By Sarah Vogelsong
The air was full of the gentle strumming of ukuleles Tuesday morning last week as parents gathered in the music room of Lewis and Clark Elementary School as part of the annual volunteer breakfast. If they closed their eyes, they might have thought they were in Hawaii rather than Ladysmith.
It was the last performance of the year for the LCES Ukulele Club, a group started by Principal Harold Pellegreen this January, and it marked the culmination of five months of practice. Together with the LCES Chorus, conducted by director and music teacher Bettie French, some 30 ukulele students enthusiastically performed “Hawaiian Song” and the LCES school song, set to the tune of the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week.”
The Ukulele Club is the newest of the several extracurricular clubs LCES offers.
“Research shows that those who get involved in extracurricular activities perform better on standardized tests,” Pellegreen told the assembly of roughly 25 parents Tuesday morning.
A musician himself, Pellegreen first stumbled across the small Hawaiian instrument at a music conference in 2012.
“One of the vendors had a ukulele on display, and I looked at it and I said, you know, I think I want to learn to play this doggone thing,” he said.
After receiving one for Christmas that year, Pellegreen spent a year learning to play and then realized it would be uniquely suited to elementary music students.
“As far as instruments are concerned, the learning curve on the ukulele is much easier initially,” he said. “It’s only four strings, and the basic chords are fairly simple to manipulate. So as soon as you learn three chords, you can play 100 songs.”
To secure the instruments, which can be purchased for less than $50 each, Pellegreen last spring applied for and received a $500 educational grant from the Rappahannock Electrical Cooperative. These funds allowed him to buy 30 ukuleles for the club, although many children’s families chose to purchase their own.
Throughout the winter and fall, the group of fourth and fifth graders met once a week after school to practice together. On these afternoons, not only did the students learn repertoire together as an ensemble, but Pellegreen set aside time to spotlight those students who had learned music on their own and wished to perform for their peers.
Kaedin Donawa was one of the most eager of those students. The fifth grader, who is also learning how to play drums from a friend, said he practices his ukulele—which he described as “pretty awesome”— every day.
“I like how it’s small and it’s just plain perfect,” Kaedin said. “It reminds me of Hawaii.”
Both Kaedin and Chris Poole, another fifth grader who said he practices “every other day” said they wanted to keep playing the instrument in the future.
Pellegreen plans to continue the club next year and said that students have even asked him about summer sessions, a possibility he is looking into.
“I could not have been happier with their attitude and their enjoyment,” he said. “Everyone’s looking forward to ukulele practice.”