Uke Can Play (Virtually)

Musician Julie Stepanek, who offers a variety of ukulele programs online

One of the many casualties of the pandemic was my drop-in ukulele class for adults, which I held on the first Monday evening of each month at the Sanchez Library. We had a small, but dedicated group of regulars, who were always welcoming of newcomers, even though it meant going back to playing the one and two chord songs they had played so many times before. I always looked forward to seeing and playing with them, and I thought about them a lot during the early days of the shut-down. Our library system was still in the process of figuring out how to offer virtual programs, with storytimes being the first priority, but I wished there were a way to offer a virtual ukulele class.

So I was thrilled to see a Facebook post from the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts (the place where I had my first library job) about a virtual ukulele play-along. I tried it out, and was immediately hooked.

The instructor, Julie Stepanek, led the play-along over Zoom, with Powerpoint slides that clearly displayed the song lyrics and chord charts for each song. Since playing or singing in sync over Zoom is difficult, all of the participants were muted. The beauty of this was that you really felt like you were playing with a group, and you were, but nobody could hear any mistakes that you or anyone else were making. You could even turn off your video. It was a wonderful way to make music with people, with absolutely no pressure, and I learned so many new songs that soon became favorites. Even now, when I hear those songs, they instantly bring me back to those eerie early days of the pandemic, and how it felt to be isolated with my family in my own house, while sharing this musical experience with people on the other side of the country.

At the time, Julie was actually offering free play-alongs every day of the week, and twice on Sundays, and I started tuning in whenever I could. I emailed all of the regulars from my own ukulele group, and soon there they were on the Zoom with me. It was funny to be connected with them online via a program from Massachusetts, when we were all just miles away from each other in our houses in Pacifica, California, but it was so great to see and play with them again. As our libraries reopened for curbside pick-up and other services, I could only attend occasionally, but whenever I did, my regulars were still there, having a great time.

We recently booked Julie for a series of ukulele workshops for the San Mateo County Library system, and she has done a wonderful job of guiding our participants through all of the basics of playing: tuning, reading a chord chart, understanding tablature, basic chord progressions, and standard strumming patterns. Patrons can borrow ukuleles from our libraries so it was natural fit for our library system, and the response has been very enthusiastic. One participant wrote “Great opportunity to learn a musical instrument, and even better to be able to borrow one too! Fantastic.”

I don’t usually write plugs for performers, but I wanted to write a post about this program because I had never considered the benefits of teaching ukulele (or any other instrument) over Zoom. It really makes a lot of sense. One of the greatest hesitations many people have about taking music lessons (especially in a group setting), is having to perform or sing in front of others, but this format takes all of that stress away. Even a virtual play-along, like the ones that Julie still offers weekly out of libraries in Massachusetts and Connecticut, allows new players to learn at their own pace. They might start out only playing the C chords, and then add in others as they get more used to them, but they still get the thrill of playing and singing with a group, which is addictive!

If you’d like to check out one of Julie’s classes, either to learn ukulele yourself, attend a play-along, get an idea of how to lead music lessons online, or book her for a program, you can visit her web site at: https://calamine.com/ukulele She also has a YouTube video of Absolute Basics for ukulele, and some other tutorials.

Have you attended or hosted any virtual programs this past year that you thought were especially impactful? Please share them in the comments below.

Virtually Normal: Reinventing Storytime Online

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Photo from one of my favorite storytime families

Well, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we are in our seventh week of Sheltering in Place, and my job has changed in ways I never imagined. Last week I did my first Virtual Storytime, goofing around in front of a webcam in the corner of my bedroom, with no way of knowing who was watching or what their reaction might be. I think I was more nervous than I was the first time I did a live storytime, even though I had been practicing with coworkers for several weeks. Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

Virtual Storytime is much more tiring than live programs.  Usually when I do programs in the library, I feel energized by seeing the kids and parents singing along or enjoying the books. For this type of program, all of the energy has to come from you. Whenever I finish a virtual storytime, I’m left feeling both jittery and exhausted, and also with an unsettled feeling of not knowing how the program was received.

