I think it’s no secret that education in the US is inequitable in many areas. Typically, students from lower income households end up going to less well performing schools, which have fewer resources. Access to fewer resources can put students at a disadvantage compared to their more affluent peers. There are so many areas of academic and emotional development that this disparity can effect, but I’m going to focus on one in this post: Developing Creativity.
Exposure to the arts can have a significant positive impact on children. Students who have the opportunity to engage in arts education tend to achieve academically, socially, emotionally, and even physically. In addition to all of the benefits the creative arts can provide, I believe they are one of the things that makes life beautiful, gives it meaning, and makes it worth living. Both children and adults should have access to creative arts, regardless of whether or not they have the means to pay for private lessons or buy an expensive instrument or equipment.
That’s why I decided to start the Crown Heights Ukulele Club. We meet about once a week to play ukulele together. I teach chords, strumming patterns, basic music theory (and I mean REALLY basic), and get people out of their comfort zones by gently forcing them to sing with me. It’s great! We’ve been meeting since January, and new people show up all the time. No musical background is necessary, with members ranging in their previous musical experiences. The idea behind the club is to teach adults in the community how to play ukulele for free. In turn, they volunteer to teach others how to play! Ukes are the perfect instrument for kids. They’re small enough, durable enough (they’re often made of plastic), and even colorful enough to capture the attention of most children.
One of my favorite things to do at the Gary Klinsky Children’s Center at PS 21 where I volunteer every week, is to bring my uke and have singalongs with the students. As soon as they see my bright yellow instrument, they become fascinated. They want to tell me where they’re seen one before, name songs they know that have ukulele in them, and get their hands on one. It’s so fun to teach them a little about how music works and pass around an instrument that many of them have never actually held in their hands before. I see their eyes light up as if saying, “This instrument is really in my hands! I’m so cool! I can be just like [insert favorite musician here]!” It makes music a tangible thing that kids feel capable of creating. It also makes after school teachers smile, which can be a rare occurrence since they’re often overworked and underpaid. There are few times in my life that I have felt as tangible an amount of joy as when I am playing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ while singing and dancing around with first graders.
On Sunday, June 5th the Crown Heights Ukulele Club had our first children’s workshop at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. We performed such childhood classics as ‘Old McDonald Had a Farm’, ‘What A Wonderful World’, and of course ‘The Wheels on the Bus’. After a brief performance (in which toddlers danced around, and I got adults who are not used to singing in front of anyone to sing onstage in front of dozens of people) we let everyone in the room play around with the ukuleles we brought. If they were old enough we taught them chords, if not, we just let them make noise. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was making music. It was wonderful.
I know that as one person I can’t fix all of the problems I see every day. I don’t have the knowledge or resources for that (although I’m working on it). What I can do though, is spread some music, some laughter, and bring the community together by sharing a resource that is lacking in many instances. The only way that we’re going to solve problems that have persisted for decades is through creativity. We need children to grow up in environments that foster creativity so they can use it as a skill to solve world problems when they get older. We need today’s decision makers to think about issues in creative and different ways to bring about necessary changes to tired policies and practices that no longer work in our ever changing society. What better way to do that than through some ukulele lessons?