Santa Rosa students to share stage with renowned ukulele band
Excited for their lesson to begin, a group of Santa Rosa kids couldn’t resist plucking the strings on their ukuleles while their music teacher made his way around the room and tuned their pint-sized instruments.
For most of the two dozen children participating in the after-school program at Bellevue Elementary in southwest Santa Rosa, it was the first instrument they ever held. And it’s one they’re preparing to play on stage at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts with a renowned New Zealand band after only picking up the ukulele earlier this month.
“I’m nervous,” sixth-grader Chelsy Reyes said at a recent practice. “I feel I’m going to mess up.”
Still, she couldn’t wait to meet and play with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, lead by award-winning musician Age Pryor, who came up with the idea of the band a decade ago with friend Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. The band will perform at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
It teamed up with the Wells Fargo Center’s nonprofit foundation to offer free ukuleles and lessons to underserved children at local schools. Band member Andy Morley-Hall said they hope to encourage kids to explore music and pick up the ukulele, an instrument currently undergoing a renaissance.
“It’s such a little, disarming instrument. It just wants to be shared,” Morley-Hall said last week while preparing for a show in Yakima, Wash.
The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders in the program at Bellevue Elementary School will be invited on stage to play during the second part of the show, said Tracy Sawyer, education and outreach manager at Wells Fargo Center for the Arts. They will also be able to meet with the band during a sound check earlier that day.
“I’m nervous and excited,” said Natalia Ledesma, 10. “I’ve never met a real band.”
The students’ families will be provided with free tickets for the show, Sawyer added. She and music teacher Andrew DeVeny waited until their final practice before the show this past week to tell the kids they would be joining the band on stage.
“I’m petrified they’re going to say ‘forget it,’” Sawyer said before she and DeVeny broke the news to the kids, who were seated on the floor around them.
The kids bounced in excitement knowing they would be performing in front of possibly hundreds of people. They vowed to memorize all the lyrics to the song they’d be performing - a G-rated version of Jessie J’s hit “Price Tag.”
“Maybe some will ask you for your autographs,” said DeVeny, a longtime music teacher who works with a dozen schools around Sonoma County.
That thought wowed many of the kids, who planned to practice signing their names.
Madison Martinez, 9, was a bit more anxious than some of her bandmates about the invitation to go on stage.
“I’ve never been in front of a giant audience,” said the soft-spoken fourth-grader, who has been in the chorus for the past three years.
Karina Martinez, her mother and the school’s office manager, had revealed the news about performing with the New Zealand band weeks earlier. “She gave me this blank look,” Martinez said teasingly.
In addition to her daughter, Martinez’s two younger sisters, 9 and 10, are in the ukulele program. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves through art and teaches them about working together, Martinez said.
“When they’re really shy, it helps them come out of their shell,” she said.
The Wellington band, which performs covers of modern pop music as well as songs from Hawaii and New Zealand, did three or four similar outreach events while on a U.S. tour last year, Morley-Hall said. They plan to do a total of 16 this year.
“It fits in with our philosophy,” he explained.
He said band members want to share the history of the ukulele and bring its happy sound to their audience to encourage more people to appreciate the tiny instrument, one he picked up 10 years ago when the band formed almost by accident at a small Wellington cafe.
“You can just feel the amount of enjoyment we have on stage. It oozes out onto the audience,” he said.
The Bellevue students will get to keep the ukuleles after the show so they can continue learning new songs.
“This doesn’t happen often,” said Principal Maureen Grafeld, who plans to have the students in the ukulele program kick off the spring talent show on campus.
In a school where 88 percent of students receive a free or reduced-price lunch, she said kids often don’t have access to instruments or music lessons, putting them at disadvantage. Children who play music tend to perform better in school. It helps them with their fine motor skills and builds their vocabulary, Grafeld said.
“They may not have an opportunity at home,” she said. “If we can provide them with this at school, it could have a tremendous impact on them.”
DeVeny, who runs a summer music camp at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, would like to see more programs like this started in schools around county. He hopes to continue working with the Bellevue students even after Wednesday’s performance, noting many of them developed a deep connection with the ukulele.
“Every kid should have that right to experience music,” DeVeny said. “If it doesn’t come from school, it might not come from anywhere.”
You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or email@example.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.