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Duquesne law students learn the ukulele to relieve stress

| Friday, April 28, 2017, 4:30 p.m.

Law students at Duquesne University are taking a unique approach to handling the stress of finals: They are learning the ukulele.

“As the school year progresses, I see (students) becoming more isolated, I see more stress,” said Robin Connors, coordinator of student organizations at Duquesne's School of Law. “I've tried different things over my six years here: bringing in a chair massage person throughout finals, making sure we have healthy snacks. We work with Animal Friends and bring in therapy dogs.

“They love it, but it's always just a band-aid. It never helps them long-term.”

So Connors, who took up the ukulele two years ago as she worked on her master's degree, approached professors at the Mary Pappert School of Music. They came up with “The Power of Music,” a four-week pilot program in which law school students learned to play the ukulele twice a week at lunchtime. Twelve students signed up.

“It's working because they're laughing at themselves and they're able to relax,” said Rachel Whitcomb, associate professor of music education. “There are very few things we do where we're not stressed about what's coming up next. In music, particularly when there's an intricate chord progression or you really have to think about, ‘where do my fingers go from here,' you can't be anywhere else but in the music.

“That is what sets music apart from any other discipline. It's an experience, it's a unique experience that isn't like anything else. And when you're involved in a song and you're playing an instrument along with a song, you have to be there.”

During lessons Monday and Thursday, students sat in a mock courtroom at the School of Law and played popular songs about letting go of stress and anxiety: “Let It Be” by the Beatles, “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett and “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift.

During their last lesson, they performed an original song: “Vacation Elation,” written by Whitcomb and the law students, in which the students cast a hopeful eye to the day after finals.

School officials applied for and received a $750 grant from the American Bar Association Law Student Division to buy more ukuleles. Connors said she envisions a day when students can check ukuleles out like library books, then practice in a designated ukulele room at the Law School.

The ukulele is an ideal instrument for the program because it is inexpensive and easy to learn, Connors and Whitcomb said.

Plus, it evokes feelings of relaxation and levity, they said.

“You think of the beach and a type of fun sound associated with it,” Whitcomb said. “And the ease of playing it makes it enjoyable for them. ... It's working because they are laughing at themselves and they're able to relax.”

Chelsie Horne, a first-year law student, said the classes offer a needed “escape.”

“You're able to escape and laugh at yourself when everything else in law school seems so serious,” she said. “It's silly and it's fun and you get to take that moment to yourself and forget about everything legal.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Connors took up the ukulele while she worked on her master's degree.

Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or or on Twitter @ChrisTogneri.

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