Josh Brink’s first encounter with a ukulele occurred many years ago when his mother bought him a cheap, almost toyish version of the instrument. This was before the era of easily available “how-to” videos on YouTube, and the young Brink had fun “messing around” with the ukulele and teaching himself how to play.
Years later, at his first teaching job in Orlando, Florida, Brink oversaw an elementary school music program that had dwindled to just eight students. Recalling the fun he had as a youngster playing his ukulele, he decided to invest in some of the instruments for the school.
“What’s great about ukuleles is they’re really inexpensive to get a reasonable one, and it’s something that students can do no matter the size of the group,” Brink said. “I did that with my students as kind of an experiment. It was a blast. We had a lot of fun. I was learning along with them.”
A couple years later, Brink found himself teaching music at a much bigger middle school in Orlando. He revived the ukulele idea, but this time, due to budgetary constraints, students had to supply their own instruments. Even so, more than 70 students signed up for the program.
“It blew me away. I did it multiple days a week, parents loved it,” Brink said. “When parents found out I wasn’t doing it again, they almost staged a coup. So, I continued with it, and it was a lot of fun with the students. As they progressed, it forced me to progress in my skills.”
With few resources available at the time on how to incorporate ukuleles into existing music curriculums, Brink invented his own methods and became an expert on the subject, even giving a presentation about it at a Florida Educators Association Conference.
Brink moved to Page in 2018, and in 2019 he became the music teacher at Desert View Intermediate School.
“I have this idea again. Now ukuleles are part of who I am and my teaching style, and I enjoy it, and I know students enjoy it,” Brink said, adding that he was able to get enough money for 30 instruments through a club of ukulele-playing retirees in Flagstaff.
The Desert View club was successful but, like many activities, it was forced to go virtual when the COVID pandemic hit Page. The number of students dropped to around 10 to 15.
But now, with in-person rehearsals revived, the number of students has shot up to nearly 100 beginning, intermediate and advanced students.
Brink said the relaunched club is bring-your-own ukulele because he wants students to take their instruments home to practice, but he has secured a grant to purchase a limited number of ukuleles with cases for students who can’t afford their own.
Students in the club, who range in age from 8 to 12, meet once a week for about an hour. They’re currently preparing for their next performance on May 5 at Page High School’s Cultural Arts Building.
The ukulele club practices a wide repertoire of music, from simple, two-chord folk songs to popular music from the radio, Brink said.
“I do have a little bit of fun with it. We do a lot of folk songs. I’ve also written my own songs that are just for fun,” he said. “We do songs on the radio. We are going to be doing Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ at our concert coming up in May, and we’re doing some Beatles as well.”
Brink said that his goal with the club is to encourage students to continue playing ukulele after they leave fifth grade.
“I try to teach my students the skills to make music on their own. I show them how to find chords and tabs and lyrics for songs online. You hear a song, and how do you learn it?” he said.
Brink said there was also a lot of “pride and recognition” that he loves seeing in his students.
“One of my favorite things is to see students get recognition for the work that they’re doing. When do students get audience applause for their math or their science or their reading skills? It doesn’t happen,” he said.
“What’s neat about what we do in music in general is students get onstage and there’s a room of people that applaud for them and give them a standing ovation. They feel a sense of worth and value. Seeing my students get that recognition in what they’re doing is the best part. I have students that tell me they’re excited to get to the next level because then they can do more challenging things.”
One student, Myron Monroe, said ukulele club is fun and gives her the chance to socialize with other kids.
“Ukulele club has enlightened me because it lifted my spirits. I learned new songs and how to play notes,” she said, adding that “Mr. Brink is funny.”
Parents are equally enthused about the program. Christi Lewandowski said ukulele has been a “positive and wonderful experience” for her daughter Ella “but also has challenged her in ways that will influence her growth in life.”
“Music isn’t something that comes easy in our family, and for that she is the first of our immediate family to play an instrument. She is motivated by music and loves going to ukulele every week,” Lewandowski said.
Amy Schroeder said her daughter Olivia “has gained confidence in herself from engaging in ukulele class, learning to play the ukulele, and she looks forward to every class!”
Parents Bill and Grace Manning said Brink and his ukulele club were two of their favorite things about Desert View Intermediate School.
“Mr. Brink’s love of music is infectious, and our daughter Evangeline has not only benefited from his expertise but has grown in her love of music as well. We’re thankful for the time and effort Mr. Brink has put into this program,” they said.
Brink said his students love the challenge of playing ukulele and the creative release it provides.
“I have some students in the past who have written their own songs and they don’t know how to put things to music. And once they get the instrument in their hand that they can sing along with, it now becomes a tool to express their emotions,” he said.
“Each student is unique, what it means to them, so it’s so many things. It gives them a sense of value and worth – at least I hope that’s what happens.”