Ukulele gives music education class a new dimension

A recently added course is using the ukulele to challenge the traditional idea of music education.

In the class, Designing Musical Experience, students construct their own ukuleles and learn how to play the instrument in a “fun and whimsical way,” said Matthew Thibeault, assistant professor in music education.

Thibeault, who created the class three years ago, said that while the students create the ukulele, the instrument also has a part in shaping its maker, helping the students define themselves as musicians.

“This metaphor runs throughout the coursework,” Thibeault said.

The class also often posts instructional videos to YouTube to supplement classroom learning. Videos of performances are also posted online.

Near the end of the course, students perform various sing-alongs, specifically referred to as such so as not to give the idea of a disconnected performer and audience, Thibeault said. During performances, the class invites the audience to sing along and participate, offering some of them ukuleles of their own to try.

“It’s honestly hard not to smile when strumming the ukulele while singing,” said Rachel Atlas, senior in FAA. “We can’t help it. It’s always such a happy atmosphere.”

The class will perform next at The Blind Pig Company, 120 North Walnut Street, on Nov. 2 at 8 p.m.

Channing Paluck, graduate student, has been working with Thibeault for three years as well as helping out with the class.

“This is a class that provides a strong, student-driven learning environment,” Paluck said.

Some students were even able to compose some music of their own. Kelly Durley, senior in FAA, performs her original song “Until Me” at the Illini Union Courtyard Cafe. Thibeault attended one of her performances and suggested that Durley create chords and teach her new song to the class.

“It truly is a student-driven class,” Durley said. “Dr. Thibeault always encourages his students to bring in their own ideas and songs.”

One of Thibeault’s former students who took the course last year, Julianne Evoy, is now a music teacher at Ladue Early Childhood center in St. Louis. Evoy integrates the ukulele teachings in her preschool class.

Thibeault said it feels good to know there’s value in this teaching approach. He knows of five former students that incorporate the ukulele in their music classes. He added that he loves sharing songs with the community because music connects people to other people.

Paluck and Thibeault will be presenting their philosophy about music education and the use of ukuleles at the Illinois Music Education Conference in January.

The conference gathers music educators from preschool to college-level who come mainly from Illinois.