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Ukulele who? St. Mary's student learning the popular stringed instrument

St. Mary's student Clare Barnstuble gets ready to play the ukulele. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times1 / 4
Jacob Feist follows the instruction of music teacher Linda Hodgson as she teaches his St. Mary's class to play ukuleles. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times2 / 4
St. Mary's student Xavier Kleindl strums a ukulele. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times3 / 4
Sydney Holm plays the ukulele during a vocal music class at St. Mary's Catholic School. Rae Yost/Stevens County Times4 / 4

The brightly colored ukuleles hang on a stand in the back of the music room at St. Mary's Catholic School in Morris. Some are red and others are blue. There's pink and slightly orange.

"I love how they look in my room," St. Mary's music teacher Linda Hodgson said. The bright colors may make her smile but what makes her smile even more is when her students pick up those ukuleles and start playing.

"Two kids have told me they like this better than singing," Hodgson said after her fifth-grade vocal music class left the room. "And this class really loves singing."

Fifth-graders said they like learning to play the small six-string instrument.

When they heard they were to receive the instruments at the school, "I was excited because it sounded fun," Nora Young said.

"I was excited because it's something a little different," Joshua Frischmon said.

The students started playing the ukuleles about three weeks ago. The school was able to buy the instruments from Sarlettes Music Store in Morris because of money raised in the 2018 annual auction.

Del Sarlette said ukuleles have been one of the store's most popular sellers for the past couple of years.

"A lot of elementary music programs are going with the ukulele," Sarlette said. But it's not just schools buying ukuleles, Sarlette said.

"During the past two holiday seasons they've been a popular seller," he said. "I'm seeing this trend. A lot of college kids are buying them."

Maria Schneider of Morris, a 2018 graduate of Morris Area High School, bought a ukulele from Sarlettes when she was in 10th grade.

"I bought when we had a two-hour late start," Schneider said. She walked into Sarlettes to look around and saw a ukulele.

The instrument was popular then, as it is today, with high-schoolers and college students. Schneider said ukuleles increased in popularity because of the hit song 'Riptide' which features a ukulele. Social media such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, will often have videos of people playing the ukulele.

For a time, "Everyone was doing covers of 'Riptide' and posting online (to Youtube or social media)," Schneider said.

Schneider has a ukulele at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph where she is a freshman. Schneider has her first ukulele and a second one she received from her brother at Christmas. Now, her sister Anne Marie is learning to play at St. Mary's.

The popularity of the ukulele doesn't appear to be dying.

"At my school there is even a ukulele class. A lot of my friends are in it," Schneider said.

Retired music teacher Barb Wilts taught seventh-grade girls how to play the ukulele at Morris Area Schools for several years.

Now, she's teaching a three-lesson ukulele class through Morris Area Community Education.

She's taught children, high-schoolers and adults in her class since she started offering it in November.

What makes this roughly 20-inch and four-to-six-stringed instrument so popular?

"It's a great starter instrument," St. Mary's principal Joe Ferriero said.

"It is so easy to learn," Schneider said.

"The ukulele has basic chords that are fairly simple," Sarlette said.

When users learn the basic chords, they can play many songs and even sing along.

"It's pretty easy and simple to get a sound out of it," Wilts said.

Hodgson said the ukulele encourages users to sing. "I think this is something you can use to accompany yourself while singing," Hodgson said.

"(Players) can accompany themselves. I even had one student (in seventh grade), who wrote a song for the class," Wilts said.

Which is likely one reason why videos of people playing and singing along with a ukulele are so popular on Youtube and social media.

And the encouragement of singing makes it a good fit for her vocal music class, Hodgson said.

The ukulele's size also makes it ideal for kids to hold, so it can be a good choice for elementary music programs, Sarlette said. There are two main types of ukuleles, he said. The standard soprano which is what St. Mary's students have and a slightly larger model called the concert ukulele, Sarlette said. The chords are the same for each.

Hodgson said because a ukulele is small, it's easy to carry to social events and around college campuses.

Schneider carries her ukulele to practice rooms which can be a half mile from her dorm at college. She's been writing songs which probably wouldn't have happened without her ukulele. "I really like writing songs," Schneider said.

The St. Mary's fifth-graders said they've enjoyed playing the ukuleles and they've been learning the chords and notes.

One song student Nora Boyle would like to learn to play on the instrument is "Silent Night."

The response from students is exactly what Hodgson and Ferriero were hoping for.

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