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Right-sized ukuleles fill tiny hands

A rainbow of ukuleles sat on tables awaiting small hands to strum them.

Nathan Westlund, an orchestra teacher, tuned the instruments just before a 30-minute music session with 20 students at the Millwood Kindergarten Center.

The kids, ages 5 to 6, each got to choose a ukulele by various colors: Pink, red, blue, purple, green, white, brown, orange, black. Their intro to ukulele is part of a music program for kindergarteners in the West Valley School District.

“It’s the right size; it only has four strings,” Westlund said. “Some of them really pick it up and fly.

“I’ve always felt you’re never too young or too old to learn an instrument.”

Westlund, West Valley High School orchestra director, also instructs music at schools around the district, including at the kindergarten center.

The Millwood facility has 231 kindergarten students. Two to three times a week, each of its classes has 30-minute music instruction. Westlund teaches them basics for singing, counting in rhythm and playing simple instruments like hand drums.

By May, Westlund and teacher volunteers plan to start an after-school ukulele club at the Millwood center for those kindergarteners who want to learn more about playing the instrument.

He started using the ukulele last spring with just a few of them, after seeing how interested the kids were in the one he brought into class to accompany them singing songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” The kids were fascinated by the smaller instrument, sparking what seemed a perfect match.

“The students last year kept saying, ‘Can we play?’ and I thought why not?” he said. “The ukulele is very fun. I picked it up and loved it. When the kids saw mine, they got excited.”

Westlund does bring in some recorded music, but he tries to expose the children to as much live music in class as possible.

The majority of the small-sized soprano ukuleles arrived by this past summer. Funds to buy them came from the district, grants and community support, he said.

This month, all the center’s students each got a turn at ukulele strumming. While a bit more challenging to learn than drums, Westlund recently showed teacher JoAnn Schweda’s 20 students different ways to hold their fingers for basic ukulele playing.

Students followed him using four fingers, then use of the index finger and thumb connecting at a point, before transitions to only an index finger or thumb.

“In the fall, they’re just learning about music, so we start with hand drums, triangles, we work up to the ukuleles,” Westlund said. “They get to use tambourines, xylophones.”

While working with the students, Westlund quickly reviewed how to handle and hold the instrument, as the kids sat in a semi-circle in the building’s board room.

“Go ahead and strum a little bit,” he told them, asking them to pause between steps. Some of them played softly, others strummed more vigorously.

“We’ll learn chords later. Like we learned with rhythm sticks, we’re going to count one, two, three, four.”

The kids counted with him while strumming each beat, sometimes slower or faster. He also showed them strumming from top down, then from the bottom of the strings up.

“I change it up,” he told them, while using his own ukulele.

Westlund said that in future sessions this spring, he’ll teach the students some basic chords, such as C, then G7, enough to put together “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” by year’s end.

“That first, and maybe ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’ ” he said. “We did it last year. They’ll get to be playing it and singing. For a 5- and 6-year-old, to be singing while playing chords, that’s tough. We had some doing it last year.”

He plans to introduce ukuleles to kindergarteners every year. He can haul them in their storage boxes within a wagon, if he has to take them into different classrooms.

The upcoming club will supplement basics for students eager to dig in, he said. Some students told him they received ukuleles this year for Christmas.

Ukulele is a good introduction to melody, broadening beyond percussion, Westlund said.

“It’s a great creative outlet. The ukulele is just the perfect size for them.”