Using the ukulele to tiptoe through the hymnals

Date Posted: 8/25/2022

By Ronnie Crocker
A crash course in ukulele paid off in good vibes this summer at FUMC Missouri City. On Aug. 7, a stage full of church members attired in floral prints and wearing leis around their necks, treated their fellow congregants to a mini-concert with the four-stringed instrument best known for soft Hawaiian melodies.
“The group had a blast,” said Justin Langham, director of traditional music at FUMC Missouri City. “The congregation had a blast. I got so much feedback, mostly, ‘Please don’t let this be the last.’”
Langham, who received a doctorate in music this spring from the University of Houston, has been with the church since February 2021. One of his responsibilities includes planning a concert series. When organist and worship director Melissa Burnham suggested a ukulele program, he jumped at the idea. He’d “dabbled” in the uke some, though his brother was more adept with it.
Langham was confident the Missouri City congregation, which includes some musicians and music teachers, could pick up the basics quickly. The ukulele is small enough that even kids can hold it easily. With just four strings, there are fewer chords to learn – and because they are made of nylon, “it doesn’t hurt your fingers as much if you’ve never played a stringed instrument before.”
“It’s a great beginner instrument,” he said. It also occupies a specific place in popular culture, from Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s mesmerizing take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Still, Langham was surprised at the strength of the response to the call for uke pickers. He expected a handful of folks to sign up but wound up with 20 enthusiastic church members. “We had so many people express interest,” he said. Only a few of those who signed up had ever played an instrument with strings, Langham said. Most bought a $50 beginner pack that included a uke, case, tuner and extra strings.
Langham started the students off with a lesson in how to hold and tune the instrument, and he followed up the next week by teaching them the two chords they would need, progressing from simple ones to those involving more complex finger movements. In a whirlwind of 30-minute after-church rehearsals and at-home practice, the strummers became adept enough to play the hymn “Amazing Grace” and the first verse and chorus of the Leonard Cohen classic “Hallelujah.”
“I was really impressed with some of the people,” he said. For all of them, he added, “You could see that self-doubt eroding, week by week.”
Langham led off with a solo version of “Rainbow” when the group performed during the Aug. 7 service.
Burnham built the service around the music, including bits of lyrics in some of the prayers.
Langham, who’d watched the players’ confidence grow each week along with their “ukulele IQ,” said the crowd response was equally satisfying. They celebrated the group’s accomplishment as well as the music itself.
The ukulele has a tranquil beauty, he said, and can work well in a spiritual setting. “I don’t think there are many angry ukulele songs, or sad ones,” he said. “I think the sound of it, because it has the nylon strings, it’s very calming,” he added. The performance brought more than smiles to the congregation. “It was wonderful how we were able to have some very meaningful moments,” Langham said.
Langham’s musical specialty is the trumpet, and he performs in an organ/trumpet duo called Deux Voix. He got involved with music ministry through the organist, who attends Memorial Drive UMC, seven years ago. Before coming to FUMC Missouri City, he was music director at Grace UMC in the Heights.
Langham said the Rev. Elizabeth Duffin, senior pastor at FUMC Missouri City, was very supportive of the ukulele program and he plans for another show later this year. If there’s enough demand, he might split folks into beginner and advanced groups. “We’re back by popular demand and we’re going to do it again at Christmas,” he said.