Small package, big gift
Local elementary students learn music with help from New Zealand
Music education efforts at Chico’s Parkview Elementary School got a boost this year from an unlikely source—a band of globetrotting, ukulele-loving jokers from New Zealand.
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra is an ensemble that plays unique arrangements of Top 40 hits and standards entirely on ukuleles. Equally known for its comedic styling and musicianship, the band of 10 or so uke players (membership fluctuates) has been a force in its home country for more than 15 years and count Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie as a sometime member.
When the orchestra first toured the East Coast of America in January 2015, it made an interesting pitch to promoters and hosts in each town it visited—to donate a classroom’s worth of ukuleles to one school in each city. The same offer was extended for this year’s full U.S. tour, which includes a Sunday, Jan. 24, visit to Laxson Auditorium.
“It was a way to try to bring something more than just a performance to each site we play,” said Wellington founding member, musical leader and producer Age Pryor in a recent phone interview from New Zealand. “It’s a win-win—we get a chance to engage in the local community in a direct way, and the kids are getting their ukuleles and learning how to play music and performing with us. It’s been a really cool thing.”
Locally, staff at Chico State’s Chico Performances extended the offer to Parkview Elementary, and the school received 30 brand-new Rogue ukuleles last fall. Tanner Johns, who teaches music and band at several schools in the Chico Unified School District, agreed to teach the kids to play, and fifth grade Parkview teacher Brittany Bledsoe offered to help facilitate the program.
The students, all of whom are fifth-graders, began meeting after school every Tuesday to learn to play the instruments. The group was collectively called the Parkview Ukuleles at first, but the kids soon shortened the name to its current version—The Pukes. The fledgling uke group already cut its teeth onstage at the school’s winter concert in December, playing “This Land Is Your Land,” “You Are My Sunshine” and a handful of holiday songs.
At a recent practice, the students warmed up with the two former tunes and played another they’ve been working on, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Down on the Corner.” The Pukes also practiced the song the band will play with the orchestra at Laxson. Johns explained the students were given a list of options and voted to learn Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” for the show.
“It’s a good choice because it’s a straightforward, three-chord song,” Johns said. “They already knew the G and C chords and learned the A minor chord. They also learned a new strum pattern.”
Johns noted he’s been learning along with the kids. He’s primarily a woodwind player and said staying one step ahead of the students is his first attempt to learn a stringed instrument.
“It’s totally different than anything else I do and so fun to play,” he said. “I think it’s a good tool for the kids, too, because developing an understanding of chord structure and everything else can be a lot harder to do on other instruments. But on a ukulele, you can see how one chord naturally leads to the next one, and you can see those patterns repeat in different songs.”
Pryor agrees the uke is valuable to beginning and more accomplished musicians alike: “The universal thing about a ukulele is it’s a doorway into music that’s accessible to anybody. As easy as it is to start playing, it can also go all the way into some advanced corners of musicianship.”
Most important, the kids approve of the program, with many saying that the regular practice is their favorite hour of the week. None seemed nervous about the big upcoming gig.
“We’re gonna be with the Wellington Ukuleles, and they’re really, really good,” Madison Crawford said. “So even if we do mess up, they’ll probably be able to cover it up.”