Volume 14, Issue 18 ~ May 4 - May 10, 2006

Four Strings and a Dream

How George Fox Middle Schoolers Came to Play the Ukulele

by Ben Miller

Ben Thompson dreamed.

His students practiced and persisted.

Practice, practice, practice and a dream carried Thompson’s 18 ukulele-playing middle-schoolers from George Fox Middle School in Pasadena to New York City. At last weekend’s NY Uke Fest in Manhattan, where the best performers in the country gather, they were the only young people invited. Now, on Friday, May 5, they reprise their show in Annapolis at the Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival.

Thompson is an inspired man used to following his own instrument.

Thompson follows not the drum but the ukulele. His admiration grew into ambition when he read about Dave Means who, here in Annapolis, crafts his beautiful one-of-a-kind Glyph Custom Ukuleles by hand (www.glyphukulele.com).

Thompson dreamed of creating a ukulele band at his school. The problem was that no one at George Fox Middle School, except Thompson, owned a ukulele. If Means could build custom instruments, so could his kids — from simple kits.

Thompson surveyed students and former students from his science classes. Who wanted to craft a ukulele from a $24.95 kit and learn to play it? Sixth, seventh and eighth graders from Thompson’s science classes wanted to. They signed up for the after-school club. Thus the George Fox Middle School Ukulele Ensemble was on its way.

Why the ukulele?

If you associate the ukulele with Hawaii, you’re right. The ancestor of the ukulele is an instrument called a braguinha brought to Hawaii by a Portuguese immigrant in 1879. From the braguinha, native Hawaiians created their own instrument — made from Koa wood — to play their own music. The word ukulele in the Hawaiian language means jumping flea. Perhaps the instrument’s name describes the player’s dancing fingers. Hawaiian ukulele players are still some of the best in the world.

The ukulele has risen and fallen in popularity. Boater-hat-wearing swains serenaded flappers in the 1920s. Arthur Godfrey played a ukulele on his 1950s’ television show. Tiny Tim had a big hit in 1968 with Tiptoe through the Tulips. Today rock, reggae and even jazz musicians experiment with the ukulele sound.

Uke-ing It Up

The ukulele is an ideal instrument for an after-school club, according to Thompson. (The ukulele ensemble is separate from the school’s band.) The ukulele is affordable. The students can buy kits and build their instruments.

The ukulele is a simple instrument. The students can learn to play without years of practice. “You can begin playing faster — the ukulele has four strings; a guitar has six. You can enter the instrument sooner,” Thompson explains.

With no experience necessary, the band was open to all. The ensemble allowed “students of all abilities to come together,” says teacher Jacqueline Albert.

Advised by Dave Means, the students worked after school for several months crafting their ukuleles. They glued the body and the neck together, sanded and stained the wood, attached the frets and the strings and customized their instruments with stickers and decorations.

With their instruments tuned and ready the musicians practiced, practiced, practiced. Thompson played with the band — and sang. Two students played bass guitars. Other musicians also sang.

Their enthusiasm was catching. The Annapolis Maritime Museum and museum director Jeff Holland “supported us through free song writing workshops,” Thompson says. The same Jeff Holland and Kevin Brooks, wearing the hats of Them Eastport Oyster Boys, gave the group permission to play their songs.

Ukulele musician Victoria Vox, whose latest CD is entitled Victoria Vox and Her Jumping Flea, played at the school.

From principal Kevin Dennehy on down, teachers and administrators support and encourage the group. So do their parents, some of whom accompanied the musicians to New York.

With such support, they were on stage within months. Their ukes have taken them far. As well as the NY Uke Fest, the George Fox Middle School Ukulele Ensemble performs locally. The two-year-old ensemble has toured the Naval Academy Museum and written a song about the ship models there. They sailed on a skipjack. They are planning a tour of the Thomas Point Lighthouse.

These student-musicians have a range of opinions about what they like best about the band. “I like that we get to make our own ukuleles,” said sixth-grader Orion Parmer. “My favorite part is performing,” said musician Robert Smith. “We get to travel a lot and visit new, exciting places,” said road warrior Bryan Fountain, a seventh grader.

These virtuosos also write their own music.

The lyrics of one song they wrote — Tan Sandy Shore (of the Severn) — sing of the time they planted native underwater plants in the Severn River. Two lines read, “The sound of the children, diving to plant their grass, the sound of children laughing, not sitting back in class.”

The ukulele ensemble is fun, but it also extends the school’s science curriculum, helping students find another way of expressing their love of nature, the outdoors and the environment of Chesapeake Bay.

Interest, inspiration, a dream, work, love of nature, support and practice, practice, practice. That’s the formula for the success of the George Fox Middle School Ukulele Ensemble.

Hear them 11am Fri., May 5, at the Maryland Maritime Heritage Festival Erickson Stage at City Dock Annapolis.

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