HIGH POINT — You can’t fully appreciate the versatility of music until you’ve heard Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” played on a ukulele.
Or, in this case, a small ensemble of ukuleles.
That’s what the students in Joel Wenger’s seventh-grade music appreciation class at Southwest Middle School have been working on lately, and the sound is, well, unique.
Let’s put it this way: If you were expecting to hear Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles,” you’ve come to the wrong classroom.
“The ukulele is really versatile,” says Wenger, a veteran orchestra teacher who introduced the unorthodox ukulele class for the first time this semester. “You can play all sorts of music on it, from pop to classic rock, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It’s a fun instrument, and the basics are really simple — it doesn’t take the students long at all to pick it up.”
Wenger teaches two ukulele classes, introducing the instrument to nine seventh graders and 24 eighth graders.
The classes came about when Wenger was assigned to teach a couple of music appreciation classes and needed to come up with some sort of curriculum.
“I was like, what am I gonna do with this?” he recalls. “I’d been playing the ukulele for a few years and it was really fun, so I started thinking, why not turn this into a ukulele class? All I had to do was get some ukuleles.”
Easier said than done at a time when funding for schools is hard to come by, and arts programs, in particular, are frequently snubbed. Wenger would not be deterred, however.
“I talked to Dr. Armond (Arlisa Armond, principal of Southwest Middle), and I started a GoFundMe and raised some money, and Dr. Armond raised some money, and we bought 26 ukuleles,” Wenger says. “I’m borrowing the method books from a colleague of mine, and I got a good deal on the ukuleles from Moore Music (in Greensboro).”
The school bought the ukuleles for $50 apiece, for a total expenditure of approximately $1,300.
And how have the classes been received? So far so good, according to Wenger. Students have been having fun learning how to read music, strum chords and learn chord progressions, not to mention playing songs such as the aforementioned “Beat It” and a more recent hit, “Count On Me” by Bruno Mars.
Ethan Sedano, a 12-year-old seventh grader, says the class has been a blast — and the instrument has been fairly easy to learn.
“I play the guitar, too, and this is similar,” he says. “I think that’s why I’m pretty good at it.”
Wenger says that while ukuleles are not exactly a high-profile musical instrument, they’ve been growing in popularity in recent years. Annual retail sales of ukes has grown from about $33 million in 2009 to approximately $119 million in 2020.
And, Wenger adds, they’re good instruments for students who are just beginning to learn music.
“I don’t know if any instrument is easy, but relatively speaking, yeah, it’s not too bad,” he says. “There’s only four strings, and it’s small. It’s different from the guitar in that the strings are nylon, so they don’t tear up your fingers. So it’s a relatively easy instrument to learn and start sounding good on pretty quickly.”
Wenger says he had hoped to create a ukulele ensemble that could perform a concert, but for now he’s planning to have his students do more of a small-scale performance in the school lobby for the office staff.
“This is just an elective, and some of the kids got put in this class rather than sign up for it, so I’m not gonna make them get all dressed up for a performance like I would for our orchestra,” he says. “That’s the plan for now, at least. This is the first time I’ve taught this course, so I’m still figuring it out.”