100 ukulele strummers to unite in Sitka for 'Firework'

FOR USE MONDAY, JAN. 20 AND THEREAFTER - In this Jan. 9, 2014 photo, a group of ukulele players poses outside the Sitka Youth Advocates building in Sitka, Alaska. Jeannie Jay, a ukulele enthusiast and Katy Perry fan, at right, is leading the charge to organize a performance of 100 ukulele strummers playing and singing the Katy Perry song "Firework," and capturing the event on video. Pictured are, from left, Leighanne McGough, Ellen Sevigny, Mariah Leeseburg, Bayla Laks, Maggie Gallin, Carmel Easely, Kealoha Harmon, Holly Marban and Jay. (AP Photo/Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson)

SITKA — A Sitka woman hopes to make a big sound — with the help of 100 small stringed instruments.


Jeannie Jay, a ukulele enthusiast and Katy Perry fan, is leading the charge to organize a performance of 100 ukulele strummers playing and singing the Katy Perry song “Firework,” and capturing the event on video.

Jay’s big dream is to attract Perry’s attention, with the object of getting her interested enough to play a concert in Sitka. But at the very least, Jay hopes to inspire people in Sitka to pick up a uke, learn the song and be inspired by the words.

For the half-dozen people in Sitka not already familiar with this pop tune, the chorus is:

‘Cause, baby, you’re a firework

Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth

Make ‘em go “Oh, oh, oh”

As you shoot across the sky-y-y ...

The first meeting for “The 100” ukulele project was Wednesday in the Exhibit Room of Centennial Hall.

For those who may be intimidated by having to learn to play the ukulele, or learning the song, or both, Jay says you need to learn only four chords to participate: G, Am, Em and C.

If you don’t have a ukulele, Jay says there are a few loaners available, or you can buy a nice one for $60 on Amazon. Jay also offers free lessons.

Jay is the leader of the Sitka BEAR Ukulele Orchestra, which is made up of staff members at Youth Advocates of Sitka. The group practices together once a week and has performed at Sitka Monthly Grinds. Most are beginners and have already signed up to participate in the “The 100” ukulele project.

Jay, a clinician at YAS, said she bought her ukulele in 2010 when she was attending a wedding in Hawaii.

“I really like to sing, and I’ve always wanted to back myself up,” Jay said. “It’s user friendly, it’s easy to learn, it’s easy to play. ... It’s the instrument of the people.”

Her enthusiasm has been increasing since then, and that enthusiasm apparently has been contagious. Her first project with a ukulele group was at the Cowboy Monthly Grind in October 2011, playing Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way.” Eight YAS employees joined her for the performance, under the name of the Sitka Behavioral Emotional Academic Resource (BEAR) Ukulele Orchestra.

Jay said both “Born this Way” and “Firework” appealed to her and fellow staff members not just for their musical quality, but their messages. They carry lessons important for everyone, and for the clients of the youth mental health agency in particular.

“That song ‘Born this Way’ is an anthem song for acceptance,” Jay said. “It’s about accepting and loving yourself. ‘Firework’ falls in the same vein.” (She noted that “Born this Way” also carries a positive message in particular to “queer youth.”)

Jay likes the Katy Perry video, which shows teens experiencing problems and challenges and “rising above themselves” to conquer those roadblocks.

The nine BEAR Orchestra players who spoke to the Sentinel pointed out the value of playing a musical instrument as therapy in their work at YAS.

All but one member works at Youth Advocates. Bayla Laks, a classically trained harpist, is an Americorps Volunteer, employed at the neighboring Sitka Fine Arts Camp. They represent a variety of musical backgrounds, and have played oboe, cello, violin and percussive shakers as well as their ukuleles in their public performances. The joined the band for a number of reasons.

“I thought it would be a fun way to play music again,” said Carmel Easley, who grew up playing the oboe. “The ukulele is a cute instrument, and then I thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know my co-workers.”

Holly Marban said she picked up the ukulele after seeing Jay play at a local restaurant.

“Jeannie was the inspiration,” Marban said. “I remember seeing her playing at the Larkspur; she played at the table with us — I learned you had that talent.”

Both she and Leighanne McGough, who also plays the oboe, thought it would be a fun and healthy activity and a way to connect with co-workers on a nonprofessional level. Marban said she also wanted to be a role model for young people.

Maggie Gallin added that kids from all social groups can connect over music, which staff at YAS has seen in teaching kids to play the ukulele. She said students who aren’t in organized school music programs can still be musical with this less conventional instrument.

“Maybe they’ve stopped thinking of themselves as musical, and they can have a more casual atmosphere to explore music.”

Marban said: “Part of our vision is to empower youth to grow. ... I found the ukulele fits in nicely in teaching skills to youth that can be therapeutic.”

“More than learning the instrument,” Kaeloha Harmon added, “it’s about having an outlet for their emotional needs: building confidence and discipline.”

The mission of YAS is to “support the mental health of Alaska’s youth and their families,” the website says. “As our vision, we strive to empower youth to grow into healthy, happy, and productive members of our community.”

The organization specializes in working with youths ages five through 21 and provides mental health services in homes, including family therapy and therapeutic foster care. Youths needing intensive and supervised care may be served at a residential facility in town. YAS also works with students in the Sitka schools.

Jay offers ukulele classes at her home 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. Classes are also available for young people age 14 to 21 at the YAS Family Resource Center 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. Mondays. Classes for Blatchley students are held 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Thursdays at the school.

Jay says people can text her at 510-610-0075 for information about the classes.


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