Ukulele crosses oceans to start trend on prairies
By JANE UTECHT, Staff Reporter
The unique sound of a ukulele brings to mind sights of Hawaii - palm trees, surfers on the ocean waves, hula skirts and leis - not the prairies of South Dakota.
The ukulele is making inroads into the land-locked prairies of South Dakota thanks to Madison musicians (left) Jessica Schultz, Gabe Richards and Jay Knutson.
But a new trend is bringing together the land-locked prairie and the small, stringed instrument.
Three Madison High School students have picked up the ukulele, or the uke, and have taught themselves how to play.
Only one had any connection to Hawaii. Sophomore Gabriel Richards was in Hawaii when he was 7 or 8. He liked the sound of the ukulele so much that he spent all of his souvenir money - $50 - on one to take home.
Senior Jay Knutson asked for the instrument last Christmas. He plays the guitar and bass, along with the baritone in band.
"I'd been playing more and more stringed instruments. I thought it would be fun," he said.
Now that's he's had some practice, he said, "The chords are quite a bit different. However, he took to the chord structure well. "I just like how it feels," he said.
The guitar was also how Jessica Schultz got started with the ukulele. She had started playing guitar when she was a sophomore but it frustrated her.
"Because it was larger, it was hard to reach different chords. I thought I'd try [the ukulele] because it was smaller," she said. "I really like it. I'll just sit at home and play sometimes. It's easy to pick up and take anywhere and play it."
Anywhere, like the homecoming talent show, where she performed two numbers on her uke.
Senior Matt Green won the talent show that night with a very impressive guitar solo. He has tried ukuleles, but says, "I'm not too much of a fan." There's something about the sound that he doesn't care for.
Knutson begs to differ. He likes how it sounds, describing it as a "warm" sound.
All of these musicians are self-taught, although Green has had a few professional guitar lessons. Schultz said it would be fun to take formal lessons from a ukulele master, but she doesn't know any in the area.
There are current masters bringing the instrument some notoriety, such as Jake Shimabukuro. The 36-year-old Hawaiian was featured on CBS Sunday Morning last fall. Correspondent Seth Doane said Shimabukuro's unique playing style is bringing some respect back to the instrument through his concerts and viral videos.
This local generation of players has not tried their hand at designing their own uke as Shimabukuro does, but the idea peaked Schultz's interest. Building a ukulele "would be so cool," she said.
As far as other creative endeavors, only Green has tried his hand at writing music.
Prices of the instruments range from $30 to $5,000 for custom instruments. There is a variety of styles as well; the one Schultz purchased has the word "Peace" etched on it in different languages. Guitar prices vary, too, Green said, from $100 to up to $50,000. Knutson warns that the cheaper ones lose their tune more easily.
The students' endeavors with a new instrument are not something that MHS vocal instructor Jennifer Richards said she can take credit for, as the students have picked up the uke of their own accord. But Richards thinks it's great when a student takes the initiative to do something musical because it's inside them and they want to express that with any instrument.
"It's fantastic they do things on their own," she said.
Gabe succinctly sums up what the three seem to feel about the uke: "It's just fun to play."
©Madison Daily Leader 2013
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