What do ukuleles, the U.P. and kids have in common?
If you answered “Yooper Uke Week,” give yourself a point. If you answered “They all hold a special place in Linda’s heart,” give yourself two.
Hiawatha Music Co-op recently sponsored the second annual Yooper Uke Week which celebrates the small, but mighty, ukulele which has been showing up more and more in popular culture in recent years. The portable, inexpensive, easy-to-play and infinitely enjoyable instrument has become especially popular with young people.
I’ve been a ukulele lady for many years, having discovered the joy of the uke through my brother who performs in a Lansing-area band called the Ukulele Kings. His bandmate, Ben Hassenger, is the self-proclaimed Ukulele Ambassador of Michigan and founder of Yooper Uke Week. Ben, whose grandparents lived in Ishpeming while he was growing up, thinks of the central U.P. as his second home and was eager to bring his love of the ukulele north to Marquette and Alger Counties.
Ben is also an excellent teacher who shares his musical talents and passion in schools through the nonprofit, Music is the Foundation.
As someone who believes in the power of positive youth development, I was happy to hear that Ben and Hiawatha arranged ukulele presentations with groups of students during Yooper Uke Week at area schools including Bothwell Middle School, Marquette Alternative High School and North Star Academy.
In youth development terms, “creative activities” such as learning a musical instrument is one of the positive experiences, or Developmental Assets, that help youth thrive.
However, in Marquette and Alger Counties, only 18 percent of 8th, 10th and 12th graders surveyed in the fall of 2016, reported spending at least three hours per week in lessons or practice in music, theater or other arts. In fact, out of 40 Developmental Assets, it’s the one that our youth experience least in their lives.
Ben reports that the students were surprisingly receptive to the ukulele. He usually works with elementary-age kids and was concerned the middle and high school students might feel “a bit too cool to play the uke,” he said. “But they eagerly picked them up and enthusiastically strummed and sang along.”
Ben posted about his Yooper Uke Week experiences on Facebook and gave permission for me to share one of his stories.
“I’ve had some wonderful school visits this week,” Ben wrote, “but my favorite was the session at the Marquette Alternative High School. It serves about eighty students that for one reason or another couldn’t fit into a traditional school setting. They listened attentively to my presentation about the ukulele, which included the trailer from the ‘Mighty Uke’ documentary and video clips of Jake Shimabukuro, Twenty One Pilots, Cammy Enaharo, and James Hill as well as a sing-along to ‘Lean on Me.’
“When the time came to ask ‘Who wants to play the ukulele?’, 17 students came up, grabbed an instrument, and enthusiastically played our C7 medley of ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ko-Ko Bop,’ ‘Coconut,’ and ‘Electric Avenue’ as well as a rendition of ‘There Ain’t No Bugs on Me.’
“I took some questions, and then the blue jean and flannel-clad principal asked me to play a favorite song. I said, ‘How about one of my own?’ and played my song about the U.P., ‘Deer Lake Road.’
“I thought they might not relate to it, as it could come off as the recollections of an old fuddy-duddy, but as I was playing it, there was visible emotion in many of the students; some were tearing up. (I was, too.) After a hearty round of applause, some of them stuck around and told me how much they enjoyed the time we had spent together and especially that song; it had really touched them.”
And that, my friends, is the power of the small, but mighty, ukulele—and the power of asset-building. Reaching out to kids, even in small ways like letting them strum a ukulele, can make a mighty difference.