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Ukuleles, not your parent’s recorder

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With recorders, the common flute-like instrument most grade school students attempt to master, put away and voices silenced to comply with pandemic prevention, one school is embracing the string instrument that conjures the feel of the Hawaiian Islands.


With $1,600 in parent-teacher organization funds earmarked for the music program at Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls, music teacher Michele VanBelleghem bought 25 ukuleles and a rolling cart to store and transport them.


Not just any ordinary ukuleles, these are bright blue, the school’s color. One is larger than the rest, that is VanBelleghem’s.


The instruments, part of the lute family, arrived over the Christmas break. VanBelleghem had them unpacked, tuned and tucked into the cart, which she also put together, before classes resumed. “I can’t believe it all came together,” she said.


VanBelleghem is teaching the fourth through eighth graders to play the ukulele, but all the students in the K-8 grade school can use or hold the unique instruments.


Mastering the ukulele takes about four lessons, VanBelleghem said. After a 45-minute class once a week, by the end of a month the students are well on their way. “They are over the moon,” she said. “One seventh grader went home and used her ukulele. She played for three straight hours.”


There are no music sheets; VanBelleghem is using a chord-based approach. “It’s faster to learn.” Since the students are learning by ear, they “don’t have to know how to read music.”


The first song she is teaching them is “He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.” And plans are in the works for a virtual ukulele concert before the end of the school year.


VanBelleghem rolls her new cart, loaded with bright blue ukuleles, down the school halls from classroom to classroom. She was relieved when she verified that it fits on the school elevator.


She has a strict cleaning process of wiping down the instruments after each use with antibacterial wipes. “It doesn’t affect the finish,” she was pleased to report. She described the finish as heavily coated or shellacked wood, but not plastic. “They look pretty.”


In a letter home to parents, VanBelleghem wrote, “Learning to play an instrument is a special part of a well-rounded music education.” She encouraged parents to spend the $40 to buy their children their own ukulele. With a virtual spring concert, she hopes the students will “experience the joy of instrumental performance.”


The ukulele, said to have been brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, has a distinctive sound made from plucking the nylon strings. That sound now resonates with a new group of aspiring, and plucky, musicians.


Augherton can be reached at aaugherton@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @AughertonACH.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021