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Sunday Reflections: What the ukulele taught me about reluctant readers

As a child, I studied Suzuki method classical piano. I was technically proficient and was able to feel what the seemingly ancient pieces needed, pulling my own emotions out into my fingers and onto the keys. I was pretty good. But I disliked practicing, and once I progressed enough that it stopped being easy, my interest lagged. My fingernails grew long, only for my piano teacher to clip them once a week as I sat next to her on the bench. I’d be overcome as an audience member by the power and beauty of group performances, but I always played alone. I tried auditioning for the jazz band but was completely incapable of improvisation, so rigid was the training and so crippling was my own shyness. I tried buying my own sheet music for my teacher to help me with, but she was unable to connect with Queen or Tori Amos, and without her guidance and encouragement, my enthusiasm lagged. I was a reluctant musician. Eventually, it became clear to both of us that the only time I sat down to play were my weekly lessons. I quit when I was sixteen or seventeen.

Many years later, on a lark, my husband (who plays the trumpet) and I decided to learn this bit from The Jerk. 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BqtmXnQZ6Qk]

This meant that one of us would need to learn the ukulele, and that person was me.

We went out that night to buy one. It was inexpensive enough that it didn’t feel like a “real” instrument to me, which allowed me to just have fun. I dug into the song, and quickly learned that it was arranged and performed in the movie by, no surprise, a ukulele jazz master. It might be a novelty song, but learning it would be a far cry from the sweet simplicity of the clip.

From Guitar Instructor
I’d only ever played the piano. I knew what the treble clef was, but the notations above it? No idea. I was starting over completely. But in starting over, I was starting fresh. There was no pressure, no baggage, no disappointment. The ukulele was fun, and I was having fun with music again.  Now, several years later, I’ve found an informal but regular ukulele circle in my town. I play with a dozen or two other uke enthusiasts once a month or so. We strum along and belt out the words to Hawaiian and old novelty tunes, Monkees hits, rock classics, and the occasional TMBG or Dead Milkmen song. I love it and am no longer reluctant in the least. Here I am at a poster session, playing my second ukulele along with my ILEAD team, singing about our project, the Robot Test Kitchen, and having fun
So here’s what this taught me about reluctant readers: they need to be listened to and supported. They might be excellent readers, but for whatever reason, they’ve lost the spark needed to continue doing it; it’s not fun for them. But if the spark is lost, it doesn’t mean it can’t be found or that it’s disappeared. It might take time. It will take patience. It will take a lot of compassion and good listening skills and understanding. I think back to my early piano years and wonder how it might have turned out differently for me if my teacher had really listened to me as I tried to figure out what I wanted to get out of music. I think about the kids who come to us looking for a way to connect with books or the library, even though they “don’t like reading”. What a risk they’re taking! What bravery! Even if they’re only there because the have to find something for school. These are the kids who need us as champions and friends, even more so than the kids who come to us eager for the next new thing and can go on for hours about their favorite books and authors. 
Maybe the word we use is wrong. Maybe reluctant doesn’t describe it at all. Maybe these are lost readers, wandering readers, searching readers, readers on a break, discriminating readers. One thing is sure: they are people who know themselves, know what they don’t like, and would probably know, if offered the right guidance and asked the right questions, which path would lead them back to the material that ignites that spark. Maybe it’s not fiction. Maybe it’s genre fiction. Maybe it’s a magazine dedicated to their hobby. Maybe it’s a ukulele.


  1. So, did you and your husband ever figure the song out?

  2. Still working on it! But it's fun to practice now. One of these days we'll get it.

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