Two-hundred Hollister third graders are taking ukulele lessons, but that number could be higher next year when Hollister School District plans to expand a new music program.
Heidi Jumper, marketing and community engagement director for the Arts Council, met Sound Impact’s co-founder Tiffany Richardson at the University of Pennsylvania in 2019 while attending a workshop on reaching the public through the arts. Jumper stuck her toe in Sound Impact’s ukulele lesson waters at first, enrolling her daughter in their Little Ukes remote instruction program.
Richardson explained that remote learning enabled Sound Impact to serve students across the county.
“It combines our ukulele program with the Time Travel Goes Digital curriculum that we created during the pandemic,” Richardson said.
The expansion of Little Ukes also allows for bigger plans. The Art Council’s 2019-20 percussion instruction program had finished its course, and at the time there was no other course in place to get third graders excited to start band classes in the fourth grade.
To replace it, Jumper and Richardson proposed a regimen of third grade ukulele lessons to the Arts Council, and in turn the agency applied to the California Arts Council for a $19,000 grant. The money paid the salary of the ukulele teachers, as well as expenses for Sound Impact and the Arts Council. For the actual ukuleles, the Arts Council went to the Hollister School District. Sound Impact negotiated with a ukulele manufacturer to get the unit cost down to $34. The school district bought 200 ukuleles and set aside money for summer repairs.
A typical weekly lesson allots the first 30 minutes to learning the instrument and the last 15 minutes to a presentation by a guest musician.
“So far they’ve also had amazing guest artists come to teach them about the violin, the trumpet, and the viola, and exploring different topics in music,” said Jessica Sammis, a cellist who serves as one of Sound Impact’s ukulele teachers. “I think it’s really a unique program because it’s not only the instrumental education, it’s also combining it with learning about the broader world of music and trying to get them interested in potentially learning another instrument in the future.”
Everyone involved with the program agreed that ukulele was a good way to get third graders interested in music; the strings and the body of the instrument are small and light, repairs and unit cost are low, and children can play it while wearing masks.
“They’re learning fine motor skills that they can apply to this and other instruments in the future,” said Sammis. “They’re learning to sing and play at the same time, they’re learning about harmony and melody, and they’re also writing their own material. It covers all the aspects of music and it gives them a great attraction to it.”
Arts Council Executive Director Jennifer Laine recalled that growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, “recorders were something many of us used as an introductory instrument to music, but the COVID protocols definitely played a role in choosing which route to go.” This year, the after school mariachi program at R.O. Hardin and Calaveras elementary schools has emphasized stringed instruments over trumpets and singing for the same reason (the Arts Council is also responsible for the mariachi program).
“In the workshops you can see the kids smiling, you can see them engaged with the content, asking questions, typing in the chat, making connections to themselves, and the teachers are picking up their ukuleles and playing along with the students,” said Amanda Chiado, who organizes the ukulele program for the Art Council. “In my work I always want to see buy-in from the teachers, because the kids are following the teacher. It just creates such a deeper experience for students.”
Laine added that the program would not be possible without public funding for the arts. “It’s just really critical, especially in rural communities like ours, that we have access to state, local and federal funding for the arts,” she said. “There’s no reason why a student in San Benito County shouldn’t have access to visual and performing arts programs like a student in an urban center.”
Ukulele student Sydney Luna spoke of teacher Jessica Simmis and said, “She has a watermelon ukulele and a regular one, and it’s really fun to see her play the watermelon one.” There aren’t any specific plans for the anticipated ukulele recital at the end of the program, but Luna said she looks forward to it anyway.
The San Benito Arts Council plans to bring other musicians into elementary schools for a series of virtual assemblies in the new school year. These include Taiko drumming, Brazilian Zum-Zum music, and Eth-Noh-Tec, an Asian American storytelling troupe that incorporates East Asian instruments.
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