Guest Blogger

Rocking the How-To Stage at #PLA2024

By my final day at this year’s Public Library Association conference, I had somehow not made it over to the how-to stage, so I was grateful when I checked in for its closing session, called “How to infuse musical magic into your storytime: learn an easy ukulele song.”

I’m a children’s librarian who offers storytimes but I’ve never really felt comfortable with an instrument, let alone playing one in front of my storytime families.  This is where the format of the how-to stage is genius.  Imagine a tiny TED talk: a few rows of chairs and some informal standing tables surround a small stage.  The presenter only has 20 minutes to introduce a topic and send their audience home with practical skills we can immediately apply.  The idea that I could get through all my musical jitters and learn an instrument in two-thirds of my typical lunch break?  Sign me up!

Tuning up the band

When Christiana Congelio of Grandview Heights Public Library started her final sound checks before her session, it was already standing room only.  Christiana handed out eight loaner instruments and told the rest of us about an app called Ukulele Simulator.  As she described it, it’s not a perfect app, but it’s great for learning and following along.  And it’s free!

Once we were all ready, Christiana began her presentation.  First up: the importance of music in storytimes.  Words are made up of phonemes, or letter sounds.  Young children who are just beginning to decode speech and create their own need to be able to recognize and remember these phonemes.  Singing and rhyming helps children do just that because they stretch out those sounds and present them in a rhythmic, predictable format.  In Reading Magic, Mem Fox tells us that researchers have found that children who know “eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old [are] usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”  

Butterflies Begone

But most importantly in my mind, she talked (and joked) about her own nerves when she started playing the ukulele at the library.  Besides playing in front of a crowd of strangers, it turns out one of her coworkers is an accomplished musician. No pressure, right?  But as Christiana would tell you, once you start playing, none of that matters.  For one thing, ukulele songs allow librarians to invite their audience into musical play.  We can change the words and tempo of popular songs and rhymes, lowering the barrier to storytime participation.  (It’s also a great way to refocus and redirect the most wiggly of audience members.) Then there’s the fact that ukuleles are incredibly easy to learn.  By the end, we played not one but three songs together using a grand total of two chords and four fingers.

Christiana Congelio rocking the #PLA2024 how-to stage. (Photo by A. Mackey)

But my favorite tidbit?

Music is fun.  At the end of her presentation, we rocked out to Wheels on the Bus.  People with instruments and apps alike played with Christiana, and everyone else sang their hearts out.  There may have been a bit of dancing, too.  Everyone left the presentation with a big smile, and those of us with jitters left with a bit of confidence we didn’t have before.

As I waited my turn to talk to Christiana after her presentation, I noticed that one of the sound technicians was helping her pack up her instruments.  I sidled over to him to see what he thought (he was there for all of the how-to stage presentations, after all!).  He told me that while he learned something from all the presentations, that was the most fun he’s had all day.  When I asked if he was a musician, he responded, “I am now.  I just learned to play the ukulele!”

Ready to get started?

Here are the three resources Christiana recommended:

Cynthia Lin’s YouTube channel – Beginner-focused videos

Librarians with Ukes Facebook group – support and ideas from like-minded librarians

Storytime Ukulele blog – plenty of songs with chords and practical storytime uses

Here’s another post about this session:

Experience the Magic of Ukuleles

Alice Mackey (she/her/hers) is a Youth Services Librarian at Delaware County District Library in Ohio.  Though this is her eleventh year in libraries, this was her first PLA experience.  At the conference, she was excited to sponge up all the ideas she could get her brain on! 

This post addresses ALSC Core Competency 3: Programming Skills

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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