All this casual music-making might seem normal for a kid who has played in every band, jazz combo and orchestra he could find since junior high. But Whiteford had never before done any of those things.
Why? Partly because his specialty is trombone – not exactly an instrument he can play and sing at the same time – and partly because he has been trained to practice and polish each piece for a perfect performance, not slouch on a couch and noodle out a tune.
“Aside from a piano or a guitar, people don’t just pick up classical instruments and start playing them at a party,” he said.
But Whiteford had just taken Music 438, an elective offered to upper- and graduate-level music education majors. Officially called “Designing Musical Experiences,” it’s better known as “the ukulele class,” because the students build their own ukuleles and learn to play them. Achieving proficiency on the guitar’s runty little brother isn’t the point of the course, however.
“The music school culture values the concert experience. They’re interested mostly in virtuosity and in maintaining distinctions between the audience and performers,” said Matthew Thibeault, the professor who created this course. “But the ukulele – anyone can play it. And to teach it, you have to move away from that ‘professional performer’ conception and accept a conception that says playing for the love of music is also important.”
Thibeault was inspired in part by the work of UI ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino, whose research focuses on cultures that value “participatory music” – the act of playing, singing and dancing with other people, emphasizing the connections created by the music over the technical pizzazz of the players.
To implant this idea, Thibeault chose the ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-LAY-lay), partly because it is affordable and relatively easy to play. It has only four strings (a guitar has six or 12), and its compact size (about 20 inches long) means players don’t have to contort their fingers to create chords.
Erin Egan, a senior from Skokie, Ill., majoring in choral music education, makes the ukulele sound like the Goldilocks of musical instruments – not too hard, not too easy, just right. “It’s not so easy that it’s boring, but it’s not so difficult that it’s frustrating,” she said. “You still have to learn the chords, and you still have to practice. I think it’s a really good stepping stone to other instruments.”
Whiteford likes the ukulele’s positive personality. “It’s always upbeat; it’s never really sad. It’s a very social instrument,” he said. “It kind of opens up new doorways for relationships.”
Created in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1880s, the ukulele became the standard support to most folk music on the islands and the instrument every child learned to play in elementary school. On the mainland, it achieved novelty status in the 1970s with Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” and some buzz with The Who’s “Blue, Red and Grey.” Its rocket to real popularity wasn’t launched until the 1990s, when a video of the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole strumming a ukulele while beautifully mangling the lyrics to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” went viral.
In 2006, a YouTube video of another Hawaiian, Jake Shimabukuro, performing a dazzling version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” revived interest in the little uke. These days, it has been adopted by such rock stars as Train (“Hey, Soul Sister”), Taylor Swift, Will.i.am, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who, in May 2011, released a solo album titled “Ukulele Songs.”
More important to Thibeault, this snack-size ax has become ubiquitous in the hands of kids singing into their camcorders or computer monitors all over the Web, offering the opportunity to integrate technology into teaching.
“Even though we’re playing ukuleles, behind the scenes, all the learning and a lot of the organizing has heavy digital components,” he said. “The students teach each other by recording songs that they put on YouTube. They explore new material on their own, which they then bring in to class.”
The class traditionally culminates with a gig in downtown Champaign at The Blind Pig Co., where the goal is less about perfect performance than it is about bonding with bystanders. “In a normal concert, we notice mistakes and worry about those; in a participatory concert, we worry about the person who’s not singing or dancing,” Thibeault said.
For students like Egan and Whiteford – accustomed to having rigorous rehearsals leading up to any performance – the Blind Pig gig provided the novel experience of playing in public without worrying about missed chords or wrong notes.
“If you take a trombone solo over 12-bar blues, you’ll say to yourself, ‘Oh man, I played the wrong note back there, I totally messed up,’ and you get down about it,” Whiteford said. “But with this, it’s like, ‘Oh man, I messed up. All right, it doesn’t really matter!’ And keep playing.”
Egan, currently student teaching in Glenview, Ill., plans to use ukuleles to teach a general music class the first chance she gets. “General music is a really important thing, because every elementary student takes it, not just the kids who are good at singing or playing an instrument,” she said. “If you make it too competitive, it turns a lot of kids off from wanting to be part of the music program. Some kids just want to have fun.”
Whiteford said the Music 438 class provided a “lightbulb moment” that has helped him focus his career plans on young middle school musicians.
“A lot of people think of it as the ukulele class, but the kind of learning process that we came to understand in that class has made me rethink everything that I thought before about music education,” he said. “It’s so fixated on extrinsic motivation – getting this trophy, getting this chair – instead of intrinsic.
“I think the big thing I’m going to take away from the ukulele class isn’t that it’s fun to play the ukulele; it’s that it’s fun to play music.”