In the fall of 2017, we hosted a storytelling event called “School of Life”. Our intention was to bring people together in honor of one of our core beliefs: that learning is natural and happens all the time, regardless of one’s proximity to a classroom. It was a great event filled with unique stories and varied lessons, and so we thought it’d be fun to carry that idea forward into this space.
Our second story features Alex Upham, a volunteer at Little Lake as well as the esteemed Ex-Headmaster.
It started with a thrift store trip. Well, actually, I wasn’t even involved in that part. A good-natured friend of mine thought that the $20 soprano ukulele looked too good to pass up, and so she bought it with intentions of giving it to me, come what may. Now mind you, I had no musical talent whatsoever, had never mentioned the idea of playing an instrument and frankly didn’t have the time. Luckily she was far too good-natured to see all of that and gave it to me anyways.
At the time, I was just beginning my second year working as an advisor at the Little Lake Learning Community. An often-rehearsed phrase in my line of work was “anyone could learn anything.” John Holt, a prominent writer in the field of self-directed education, had learned how to play the cello in his forties. Surely this little four-stringed toy would help me demonstrate to the students that anyone, even someone as musically disinclined as myself, could learn how to play music… John Holt must have practiced a lot more than I did. I didn’t feel like I could learn ukulele because I was absolutely certain that I just didn’t have the skill set. Some people can play music, and some people can’t.
Nonetheless, I did bring the ukulele in to school. I made sure to struggle in front of the students so they could see the importance of discipline, that everyone starts off with no idea what they are doing, etc. It took me nearly two months just to learn my first three chords. One Spring day, I was outside playing and was approached by two of my older students. I had to go check on something and so thrust my instrument into the hands of one of them, showing her a chord before leaving. By the time I came back, she was making all sorts of sounds that I thought truly unfair for someone who had never touched any instrument before. She had talent, and her friend was interested too.
The three of us practiced a bit, sharing just my ukulele, before two more instruments popped up and we were able to practice together. The school had decided to put on a play that year entirely written from scratch. Naturally we wanted to showcase our burgeoning talents and made room for ourselves in the play as a band performing a song. Well, no, that doesn’t quite do it justice. We were a band made up of three krill performing a song which narrated the story of the play up until our formal arrival in the play as a parody of a Neutral Milk Hotel song, and we performed it in a whale’s belly. Every practice session we had had until the performance was off in one way or another, and up until we performed, we had jitters about our ability to pull this off in front of an audience of 50. Nevertheless, we crushed it and maybe got hooked there.
It was too good a joke, “The Krill,” and we had to keep it going. I was privileged to be giving both of these students a ride home fairly regularly, so we would often have one person play music while the others sang along, making up words on the spot. Someone had the idea of recording these sessions, and they became our first album. Now bear in mind, this all came about from a few chance moments, but ultimately we just kept finding reasons to keep going. Our second and third albums were more serious in that we made time for them outside of car rides and school, but the lyrics and music were still largely improvisational. You can hear everything we’ve ever done and then some if you type “the krill” into Soundcloud and don’t turn your speakers up too loud.
The albums were great fun, but the crowning moments in my mind were the performances. We got to play Totally Awesome Fest, Lake-A-Palooza, and strangely enough a paid gig at the Tap Room. It should at this point be stated that we never were a solid act. We didn’t practice much together. Our albums were often constructed start to finish in the span of a day and recorded on a phone. But we each gained a lot from the experience.
We learned that we were capable of playing music, that we could indeed learn more. For me, it made something that seemed impossible seem tangible. I now play ukulele, guitar and baritone ukulele, and have even built an electric three-string guitar out of a cigar box and can kind of play that thing. On my own, I may have learned a few chords a month, and a song a year. With The Krill, I learned far more than that and am still learning today. I truly feel that I can learn anything, and am greatly thankful to my friends Julia and Paige for helping me see that more than just profess it.
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-Where did you learn what was most important to you?
-Did you learn something at school that wasn’t on the curriculum?
-Who, or what, have been the greatest teachers in your life?
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