No musical talent? This school has the cure
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 2:56 p.m. ET Jan. 25, 2017 | Updated 11:49 p.m. ET Jan. 25, 2017
EVESHAM - There's no way a school district in New Jersey owns more ukuleles per student than Evesham Township's J. Harold Van Zant School.
A program that started with a teaching aide's $500, 15-instrument donation, has turned into a 75-ukulele, 40-student club putting music inexpensively into the tiny hands of fourth- and fifth-graders in Burlington County.
On Wednesday afternoons, the club brings an island vibe to the school library as students wear Hawaiian leis and flowered shirts while they softly strum the small string instruments to popular songs.
The ukulele club, just months old, has its first-ever concert for parents next week.
"It's really fun so far, and I really like it," Paige Drummond, 11, told the Courier-Post Wednesday.
She held across her chest a light teal-colored ukulele, color-coordinated to her island-inspired outfit that "helps get me into the spirit."
Paige, a fifth-grader, plays piano, too.
But many of her club mates had never before picked up an instrument.
That's the appeal, said Michele Hack, an admittedly non-musical Van Zant classroom aide.
Hack, the club's adult adviser, started toying with her own ukulele last spring. Surprising herself and her family, she picked it up easily. It was a hobby Hack needed to share with her students at Van Zant School.
Her family's donation launched what Hack expected to be a small club with a small showing of about 30 kids sharing the 15 ukuleles her donation bought.
But a contest by a ukulele maker gave hope for more kids interested in playing. Kala Brand Music Co. offered 30 instruments to 50 schools across the country. The top 50 schools were determined by the public's votes. Hack campaigned for Van Zant.
"We ended up in first place," she said, still stunned by the win announced months ago.
Instead of 30, the manufacturer gave the school 60 ukuleles.
"We went from having 15 to 75 ... probably more than any school in the state," Hack laughed.
"Now we have more ukuleles than we know what to do with."
Forty students signed up when the club kicked off, and about 15 school staff members regularly sign out the extra instruments to sit in on rehearsals or get in extra practice on their own at home.
"For 20 to 30 minutes once a week, it's impressive how much these kids have learned," she said.
The instrument is easy to pick up, she explained.
Even a not-so-musical teacher's aide can do it, Hack laughed.
"They catch on so quickly," said Sarah Bernstein, the club's co-adviser and the school's librarian.
When the club kicked off in the fall with its inaugural members, they picked up a cover of "House of Gold" by Twenty One Pilots, one of the songs the group will play for parents at next week's concert.
This week, they worked on "Someone to Lava," a song from Pixar's short "Lava."
"It's something they can do and feel confident about."
After the first couple practices, Lucas Carlos, 10, said the group "started playing really good."
He joined the club after Hack's son Kevin, a middle-schooler, played the ukulele for Hack's class on Take Your Child to Work Day.
"It sounded really good and I wanted to give it a try," Lucas said.
He is among the handful of students whose families invested in the instruments. Lucas said he used money he saved in his piggy bank — about $40 — to buy his own wooden ukulele.
The instruments, starting at abut $40 for beginner models, are far less expensive than other traditional school band instruments.
"It's awesome for some of these kids. Their parents can't afford to buy or rent an instrument for them to play, but they're holding and playing an instrument," Hack said.
"Our neighborhood and the parents are very pro-music. It helps you with so much. And a lot of these parents understand that."
Paul Miller, 10, practices three times a week at home in addition to the Wednesday afternoon club meeting.
He keeps his instrument shiny and the strings tight, he said.
The fifth-grader says he's "devoted" to learning how to play.
"Ukulele is a thing for everybody to play," Paul said.
"I devote my time to ukulele, and I look forward to every Wednesday."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org