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Ukulele event highlights class designed to instill lifelong love of music

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Music professor Matthew Thibeault, right, and his "Designing Musical Experiences" class perform with their hand-made ukuleles.

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10/25/2011 | Dusty Rhodes, Arts and Humanities Editor | 217-333-0568; rhodes8@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Any musician who can perform a concerto on stage with a symphony orchestra surely feels right at home jamming with friends on a simple pop tune or a folk classic like “This Land is Your Land,” right? Well, not necessarily.

ukekele class in action
View "the ukulele course" in action. | Video by Katherine Gatsche

“One of my students last year said, ‘I’ve been playing music for more than 10 years, but I can’t just pick up an instrument and play a song.’ She could only do that with a piece of music and a director,” said Matthew Thibeault, a professor of music education at the University of Illinois. Thibeault has met so many musicians with the same surprising problem that he developed a course for future music educators to address this irony.

Listed in the course catalog as “Designing Musical Experiences,” MUS 438 also is known among upper-level undergrads and graduate students as “the ukulele course.” Thibeault helps his students construct their own instruments from an economical ukulele kit, and then teach themselves and each other a variety of tunes by using and creating YouTube videos. Each class culminates in a series of public performances under the name Homebrew Ukulele Union. The fall 2011 class will perform at 8 p.m. Nov. 2 (Wednesday) at The Blind Pig Company, 120 N. Walnut St., Champaign.

The course merges two seemingly disparate components – a humble little guitar-like instrument and the Internet – to teach the musical version of the educational concept known as “ubiquitous learning.”

Thibeault’s goal is to equip music education students with the tools to empower their own students to enjoy making music all their lives. “Ironically, it gets left out of people’s music education and it gets left out of the conception of what it should be to be a music teacher,” Thibeault said.

When he started the course in 2004, he purposely chose the ukulele for its accessibility in size, price, and skill. “It’s like the guitar but has fewer strings, and the frets are closer together so the basic chords can be played by young people much more easily,” he said. The instrument’s user-friendliness helps explain the abundance of homemade videos available on YouTube (the phenomenon has been spurred on since 2007 by the Bushman World Ukulele Video Contest), in addition to chord charts, tablature and even sheet music free online.

“The new reality is that content is everywhere, and you can always be connected with it. Digital tools are transforming how people get information, how they use information, how they create and share information,” Thibeault said.

In an article recently published in the journal General Music Today, Thibeault outlined the anthropological underpinnings of the course, using U. of I. ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino’s definitions for “participatory” versus “presentational” music. “Most school music is presentational: structurally rich compositions performed in a concert hall for close listening and contemplation,” Thibeault wrote. “By contrast, participatory music uses simple structures, improvisation and repetition to invite audience participation through singing or dancing.”

HUU appearances are designed to blur the boundaries between “performers” and listeners by enticing anyone within earshot to join in. Julianne Evoy, a U. of I. music education major who took MUS 438 and co-wrote the journal article, wrote that HUU gigs provided a novel experience for her.

“Throughout my music education, I did not have very many opportunities to separate stress from music,” she wrote. “Did we make some mistakes in our (HUU) performances? Yes. Did the world end because of them? No. By the end of the semester, it was really refreshing to have been part of a group that rehearsed and performed purely for the joy of sharing music with others.”

Editor's note: To contact Matthew Thibeault, email mdthib@illinois.edu.

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