Adults with disabilities strum ukuleles in ensemble project

Heads hunched over their ukuleles, they strummed the strings and rapidly changed fingering as their

Heads hunched over their ukuleles, they strummed the strings and rapidly changed fingering as their instructor sang and called out names of colors to match chord changes.

After slowly singing each lyrical phrase from the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” — in the style of the late Hawaiian musician Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole — and demonstrating how to strum the ukulele strings, Larry Mazza alerted his students which strings to press down by including color names after each phrase, referring to the small dots of colored paper he pasted onto their ukulele fret boards.

Mazza said using a color-coded method to note where they should place their fingers was a way to simplify instruction for his students. Learning to play the ukulele and perform as an ensemble is somewhat challenging for his four adult students who have an intellectual or developmental disability.

“We’re keeping a steadier rhythm every week,” he told them during a recent lesson. “We picked a hard song for our first song, but it’s coming along nicely.”

As Amberleigh Kelly strummed her ukulele, Mazza complimented her on how well she was playing. “You have to believe you can do it before you actually do it,” he told her.

“Think of [strumming] as painting with a brush instead of chopping wood,” he said, speaking to the group in a soft, encouraging voice.

Their gathering at Mazza’s “Back Street Music Store” on Union Street in Cobleskill is not only for lessons to learn how to play the ukulele but also a rehearsal for an upcoming talent show as accompanists to an ARC adult choral group who will sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” at 6 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Best Western Hotel.

Their performance is part of the Schoharie County Chapter of the ARC’s Red Rose Project, aimed at creating “opportunities for people with differing abilities to express themselves through creative and performing arts such as music, dance, painting, sculpture or any other medium they may choose,” Tony Alvarez, executive director of the Schoharie County Chapter, New York State ARC Inc., said in an email.

He noted that the four people learning to play the ukulele are demonstrating their ability “to learn and grow and not be known as a person with a disability but rather as a distinguished person with a name and a unique talent.”

Moreover, he added, it enhances each individual’s “self-worth and improves self-confidence and ability to learn and grow.”

Larry Addams, Schoharie ARC residential program supervisor, who oversees the project, said for the ukulele students, “The journey is more important than the destination. The fact that we have a few people exploring their musical talents is more important and interesting for them than whatever the end result will be.”

With that in mind, the Red Rose Project, supported with a $5,000 New York State ARC Trusts Recreation Grant, so far has produced two talent shows. The participants performed in what they call their “Coffee House Theater,” featuring various skits, singing and “spoken word pieces,” Addams said.

Funding goes toward production costs such as costumes and sets for musicals, various instructional expenses, and other items needed for creative and performing arts.

Addams said this year’s project theme is “Diversity,” based on Cyndi Lauper’s song, “True Colors,” especially the lyrics that would encourage the performers not to be fearful of being themselves in whatever they do in life:

“ … Don’t be afraid to let them show/Your true colors/True colors are beautiful/Like a rainbow.”

“As part of our project we sent out an art challenge which instructed the people to use the items we included in the kit to create a piece of art based on how the song makes them feel,” he said. “Twenty-four kits went out and the results will be showcased at the upcoming talent show.

“We have had two talent shows over the course of the year, and we encouraged participants to practice acts or any kind of performance they wanted to and everybody had a chance to perform in front of a live audience.”

Roberta Brooks, vice president of the Schoharie County ARC Board of Directors, said the talent shows have been very successful.

“It was standing room only and everybody had the time of their life,” she said. “[The performers are] very enthusiastic and a very outgoing group of people, and this was their opportunity to be the ones on stage and have everybody clapping for them. And they loved it and the volunteers involved loved doing it and people were eager to do it again.”

She added, “The [ARC] people so much love working with other people in the community. And that really is the point of all this, to integrate them into the community to make them feel appreciated by showing off their talents.”

Kelly, who noted she’s also involved in the project’s drama club and sang in a production of “The Wizard of Oz,” said the best part of participating in the Red Rose Project is “making new friends and learning a new hobby.”

She also praised Mazza for being “friendly and patient with us.”

Christopher Hartley agreed, noting Mazza is very encouraging and helpful in his ukulele lesson group.

Another student, Louella Thompson, who also plays guitar and practices her ukulele with Kelly, said, “Larry [Mazza] is a really good teacher.” She, too, participated in the production of “The Wizard of Oz,” directed by Sherry Stevens, a retired SUNY Cobleskill student activities director. Thompson played the part of the Tin Man in the production.

Completing the ukulele lesson and rehearsal, Mazza sang the last stanza of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” while telling the ensemble to play “one big orange chord at the end.” They looked down at their ukulele fret boards and fingered the strings over the orange dots and loudly strummed the final chord.

Categories: Schenectady County

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