The ukulele club at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School with their school instruments donated by the Bringing Music to Life Instrument Drive. 

(Photo: courtesy Mark Walser)

A teacher from Colorado was halfway across the world when he found an idea that changed the music program in his elementary school.

Mark Walser made his discovery during a yearlong tour of Asia and the South Pacific, when he found out how students in New Zealand learn about music.

“They had switched from the recorder to the ukulele as their primary training instrument,” Walser says.

The ukulele helps kids develop finger dexterity and prepares them to play instruments like the violin and guitar.

Walser brought the idea home with him. He wanted to incorporate ukuleles in his classroom at Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School in southwestern Colorado. He convinced the school district to buy a set of the instruments. The kids took to them immediately.

Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary School music teacher Mark Walser, far right, plays ukulele with his students during their 2017 holiday concert.

(Photo: courtesy Mark Walser)

“They’re really into it,” Walser says. “It’s been kinda funny, one of the songs that I wrote out for them was the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ theme song. Oftentimes they want to skip ‘Hot Cross Buns’ and ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ and ‘Twinkle Little Star’ to just go straight to that because they’re stoked about the song.”

But the students in Walser’s music program could only play the ukuleles for a few weeks before the district shipped them to another school. Walser’s students wanted their own set so they could practice year-round.

Walser asked for help from Bringing Music to Life. It’s a Colorado non-profit that holds instrument drives, restores used instruments or finds new instruments and distributes them to schools.

Bringing Music To Life sent 30 ukuleles to Fort Lewis Mesa Elementary -- an entire classroom set. Walser says it gave a huge boost to the music program in his small, rural school.

Now, the students in the ukulele club can’t get enough of their instruments. They find songs they want to learn, create their own arrangements -- music from “Star Wars” has been a favorite this year -- and play them together in concert as a ukulele choir.

“It’s exciting to see students taking initiative and being independent learners in the process of preparing for a holiday concert, or so they can play it for their parents at their house,” Walser says. “It’s been neat to see it kind of take on a life of its own.”

Just months after the instruments arrived, the ukulele club took the stage with the school’s choir and played for hundreds of parents at the annual holiday concert.

The Bringing Music to Life 2018 Instrument Drive runs March 5-17. Find more information about donation locations, the instrument repair fund, and applications for schools.