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Anaconda students learn to play ukulele during lunch hour

Reece Connors, 15, plays the ukulele with other Anaconda High School students during their lunch period with string teacher Kim Lorengo.

Through the ground-level entrance and down the stairs of Anaconda High School Thursday afternoon, lunch smells and instrument sounds filled the hallway.

A percussionist beat on drums and cymbals in a practice room. Teens chattered and clanked silverware to dishes in the cafeteria. And in a room between the two, more than a dozen kids strummed on ukuleles and nibbled on trays of food.

Every Thursday, students who belong to the CUB — or Copperhead Ukulele Band — give up their lunch period to meet with Kim Lorengo, Anaconda Junior-Senior orchestra and choir teacher, for a short lesson. On this recent Thursday, the uke enthusiasts were strumming the classic Deep Purple tune “Smoke on the Water.”

“0-3-5, 0-3-6-5,” Lorengo sang to the kids, coaching them through the melody fingerings. “0-3-5, zer-o.”

According to Lorengo, a ukulele band was not her idea. In fact, she said she’s not very familiar with the tiny, guitar-like instrument. But when a few of her students from other music classes developed an interest in the instrument on their own through pop culture and shows like America’s Got Talent, she decided to give them a forum to learn.

It started last spring, when students started asking her about the possibility of a ukulele club.

“If your students come to you excited about learning something new, why would you turn them down?” Lorengo said after Thursday’s session.

In October, Lorengo said she stumbled into a ukulele session at a teacher’s conference. After learning about the instrument there and mirroring the curriculum of Helena’s elementary school ukulele program, the Copperhead Ukulele Band was born.

One of the band members, Mia Sullivan-Sanders, 15, said she’s always been interested in the ukulele and was one of the many students behind starting the lunch club. She said the band started with about five members, but when more students learned about it, the group grew to roughly 20.

“The numbers have increased a lot. I think people heard about it and said, ‘Wow, look at what they’re playing; that looks great! I want to do that,’” Sullivan-Sanders said.

Sullivan-Sanders also plays the cello, which she said is very different from the ukulele. Although they’re both four-stringed instruments, she said the ukulele is a little harder for her because she has to move her fingers in a different way.

Ryan Hessler, 17, is also a multi-faceted musician in the ukulele band. The piano, viola, and guitar player said the ukulele is unique because it’s easy to pick up and you don’t have to read sheet music to play.

“It’s easy to just play a few chords and sing along,” Hessler said. “It’s awesome to come in and relax during lunch period.”

But while Hessler talked about the band as a positive, fun outlet, Lorengo both echoed him and emphasized that it is more than that.

“Gathering collective and like minds creates a sense of belonging,” Lorengo said. “Kids want to be a part of something successful, so we strive to be successful in everything we do as a music department.”

Lorengo said the Copperhead Ukulele Band had their first concert in December, when they performed “Feliz Navidad” with the high school choir. In March, they will perform “Montana Melody” with the Anaconda Junior High choir, hopefully at the state capitol in Helena, Lorengo said. Moving forward, she hopes to schedule more performances and to create a second club for middle school musicians.

“I think the more we can cultivate our students’ love of anything, the better,” Lorengo said.

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