second time, came up with a sing-along for her students to memorize multiplication tables. “Math and music are very connected,” she says. “Beats and patterns mirror our math practice and thinking.”
Playing the pink ukulele to her pupils, she says, also flips the teacher-student equation.
“They are very kind and forgiving about singing slowly or even stopping while I find the right fingering,” Kizer admits. “They get to practice patience for me.”
Fitzpatrick is well known on Whidbey Island as an acoustic guitar performer and music teacher. He’s a popular pick for music at weddings and other events.
As regional director for Guitars in the Classroom Pacific Northwest and northern California programs, Fitzpatrick splits his time between Whidbey, Portland and San Francisco.
Ukuleles are easier to master than their larger, more complicated guitar cousin. There’s four strings instead of six. And one of the main chords — open C— is simply strumming the strings.
“Most songs have three chords and we try and keep it that way,” Fitzpatrick says. “It’s set up for success.”
Some classes start with ukuleles and switch to guitars and some exclusively play one instrument or the other.
“Taking on an instrument like the ukulele is way less stressful or overwhelming than most other instruments, and you get almost immediate results,” says special education teacher Becky Ward. “Within a couple of hours, you are able to play the three chords needed to play many familiar tunes.”
Fitzpatrick reminds his class of the three elements of music — rhythm, melody and harmony. “Strumming is rhythm, harmony is the three chords and melody is singing,” he says. “If anyone misses a chord change, no one is going to notice except you.”
Teacher Betsy Hofius shares her struggles of learning the ukulele with her second graders.
“I impress upon my students that I have to practice often to be able to share songs with other people,” she says. “We talk about the parts of a ukulele and how they contribute to the sound. The songs we learn enhance literary skills — reading and listening.”
The ukulele learners credit their teacher for putting up with them as rambunctious students.