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IN THE NEWS— Elementary Students Learn to Play the Ukulele

Story published with permission from Frisco ISD Communications.


February 11, 2016


What do Shawnee Trail Elementary and Corbell Elementary students have in common with Train, Bruno Mars, Warren Buffet and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder?

If you answered, they love ukulele, you would be correct. This little instrument was introduced to the rest of the world from Hawaii about 125 years ago and is making a huge comeback in popularity.


Two of Frisco ISD’s elementary schools recently obtained ukuleles and are teaching students to appreciate this tiny, four-stringed instrument.


The ukulele is having a resurgence in popular song and can be heard in the background of numerous commercials and advertisements.


It is a great starter instrument for teaching students the joy of making music and could lead them to consider learning a more traditional instrument as part of band or orchestra – areas that Frisco ISD repeatedly excels at in UIL competition.


Shawnee Trail’s PTA raised funds for the instruments at the annual boosterthon fun run. Teacher Stephen McCarty is adding the instrument as an extension of the existing curriculum and has introduced it to all fourth and fifth grade students this school year. He has also selected, by audition, 15 students to form the first Shawnee Trail Elementary Ukulele Choir. The 15 students practice after school as part of an extension program, similar to a campus honor choir or All-City choir.

Corbell received their soprano ukuleles through a special nomination with Kala Brand Music. Teacher Christine Schettler didn’t even know her school had been nominated for the giveaway. She had filled out a nomination form earlier in the year for a different school giveaway but Corbell wasn’t chosen. The ukuleles were a total surprise. It turns out her sister and Corbell mom, Sarah Stobaugh, had nominated Corbell’s music program for the ukulele giveaway.


Schettler says ukuleles will be very complimentary with the music literacy lessons students begin learning in 4th grade on the soprano recorder. The older elementary students will learn about reading music, chords, notes and form as they learn to play the two instruments – one wind, one string.

Frisco ISD elementary schools open with a startup set of instruments. Campus PTAs often provide a great deal of help to music teachers to supplement the initial standardized instrument list, according to Pete Hazzard, assistant director of Fine Arts. The startup kit is designed to meet the needs of the state requirements and the Frisco ISD curriculum. The ukulele is not in that startup kit at this time.

The instruments that teach rhythm and how to read and play music are important first steps in learning music. Traditionally in FISD, that includes exposing young students to a variety of rhythm or percussion instruments and the soprano recorder.  


The ukulele, often seen as a tourist item to bring home from an island cruise, is rapidly gaining popularity for elementary music programs, as well. McCarty says it was a second grade teacher at Shawnee Trail, Becky Breckenridge, who first alerted him to the spread of ukulele programs in schools across the country. McCarty saw the potential for another avenue for awakening a love of music in younger students. The PTA was very supportive of the idea, as well.


“My first reason for wanting to use this instrument is that my students can play it as a stand-alone instrument throughout their lives without being part of an ensemble,” McCarty said.

The ukulele, categorized as a folk instrument, is inexpensive, easy to carry, and is something that a person can continue to play as they get older, he said.


For anyone who ever tried to teach themselves to play an instrument, the big plus of the ukulele is that a new performer can sound good “almost immediately,” McCarty said, noting that students who start with simple instruments are less likely to give up on playing. “It is also an excellent tool to accompany yourself while you sing.”


Ukulele fits with Christine Schettler’s belief in hands-on music. She agrees with McCarty about how the instrument is ideal for younger students, adding that it is excellent as both a solo and ensemble instrument. Her students have only had their ukuleles a short time, but from the first day she was teaching them strumming and the C chord.


es_shawnee_ukelele2The musical instruments found throughout FISD’s elementary music programs allow students to learn about and perform music from around the world. Bringing together sounds from drums, rhythm instruments, xylophones, glockenspiels, metallophones and the soprano recorder, students can learn about a variety of cultures and music. The ukulele expands that repertoire.

The ukulele is also popular with students because it allows them to play popular music from today’s performers. A Shawnee Trail student received her own ukulele for Christmas and she is one of the 15 students selected to be in the school’s ukulele orchestra. Already she can strum and sing her way through several modern songs, including Stay, Stay, Stay by Taylor Swift.


The ukulele has four very soft strings. That combined with its small size makes it extremely attractive to elementary students just learning to read music, McCarty says. The same students who start out with a soprano recorder or a ukulele may one day be marching across the field with a flute or trombone or sitting on stage with a violin or behind a cello. In FISD, that potential begins in elementary school when students realize they can make music.


Schettler says that learning instruments such as the recorder and, now, the ukulele, helps her students develop fine motor skills and an “ear” for music. The ukulele obviously helped some big stars during the past few years – songs such You Can Count on Me and Hey Soul Sister have featured the simple ukulele.

McCarty looks beyond his students’ futures in high school band, choir or orchestra – though he wants them to succeed there. He is looking at an even bigger picture.


“I want them to pursue music always,” he said, fondly patting the ukulele in his hand.


© 2015 Frisco Independent School District

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