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Like my ukulele? Thanks, I made it myself

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Volunteers gathered at the Red Rocks Community College Fine Woodworking workshops to build ukuleles.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Despite piles of hand-made ukuleles sitting at the ready, not a single one was played.

Instead, there was a symphony of sawing, shaving, and sanding as about a dozen volunteers, led by Red Rocks Community College instructor of lutherie (the practice making stringed instruments such as guitars, harps, and ukuleles), Seth Gustin, built the instruments for hospital patients undergoing music therapy.

“Music heals,” said Gustin. “It’s trite but true.”

Gustin, who learned how to build wooden instruments while on the road as a construction worker, organized the project. Though he’d organized similar events for high school students, Gustin had never before challenged college volunteers to hand-build 20, fully-functional,  ukuleles over spring break.

Cooper Miles was one of the student volunteers spending his spring break building ukes.

Miles, a high school sophomore, is currently studying in the Red Rocks Community College Fine Woodworking department, though his studies focus on fine furniture instead of instruments.

However, as a passionate woodworker with a love for music, Miles has found lutherie to be a calming, rewarding experience. 

“A big difference between fine furniture and lutherie is you probably get to hear how it sounds in the end,” said Miles. “It’s just so cool.”

Colorado Voices

Like my ukulele? Thanks, I made it myself

The finished ukuleles are headed to Blue Star Connections, a nonprofit that distributes donated instruments to children in hospitals. In 2023, it donated $85,000 worth of instruments for musical therapy in healthcare facilities, schools, institutions for the unhoused, and mental health centers across the country, said Monica Brandt, a board member with the organization.

“Music therapy is an incredible outlet for people,” said Brandt. “For that moment, they can put their bodies and their minds into a music outlet versus constantly thinking about what they’re doing or what they’re going through."

Brandt said there was high demand for ukuleles, in particular. Their light weight, small size, and general ease of use (as compared to many stringed instruments) made them popular with patients, and particularly children.

Last year, Blue Star Connections donated between 75 to 100 ukuleles alone.

While Gustin had previously made instruments for himself and with students, his first step towards building for others came a few Christmases ago when he first learned of Blue Star Connections’ work.

Gustin was selling a guitar on Craigslist, and a volunteer from the group messaged him. The volunteer asked that if the guitar did not sell, then maybe Gustin would consider donating it.

Gustin not only ended up donating his Craigslist guitar, but he began thinking of ways he could make a bigger impact as well.

“This is a first-time run, so my goal is for everybody to learn something, to take something away from this,” said Gustin of the large-scale instrument build.

Miles (left) and other volunteers measure out the base structures for ukuleles-to-be.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Brandt felt thrilled at the possibility of receiving 20 hand-made ukuleles and she was grateful for the efforts Gustin and his team of volunteers made.

“It really is a true blessing for us,” said Brandt, “and whatever happens during the week, we have much gratitude for what they’ve accomplished.”

Studies have proven the impact of music therapy on neurological patients as well as on children with chronic diseases. Brandt hopes that by continuing to make instruments more available to those in need, more will be able to benefit from the healing power of music. 

By the end of the week, Gustin and his volunteers successfully finished all of their ukuleles “in the white,” which Gustin says is, “a fancy lutherie term meaning they are built but still need finish applied and set up.”

Gustin is putting the final touches on each instrument at his woodworking studio in Fort Collins. 

Once they are fully completed and deemed set for strumming, they’ll be sent to Integrated Northern Colorado Therapy, a music therapy organization based in Fort Collins. 

Gustin hopes to make this an annual event and is planning to put out another call for volunteers next year. 

In the short term, Miles is working on finishing his fine furniture pieces for the Red Rocks Community College’s open woodworking showcase on May 11th. 

Yet further in the future, Miles is considering life as a luthier.

“It really feels inspirational to kind of contribute to that musical world,” said Miles, “[being] a luthier is a career option I’ve looked into, and I think it sounds very, very interesting.”

Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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