Plucky students meet ukulele master

May 13, 2014

By Alexa Vaughn

Riley Frasier’s mother could hardly keep her 7-year-old from popping out of his seat.

Every time world-renowned ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro started plucking a symphonic range of sound few others have ever drawn out of the short, four-stringed instrument, Riley had to stamp his feet, rock his head so hard his glasses could barely stay on his nose and strum the air.

And who could blame him? Certainly not other fans of Shimabukuro’s ukulele solos, an eclectic and international audience that includes the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and the Queen of England (who has shaken Shimabukuro’s hand).

By Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times Jake Shimabukuro plays ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with dozens of students from Sunny Hills Elementary School, among them Ellie Lindley, Natalie Anderson and Mia Rogers in the front row.

By Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times
Jake Shimabukuro plays ‘This Land Is Your Land’ with dozens of students from Sunny Hills Elementary School, among them Ellie Lindley, Natalie Anderson and Mia Rogers in the front row.

On his way to a concert at The Paramount in Seattle, Shimabukuro stopped by Issaquah High School on April 26 to offer a workshop for students and a thrilling afternoon — part instruction, part performance — for a roomful of ukulele lovers of all ages. About two years ago, Shimabukuro decided that the stops on his national tours would include free ukulele performances and lessons the morning or afternoon before he took the stage.

“I just thought I’m in all these cities anyway and I have the perfect vehicle to promote music education — literally my tour bus. Why not?” Shimabukuro said. “I love sharing my passion, and I want to inspire young people to find that same passion in something and work hard at it.”

That desire is now playing out through Shimabukuro’s Four Strings Foundation and was exactly what Riley and almost 500 others enjoyed.

When Shimabukuro invited the audience to join in, more than half had brought their own ukes.

Children, teens, parents and seniors followed Shimabukuro’s wrist- and finger-placement directions, and looked up every now and then with dropped jaws at the sound coming from the auditorium.

“One of the things I find fascinating about the ukulele is it doesn’t intimidate anyone. It’s affordable. It’s portable,” said Shimabukuro, who hopes to make ukuleles a more mainstream public-education tool. “My own grandma, who’s never played an instrument, started playing in the last year, and she’s 80. Anyone can learn.”

After wowing the audience with a few of his favorite songs, he invited about 40 students from Sunny Hills Elementary School to sit with him onstage and strum a background chord for “This Land Is Your Land.”

Among them was Riley, who wasn’t supposed to go onstage with the third- and fourth-graders, but did anyway. Once Shimabukuro asked for budding musicians, there was no holding Riley back, said his mother, Melissa Frasier. She said he’d known about Shimabukuro and the ukulele for only a couple of weeks, but was already obsessed with picking up the instrument.

The director of the Four Strings Foundation, middle-school music teacher Polly Yukevich, said the nonprofit is also concentrating on creating custom music curricula for low-income districts throughout the country. For schools in Detroit lacking music teachers, Yukevich said they developed lessons that teachers could lead without having any music instruction themselves.

Shimabukuro, 37, said he’s been giving free music lessons and performances since he was in high school, and likes how the nonprofit can connect students and an entire community.

Friends Wendy Pickering, 59, and Dave Jager, 58, aren’t in school anymore, but the ukuleles they started playing this year have them feeling like new students all over again.

Pickering had already bought tickets to the Paramount concert when, last week, she happened to see a poster for the Issaquah event.

“It was an absolute thrill to play with him — amazing,” Pickering said.

Yukevich said Shimabukuro is due to come back to the Seattle area again in the fall on another tour and will be bringing the Four Strings Foundation workshop to another school.

 

Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.

 

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