How the Groundwork Music Project uses the ukulele to foster a love of music
by Nicole Beckley
Photographs by Croft Fite
Twice a week, at Blackshear Elementary School, the sounds of ukuleles and children’s voices can be heard from Marisa Jefferson’s second grade class. Through games, songs and practical instructions, kids learn to play music, thanks to the Groundwork Music Project, a nonprofit organization that provides free and low-cost music lessons to children who might not otherwise have the opportunity.
Jefferson’s students have been taught by Daniel Piccuirro, one of Groundwork’s instructors. “It’s really helpful to have a teacher who can have empathy for them and have fun with them and still have the structure that we need so that the classroom doesn’t turn into chaos, which it very easily could when you give 20 seven- and eight-year-olds ukuleles,” Jefferson says.
Established in 2006 by Neal Kassanoff, Groundwork emerged from Kassanoff’s love of music. “I really came about this as a songwriter first,” Kassanoff says. “And it was my own writing that I used to get some programs started for preschool-aged kids.”
After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta, Kassanoff made his way to Austin, “I did a graduate program in school psychology at Texas State, but all the while I was thinking, I need to focus on my art. I need to make music for a living,” Kassanoff says. While penning songs for Carolyn Wonderland and Guy Forsyth, Kassanoff also started to write music for children, setting the early stage for Groundwork.
Today the program works with a broad group of ages, from 18 months up to adults, but concentrates on elementary-school students. “There’s a lot of interest in programs for kids aged five to seven, so we’ve really tried to create a program that suits that age,” Kassanoff says. That includes teaching kids an instrument: a ukulele. “The ukulele is inexpensive. Its barriers to entry are low,” Kassanoff says. “It’s easy to play with little hands and can be a bridge to more-demanding finger strength and complexity that might be involved with the guitar or viola or violin.”
Instructors use the ukulele to introduce songs, highlight the differences between notes and chords, and teach melody, harmony, technique and rhythm. As students gain confidence with playing the ukulele, there’s a sense of fun that emerges, too. “There just seems to be a real civilizing influence; you don’t need a lot of external behavior cues. They really are motivated by playing the music itself,” Kassanoff says. “You can see their joy in what they’re doing, their enthusiasm and their excitement. The confidence and the building of self-esteem is something that just becomes woven in and becomes very natural, which is the way it should be.”
Since its inception over a decade ago, thousands of students have participated in Groundwork programs, learning musical skills through after-school and in-school sessions, and current programs are running with Blackshear and Harris elementary schools. “My experience has been that Groundwork has really wonderful teachers that are also gifted musicians, and that’s really why it works so well,” Jefferson says. Kassanoff recalls a parent whose preschool daughter went through one of the programs. “He said, ‘I always knew that she was musical — she knew how to sing, she knew how to make music — but the program provided the opportunity for her to really learn to love music.’ And I really can’t imagine a higher compliment than that.”
The Groundwork program also provides opportunities for students to perform for their friends, family and the community. At Blackshear, students have performed at the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center. “I had a parent say how excited she was to get to see her son play ukulele, because, I think for a lot of people, it’s something that their kid might have told them about, but unless they have a ukulele at home, it’s not something they’ve really gotten to show off at all,” Jefferson says.
Additionally, students, young musicians, Groundwork teachers and professionals also play in the Groundwork Music Orchestra, which typically performs the second Sunday of the month at Cherrywood Coffeehouse and the fourth Saturday of the month at The Hive, in South Austin.
The performances offer young players the chance to showcase skills and celebrate music that can be enjoyed by both kids and parents. “When you’re in a room of people singing the same song, there’s something really special about that,” Jefferson says.