Alaska students raise the ukulele to orchestral proportions

November 25, 2019 GMT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The most prominent sign of the growing popularity of ukuleles among Anchorage students is East High School’s orchestra dedicated to the short-necked relative of the guitar.

The Anchorage School District has seen a wave of aspiring student musicians who want to pluck the small, four-stringed instruments, The Anchorage Daily News reported.

The number of students enrolled in ukulele class at the school has surpassed those in guitar class, while the orchestra includes concert ukuleles, tenor ukuleles, baritone, bass and electric ukuleles, teacher Kiel Schweizer said.

Reasons for the student attraction to ukuleles include affordability, portability and ease of play and their popularity on YouTube, Schweizer said.

Using popular music is a “great equalizer” among students, including the members of the ukulele orchestra who were recently practicing “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas.

“Some of these kids come from households where they only speak Hmong, or only speak Hawaiian,” Schweizer said, “but they all know Justin Bieber.”

The instrument is embedded in the Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander culture of 15% of the school’s student population of about 1,750.

Loa Vahaakolo, a 17-year-old senior who plays bass ukulele, comes from a Tongan family of ukulele players.

“During lunch if you see a guy with a ukulele, they’ll be a bunch of Polynesian kids around him,” Vahaakolo said.

Schweizer started the school district’s program almost by accident in 2005 after replacing the piercing sounds of recorders with dusty ukuleles from a closet at Nunaka Valley Elementary School.

After moving to East High, Schweizer founded a ukulele club and in 2014 he began teaching a class after writing a curriculum and working with administrators.

There are now about 70 ukulele students at East High, compared to 50 guitar students, while 169 high school students across the district are enrolled in a ukulele class this year, up from 124 last year.

“This has been the year the ukuleles took over,” Schweizer said.


Information from: Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com