Anything and everything can go wrong. I think the scariest aspect of virtual programs is that so much is out of your control: your Internet can fail, software can crash, ebooks can refuse to load, the sound can be distorted, cats or kids can run through your programming space.  During my first virtual storytime, I somehow clicked on the cover page of the ebook I was reading in some magical way that opened a new tab with a .jpg of the cover. It took me what felt like hours (but was really only about two minutes) to figure out what had happened, and how to get back to the book.

After watching lots of other virtual programs lately though, I know that everyone is in the same boat, and in some ways it’s these kinds of unexpected, frustrating glitches that are the most humanizing and endearing.  It’s definitely not always easy to remember that in the moment. But I’m trying to make a habit of writing down a few song ideas and having a back-up book in case I run into problems with our ebook databases. For the other problems, I just have to be prepared to laugh them off and keep going.

Doing a trial run with a remote audience is key. Before I was given the green light to do my first virtual storytime, I had to do what felt like dozens of practices over Zoom in front of other library staff. This was hard for me, but it helped so much in terms of getting used to the technology, and identifying problems I never would have known about otherwise.

I learned that if I played my ukulele at my usual volume, Zoom would prioritize the strumming over the sound of my voice, making it hard for people to hear the words to the song. I learned that the lighting was better if I put the laptop next to my bedroom window, and that sounds like jiggling keys or tapping pan lids to demonstrate some homemade instrument options were painfully loud to my online audience.

The practices also taught me that ebooks showed up better on the screen than holding up physical picture books (where the illustrations sometimes looked washed out, or obscured by light glaring off the page), and that using F11 to make the pages full screen was helpful for hiding the tabs at top of my web browser, but sometimes made it harder to turn the pages when I was sharing my screen over Zoom. I’m incredibly grateful for all of the feedback I got from fellow librarians who took the time to watch my practices and give advice.

The needs of our storytime families have changed. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially after watching this webinar from Reaching Across Illinois Library System: https://www.railslibraries.info/events/181406.  In it, Ann Santori from Lincolnwood Library talks about the importance of having a purpose behind each of the songs or activities she does. One of the things she has been doing is creating a video series called Give Me a Break, featuring easy free play activities that parents can provide to keep their young children occupied, so that they can have a few minutes to do something for themselves. So now I’m trying to incorporate something similar into my virtual storytimes. In my most recent one, I took two minutes towards the end of the program to demonstrate Flower Painting, one of my favorite process art activities, where kids can squish flowers or leaves on paper to create natural paintings without the mess of using actual paint.  (Here’s a great description from No Time for Flash Cards).

The other thing to consider is that while our storytimes in the library provided parents and caregivers a chance to bond with their kids, I suspect many parents are using the virtual storytimes as a way to occupy their kids for a few minutes while they squeeze in a few uninterrupted minutes of work, or make dinner. So a lot of the cuddly, tickly, lapsit songs and rhymes I love probably won’t work for them right now.

I’m trying to focus instead on songs the kids can learn and sing and adapt for their own families (I talk about how, instead of singing about the people on the bus, they can sing about the people in their house, or the toys in their closet, etc.). I do also try to highlight our ebook collections and other resources families can use while the libraries are closed. And I try to find ways to incorporate things families have at home, to stand in for some of the things we use in storytime (wash cloths for play scarves, a cereal box for a shaker).

There are still ways to connect. The weirdest part of virtual programs is the isolated nature of them. As the weeks drag on, I miss my regular storytime families more and more, and it’s really hard to feel connected to them when I’m all alone with my laptop. But one nice thing about doing programs online is the ability to reach more and different people. Knowing my niece and nephew were watching my first storytime from Ohio, I used my last song, Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotten (with revised lyrics by Elizabeth Mitchell) to ride my imaginary train to their house. That gave me the idea of posting on one of our local parent Facebook groups to ask if anyone would like me to do a shout-out to their kids in an upcoming storytime. I’ve already gotten a few responses, both from regular and new families. It will make it much easier to stand in front of the web cam, imagining the kids’ surprise at hearing their own names, and thinking of some of my favorite families watching from home.

Those are just my preliminary thoughts, after a week of virtual storytimes. Please share any ideas, suggestions, experiences or questions you have about virtual programs in the comments.  In the meantime, stay safe (and sane!).