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A music teacher's pandemic hobby led to a ukulele obsession at a Parkway elementary school

Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
Elementary music teacher Peggy Plesia plays the ukulele with her students in September at Henry Elementary School in Ballwin. Plesia has been teaching her students the new instrument this school year in the Parkway School District.

When a new trend takes over an elementary school, it bounces through the building until every kid is talking about fidget spinners or homemade slime. In the Parkway School District, something educational has recently captured attention at one elementary school, to the delight of a teacher.

The ukulele is the latest obsession of students at Henry Elementary School. Introducing them to the strummable, pleasant-sounding instrument was the idea of Peggy Plesia.

She has been teaching music in the same instrument-filled classroom at Henry Elementary School for 21 years.

“I've loved every moment of it,” she said.

Xylophones and drums line the back of Plesia’s classroom. Colorful plastic boomwhackers hang on one wall. And of course, she has recorders.

“I know a lot of people cringe when I say recorder, but I actually love teaching recorder,” Plesia said.

A few years ago, at a music education conference, she heard about teachers using the ukulele in their classes.

“During the pandemic, a lot of people started to reevaluate, especially music educators,” Plesia said. “You know, how can I bring just a little bit more spark into the music curriculum?”

Plesia bought a concert ukulele and taught herself how to play. During the pandemic and virtual classes, she started using it to accompany her singing because its soft sound didn’t overwhelm her computer’s microphone on Zoom.

“The kids were just having a great time at home, singing along and acting out whatever songs we were working on,” Plesia said. “I would kind of strum on the ukulele, just some simple chords, and then I wanted to take it further.”

Using a PTO grant, she bought 30 mahogany ukuleles for her class last year and built a shelf to keep them safe. Each instrument has color-coded, oil-based permanent marker dots Plesia drew to show the students how to play the right notes. On the back of the ukes, soft velcro circles guide students’ hands to hold the instruments correctly.

So far the students are loving the new music makers.

“It's fun, it makes a very, very pretty noise whenever you strum it, and there's a lot of songs that you can play with it,” said Will Koehl, a fifth grader.

The veteran music teacher said she’s been “over the moon excited” by how quickly the students have picked it up. The instruments are relatively easy to learn and sound nice even when a student or two hits a wrong note.

Plesia plays YouTube videos of pop songs like “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors, with graphics showing the chords, so the class can play along. The tiny instruments are also a great introduction to strings, which kids can start playing in Parkway in later grades. Fifth grader Jane Cho plays violin and is in the Young People’s Concert Orchestra, an audition ensemble. Even though she is already a musician, Cho had fun learning ukulele in Plesia’s class.

“The ukulele sounds much better when our whole class plays it,” Cho said. “If ukulele was like strings and you could pick if you could do it, then I feel like most people would pick ukulele.”

Over and over again, the students talked about their absolute favorite song — “Coconut” by Harry Nilsson.

“Everyone loves ‘Lime in the Coconut’,” said fifth grader Ellie Cunningham. “They say it in, like, a weird voice, and it's really funny.”

Koehl thinks the appeal might come down to how simple the song is.

“It's easy and it's like, pretty silly, which is fun,” Koehl said.

Learning the ukulele has been silly, and Plesia hopes it will give her students a lifetime love of music.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke 

Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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