Sure, it was a master class on playing the ukulele. But that didn’t preclude writing a song about dancing cows with problem pants.
Twenty-two fifth-graders from St. Joseph’s School walked to the Al. Ringling Theatre on Thursday, carrying school-issued ukuleles. There they received expert instruction from James Hill, who later performed from the same stage for the community with spouse and cellist Anne Janelle.
Hill helped the beginners play chords, advancing to transposing the key when they showed they could play “Frere Jacques” adeptly. “Because this is going so well, we’re going to try something fancy,” Hill said.
St. Joseph’s fourth- and fifth-graders have a ukulele unit in their music classes each spring. “We decided to try these as a fun alternative to a recorder unit that would give the students an opportunity to transition to the guitar with a few adjustments,” teacher Michelle Bushweiler said. “Obviously, ukulele and guitar are more universally used instruments than the recorder. Ukeleles are also easier for small hands to handle than the guitar.”
The Al. Ringling Theatre Friends have made master classes a key component of this performance season. Executive Director Stephanie Miller-Lamb had St. Joe’s ukulele students in mind when booking Hill. This spring, Mongolian throat singers will work with Baraboo High School vocalists.
“This is part of our involvement with the community,” Miller-Lamb said. “That’s part of our mission.”
Hill said working with students helps him integrate with a community during a brief stay. Before he recorded multiple albums and became a touring artist, Hill got his start learning the ukulele in school in his native Canada.
“Anybody would love the chance to work with the next generation of musicians,” he said. “It’s an hour well spent.”
He started Thursday’s lesson playing the theme song from the “Super Mario Brothers” video game, explaining that while practicing never made him good at Nintendo, it made him an expert ukulele player. He led the students in playing notes up and down the scale, splitting the class in half and having them bounce notes off one another.
On the spot, they created a song about a spaceship visiting Walmart at 2 a.m., and another about a dancing cow having problems with its pants.
Teaching is nothing new for Hill. He co-authored the “Ukulele in the Classroom” method book series, and with his father Barry — a retired school teacher — launched a ukulele teacher certification program. More recently Hill created “The Ukulele Way,” a groundbreaking learning method that combines print, video, audio and social media.
After performing for the students, including a rendition of Coldplay’s “Clocks,” Hill left them with these words: “I encourage you to keep playing, keep strumming.”