Article and Photos by Amber (Schatz) Danks

The frigid North Dakota winter is temporarily forgotten inside the warm, inviting music room of Cathedral Elementary in Bismarck. That’s because Mrs. Cook can transport you to a tropical getaway with a few strums of her ukulele. She’s getting ready to teach the fourth and fifth grade students their first lesson of the year on how to play the Hawaiian instrument. After playing only a few chords, students taking their seats gasp in excitement, with one young boy crying out, “Wow!”  Mrs. Cook has been teaching music for 20 years, but only started playing the ukulele about three years ago.

“I love to sing, and I’m not a great piano player so accompanying myself on the ukulele is an easier and also a portable way to go. I annoy my husband by playing in the car all the time,” says music teacher Nicole Cook. ”I started teaching my nieces at the lake and we play all the time now—campfires, Christmas carols, and pontoon songs.”

For a few years, she has been sharing the benefits of playing the mini instrument with her elementary students. For their first lesson of the year, students learn the anatomy of the string instrument through song.

“Music is an earworm. It gets inside your head and sticks there, sometimes annoyingly so. Putting music to anything helps you remember it. I taught my son his Boy Scout oath by singing it to the tune London Bridge. Our teachers use songs to remember math facts. Try it with anything.”

Students also learn that you should name your ukulele. Several students share their ukulele name ideas, including Jeff, John Damon, Scott, and Bob Marley. Mrs. Cook’s instrument is named “iki alii” or Little Prince. She says that’s because she bought it in Minneapolis the weekend singer-songwriter Prince died. For the first lesson, students learn a couple chords that can be played to Harry Nilsson’s song, “Coconut.”

“Mostly it’s about fun and a love of music. My philosophy about music education is that above all else students have to enjoy it. I like to say I sneak in the actual learning; they don’t even know it’s happening. You put a ukulele in a boy’s hand and he sing without thinking about it. These days, kids have so many opportunities on how to spend their time. The arts are important to our mind and bodies but today they’re valued by very few. Dinner and drinks are a popular night out around town but how many people attend the local ballet or symphony first?  It’s just not happening; the arts are struggling and so are we as a society.”

Nicole encourges adults to try the instrument, too. She says it’s small enough to hold comfortably, and isn’t as expensive as most instruments. She is part of a Facebook group that meets on a regular basis to jam out on their ukuleles.  She says you don’t have to be an expert to join them and it’s fun.

“It’s not often as an adult you have the opportunity to just play. No stress, no cares, no judging. Think Margaritaville!”

The group will often meet at local restaurants in Bismarck to play. You can find the schedule by searching ‘ukumondays’ on Facebook. Nicole says she gets a lot out of playing the instrument.

“It’s a moment of relaxation in an otherwise hectic world. I have two little boys at home so things never seem to slow down. In my life right now, playing is my ‘me time,’ if there is such a thing. I can play in the airport, in the park while kids are playing, or during a night out with other players. When I play at home my five-year-old grabs a guitar or a violin off the wall and plays along. He has no idea what he’s doing but it’s fun all the same.”

Having fun seems to be the core message of Mrs. Cook’s lessons. Along with learning to play the ukulele and recorder, she hopes her students remember the joy of music well into adulthood.

“I want them to remember that they once loved music. I don’t care if they’re musicians by trade, but I want them to sing in the church choir, make their kids play piano, go to the local theatre, and perhaps have a ukulele laying on their end table. When they have just a tish of time to slow down they might remember how fun it was to make music when they were a child and decide to love it again as an adult.”   

To hear a snippet of Nicole’s class playing their ukuleles, click here

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Amber (Schatz) Danks spent nearly 12 years as a news reporter, producer, and anchor. She is currently tackling her toughest and most rewarding assignment yet: being a stay-home mom to her baby girl.