Ogden ukulele whiz kid fixes them and teaches too

Sunday , June 01, 2014 - 12:00 AM

Standard-Examiner staff

OGDEN -- Elijah Priest and Laura Anderson sometimes switch roles in their sixth-grade class at Taylor Canyon Elementary School — he becomes the teacher, and she becomes the student.

“He’s really good at teaching us how to play the ukulele,” said student Kip Conger.

Priest, 12, became the class ukulele teacher when Anderson mentioned that her husband had given her one of the small, four-stringed instruments. Priest remembered that his third grade teacher had tried to teach his class to play ukulele, and wondered if the instruments might still be in the school.

“So Eli and I went down in the basement of the school, which is scary, and found a box with about 30 ukuleles,” said Anderson.

The instruments were in pretty poor condition, with warped wood, broken strings and missing tuners.

“He said, ‘I think I could fix them, and then we could teach the class,’ ” Anderson said.

The teacher admitted that she didn’t know how to play, so the student volunteered to teach on his own.

Priest’s interest in ukuleles began with the introduction by his third-grade teacher.

“He tried to teach the students ukulele, but he never tuned them, so all of them sounded terrible,” Priest said. “That made me want to play the ukulele in tune.”

Priest had studied piano and cello, and used what he knew about music and string instruments to teach himself ukulele.

“We got him a book of chords,” said his father, Thomas Priest, a music professor at Weber State University.

Before too long, the youngster was writing his own compositions for the ukulele.

“It’s not just a toy — it is a regular instrument,” Eli Priest said.

Some of Taylor Canyon’s ukuleles were too warped to repair, but Priest took the rest home from school and spent a weekend replacing strings and broken tuners. Then he took them back to school and began lessons.

“He’s a wonderful teacher — a natural music teacher,” said Anderson. “He’s been teaching us fingering patterns in the classroom using a projector. He puts his hand under the document camera to show us how to properly play chords.”

When the class gets a little noisy, Anderson says Priest gets their attention by yelling “Silencio!”

“For a young student to be able to get up and instruct is phenomenal,” she said.

Because he only had a few weeks to teach ukulele before the end of the school year, Priest kept it simple.

“I mainly taught chords,” he said. “If there had been more time I would have taught more scales.”

Thomas Priest remembers his son helping younger children with their reading, but says this is his first experience as a music teacher.

“He was showing me something — a song he was going to show the students —and I thought it sounded kind of difficult. I said, ‘You better come up with a version the rest of the kids can play,’ ” he said

So the young musician created a different arrangement.

“I was impressed. That was being a good music teacher, figuring out a way the students could play it,” Thomas Priest said.

The songs Eli Priest chose to teach his class were “Home on the Range” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

Anderson says the kids have loved learning the play the ukulele, as a break from end-of-year testing.

“It’s all they want to do,” she said. “This has been their stress release. They’re really learning how to play. They’ve been taking the ukuleles home at night and practicing, and they’ve gotten really great at it.”

The class, part of the Accelerated Learning Academy, performed for an audience on May 19.

“I, myself, could have practiced more,” said student Cameron Shirts, “but we did great in the end.”

Priest says his classmates have been good students — and so has his teacher.

“I think she might ask the most questions about how to play,” he said.

Anderson says the ukulele lessons were beneficial to the students.

“It’s a valuable thing for them to have something they’re interested in, that they’re on fire about,” she said.

She also benefited.

“Now that I’ve learned, I sit outside on the back porch playing ukulele with my husband, and it’s really fun,” Anderson said.

For Priest, teaching ukulele fits into his life plan.

“For sure, what I would like to do for a living is something with music,” he said.

Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or bwright@standard.net. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.

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