BROOKINGS – A team of Mickelson Middle School volunteers put their heads together to help a fellow student play the ukulele.
Eighth-graders Jacob York, JJ Love and Zoey Rost engineered a device called the “Strum Buddy” for sixth-grader Sam Hovey-Stubbles, who was born without part of her left arm, just below the elbow.
The students worked under the supervision of Project Lead the Way teacher Lisa Weier.
General music teacher and MMS choir director Alexa Kapp had Hovey-Stubbles in her class and saw that the ukulele unit was coming up soon. Kapp wanted to find a way for Hovey-Stubbles to take part in playing with other students.
“Sam came in, partway through the quarter … just a few days into the quarter as a new student to our school. When we got to our ukulele unit, we had to figure out what we’re going to do so she can strum with us,” Kapp said. “So I did a Google search and on Facebook … there was this ‘Strum Buddy,’ but it wasn’t anything you could buy. So I gave a picture to Mrs. Weier.”
Their own version
Weier received the photo and did some research as to what exactly the contraption was. Turns out, Weier said, that there were no Strum Buddies available for purchase. Kapp asked Weier if some of her students could put something together.
“And I said, ‘We’re on it,’” Weier said. “At the beginning I had no clue that this was actually for Sam. We thought we were designing something for students who broke their arm. Which, same situation, same limitation. So I brought it up, and Zoey and Jacob and JJ said they’d be interested.”
“I was just in science class and Mrs. Weier came up and asked to talk to me after class and I was just like ‘Oh no, what have I done this time?’” York joked.
“And she’s like, ‘Can you help us work on this project?’ and I said, ‘OK, cool!’” York said.
They did some more research to find diagrams or better examples than the one photograph they had, but they couldn’t find any. This allowed them to be creative with the project, starting simply with a blurry picture.
The pictured Strum Buddy was actually made out of wood and other materials that the students didn’t have access to. What they did have access to, however, were the metal materials from the automotive robotics class.
The crew all met together during their study halls and even a couple hours over Thanksgiving break to work on the project. They gathered what materials they had access to and put their innovative skills to work.
Their version of the Strum Buddy has a base attachment that slides onto the body of the ukulele. The students lined the inside of the attachment with felt fabric so that the wood of the ukulele is preserved and the device is more easily put on and taken off.
The MMS version of the Strum Buddy has an arm with a plastic pick at the end, above the strings. It pivots at its attachment point above the bridge of the ukulele. The arm has a cord attached to it that is long enough for Hovey-Stubbles to wrap around her foot, which allows her to move her foot to a beat and strum the instrument by pulling on the cord. The arm also has a spring attached to it, so it can come back up after each strum.
Hovey-Stubbles is able to support the instrument in her lap and hold the neck of the ukulele and play chords with her hand.
“I think it was really helpful because Mrs. Kapp could have had me play the autoharp while everyone else played the ukulele,” Hovey-Stubbles said, “but I think it’s pretty cool that the Project Lead the Way students could make the Strum Buddy so that I could also play with the other students in the class.”
The device was a hit.
“I enjoy playing it so much that my mom got me a ukulele of my own and the Project Lead the Way students are making me another (Strum Buddy),” Hovey-Stubbles said. “So this is actually cool because I used to play the piano and I could do that with one hand because you could skip around. But I’ve always wanted to play something like the ukulele where you needed to actually strum and also need to change the chords. But that was never possible for me, so I usually got stuck with piano … there’s only so much you can do with one hand.”
The students added a unique feature to the Strum Buddy, Kapp said. They made their version ambidextrous so that whenever there’s another student who only has full function of one arm, it doesn’t matter which arm it is. The Strum Buddy can be used by anyone in need.
The students joked about potentially cornering the market with their version of the tool due to their success so far. They said that it was a rewarding experience knowing the person they were giving the device to.
“Knowing the most rewarding part is that it’s going toward a good cause and someone will benefit from it,” York said.
“I think for Mrs. Kapp and I, it was an amazing way to see how music and engineering go together, because it’s not something people put together in classes,” Weier said.
Contact Matthew Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.