Walk into a music class at Alberta Rider Elementary School in Tigard these days, and you're apt to hear a lot of plucking, strumming and twanging.
The school's music department recently purchased 35 ukuleles for the classroom, courtesy of a donation from the Alberta Rider Parent Support Organization. That's enough ukuleles for every student in each of music teacher Emily Kelchner Lee's classes, she told The Times.
"(The ukulele) can be great as a solo instrument but also as a group instrument. … It teaches music theory, because we're talking about chords. It's an awesome tool for improvisation and for composition, because they can write their own songs," Kelchner Lee said. "You can also sing while you play, which you can't do with, like, recorder."
Katie Marreel, president of the Alberta Rider PSO, said Kelchner Lee requested its support in buying the ukuleles. The group raises money throughout the year to augment Rider's budget, allowing the school to buy classroom materials and equipment it wouldn't otherwise be able to afford.
"The impact is direct on our students," Marreel said.
The ukuleles, she added, are "a hot item."
"It gets the kids excited about what they're learning," Marreel said.
"The ukulele is popular in culture right now, so it's not a hard sell," Kelchner Lee remarked. "Kids want to play the ukulele, because they see it."
On their second day playing their ukuleles, Alberta Rider's second-graders were learning to play and sing simple songs like "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and "The Farmer in the Dell."
"We do a lot of dance, we do a lot of singing, we play instruments, we play games," Kelchner Lee said. "Most of what we do is vocally based, so we'll sing a song and do a dance that goes with the song — which is why the ukulele fits in so nicely, because you have to sing while you play … to get the chords correct."
Every grade level at Rider is getting the opportunity to play ukulele. The instrument is so versatile and easy enough to pick up, Kelchner Lee said, that she can use it as a teaching tool for simple concepts at lower grade levels and scale it up to more advanced learning for older students.
"You can be instantly successful," she said. "You pick it up, you put your finger, boom — you can play a chord. So it's like built-in success."
All told, the ukuleles and their attendant equipment totaled less than $2,000, Kelchner Lee said.
"Emily actually made the request directly … and sure enough, we had enough funds to stay within budget, so we gave her the money directly," said Marreel.
Kelchner Lee keeps a close eye on her students to make sure they aren't abusing their ukuleles, and she has instructed them to take good care of the instruments, which are shared between all the school's grade levels.
"Any time we have instruments, we talk about how we need to respect the instrument," she said. "I set out my expectations so they know how to hold it and what to do with it, so that there's no guesswork about how to treat it."
Kelchner Lee is passionate about music education, which she has been doing for 18 years.
"Kids can be successful in music when they're not successful anywhere else," she said. "And it creates a community feeling, where you can feel like you really belong. That's why we do a lot of dance, because dance creates this community where everybody is worth dancing with. And it just creates a feeling of self-worth and independence. … And besides that, it's fun. It's fun. I love my job. I get to make kids smile every day."
Eventually, Kelchner Lee said, she hopes to start an after-school ukulele ensemble.
The Alberta Rider PSO's biggest fundraiser of the year is coming up next month. Its auction, which is open to the public, will be held March 18 at the Portland Golf Club.
Anyone who wants more information or to learn how to donate to the auction is encouraged to call Alberta Rider Elementary School at 503-431-4900.
By Mark Miller
Assistant Editor, The Times