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String theory: Sherrard Elementary students are learning ukulele
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String theory: Sherrard Elementary students are learning ukulele

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Sherrard Elementary fourth-grade students are learning ukulele with music teacher Emma Tully.

“The students really like ukulele,' she said. "It’s developmentally great for them because they’re fingers are getting bigger and stronger.”

Next quarter, Tully will teach ukulele to Winola Elementary students, so all fourth-graders across the district have the same opportunity. Tully and art teacher Tony Vermeer typically trade locations, traveling between the schools to teach throughout the week — but because of the pandemic, the two focus a full quarter on one building at a time.

Madison, a Sherrard fourth-grader, said she enjoyed learning the instrument. Her favorite part is “the different sounds of each string.”

“It’s been a challenge, adapting to not being able to share instruments … but because of how the schedule worked out I’m able to have 50 at one school, and each student is able to have their own,” Tully said.

Remote students can still participate. They’re lent one of the school’s ukuleles, and Tully then sends them videos she creates, demonstrating how to hold the instrument, play the chords and how to sing the song they’re working on.

Tully said she wanted to provide a harmonic alternative to recorders, a woodwind instrument they learn in music class in third grade, and then again at the intermediate level.

“It allows them to start learning about harmony and accompanying themselves,” she said. At the beginning, it’s difficult for students, “It’s painful, at first, building up those calluses.”

When teaching the kids, she pronounces ukulele the Hawaiian way. Most are used to hearing it pronounced ‘yoo-kuh-ley-lee’, but she is teaching students to say it authentically, per the Hawaiian pronunciation, ‘oo-koo-ley-ley’.

“When I first started teaching here, I noticed they didn’t have a string program,” said Tully, who began teaching with Sherrard four years ago.

Before coming to Sherrard, she taught students ukulele during her time as a student-teacher.

"I really enjoyed that experience, and the students did as well," she said.

Tully was able to start the program through a Sherrard Academic Grant and began teaching the instrument in January 2018.

After finding it difficult to transport the stringed instruments back and forth throughout the week between Sherrard Elementary and Winola Elementary, she pursued funding for more instruments. In April 2018, using a website called Donors Choose, she put the need out, requesting 30 more ukuleles.

The funds were raised within three months.

"Our community pulled together," she said.

She said the ukuleles were extra special for Sherrard fourth-graders,

“It’s their last thing before elementary school is over," she said.

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