Build-n-Play ukulele class a hit at London High School

Messenger photos by Dedra Cordle
London High School senior Julie Betz sands portions of her ukulele. After all the frets and strings are on the body, she will paint the instrument to personalize it.

(Posted Feb. 15, 2023)

By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer

If someone had told Tim Tanner at the start of his career in vocal music education that one day he would lead a course on how to build and play a musical instrument, he likely would have laughed in their face.

“I have no background in playing string instruments. All of my previous attempts to learn how to play string instruments have failed, and I am certainly not the one you call when you need to fix things around the house,” he admitted with a grin.

But much to his surprise, Tanner, vocal music instructor at London City Schools, is teaching just such a course as he nears the three-decade mark in his career.

“This has been an unexpected turn of events, but I have to say that I could not be more excited to be involved in this new course offering, nor could I be any prouder of the results that have come out of this program,” he said.

The idea for “Ukulele: Build-N-Play” began to form in the winter of 2020 when Tanner was experiencing a prolonged period of boredom during pandemic-related school closures and the discouragement of public gatherings as the holidays approached.

“I had been doing a lot of puzzles to keep my mind occupied, and I was looking for a bigger challenge,” he explained.

That bigger challenge came in the form of a build-it-yourself ukulele kit his wife, Valerie, bought for him as a Christmas surprise.

Tim Tanner, vocal music instructor at London City Schools, displays a ukulele he and several high school students built during his class, “Ukulele: Build-N-Play.” This particular ukulele and case will be raffled off during the school district’s S.T.E.A.M Festival on April 1. Tanner said the new course would not have been possible without the assistance of Principal Michael Browning and high school industrial arts teacher Zach Freer.

Valerie knew her husband had always wanted to learn how to play a string instrument, and she thought he might finally find success with the ukulele as it is more “user-friendly” than its bigger relative, the guitar.

“It’s much lighter than a guitar, it’s much shorter than a guitar, and it only has four-strings which is more forgiving on your fingers and hands,” Tanner said. “It really is the perfect instrument for all ages and abilities, and I’m not sure why I never thought to give it a try earlier.”

As he began to assemble his StewMac ukulele kit, a new idea popped into his head: Teaching students at the high school level, especially those who have had no interest in taking choir or band, how to build and play the ukulele.

“I began documenting every step and every mistake that I made during the process,” Tanner said. “I knew that if I was really going to do this, I had to know where things went right and I had to know where things went wrong in order to troubleshoot for the students who would take this course.”

Within months, Tanner had built his first ukulele and learned how to play chords from the songs of some of his favorite 80’s rock artists.

“I don’t think I can accurately describe the sense of pride I felt at building my own ukulele and learning how to play it, not proficiently to be certain, but just learning how to play it,” he said. “I knew that these kids would feel the same way if given the chance.”

That chance came during the 2021-22 school year when Principal Michael Browning advocated for “Ukulele: Build-N-Play” to become a course offering at the high school. Tanner says 12 students signed up for the initial course and word quickly spread.

Logan Weiner, a junior, said positive word-of -mouth is why he decided to take the course this semester.

“I have no skills at guitar, no wood building skills under my belt, and I’m not really the most artistic person, but some of my friends who took the course said how fun it was to take and that is why I am here,” he said.

He added that the course has lived up to the hype.

“We’re still in the build phase, but it has been really cool to learn how to make a ukulele with my own hands,” he said. “I can’t wait until we learn how to play it.”

Jaiden Ballah is all smiles as she shows her half-completed ukulele. The senior said she signed up for Tim Tanner’s build-and-play course because it is hands-on. She said she has enjoyed the class and appreciates that Tanner allows students to go at their own pace. “He has been a really great instructor,” she said.

With nearly 20 weeks in a semester, Tanner has broken the ukulele class into two phases. The first phase is a 10-week build during which students assemble the body of the ukulele, smooth and sand, add the frets, line up the strings, and personalize the instrument with their own artwork. During the second 10 weeks, Tanner encourages students to listen to their favorite songs, study the chord progressions, and repeat the tablature on their ukuleles the best they can.

“My expectation for them is not to want to begin a career as a ukulele player, although you never know what might spark a new interest,” he said. “I just want them to be proud of the fact that they have built something with their own hands, that they have done something different and learned how to play chords from some of their favorite songs. The biggest pleasure I have had so far during this course is seeing them be happy, seeing them carry their ukuleles around the school and showing them off to their friends.

“I really was not sure this class would be a success when it started, especially since I was new to building ukuleles and playing ukuleles, as well, but I am so thankful I am able to be a part of this and to see the joy that it brings to those who take this class.”

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