At 11 years old, TJ Paaga has already played his ukulele for a crowd of more than 400 people. A participant in last year’s ukulele class at White Center Elementary School, TJ performed among dozens of other young people as part of Arts Corps’ annual celebration, La Festa del Arte, which sold out Showbox SoDo last March.
TJ wasn’t always thrilled by the idea of performing in front of such a big crowd. As a first-year ukulele student, he knew he was taking a big risk. What if he messed up? What if people didn’t like the song? It’s a lot to endure even for the most seasoned performer.
“At first I didn’t want to do it. But I asked my mom and she said I should give it a try. When I went up there and everything was done, I felt proud of myself,” he says. The experience helped him build confidence in his ability to learn and do something that other people can appreciate.
“It feels exciting when you hear people sing along while you play,” he says. “[When you first start out] you’re not playing very well, but throughout the year you make progress. And that’s what made me want to join the class again this year.”
TJ sees music as a chance to express himself—something he also does through his writing. Both are a chance to share his story and connect with others.
“I like when we do writing [in school]. I’m not really that good at it but every day that we do it gives me an opportunity to get better,” he says. “When [I] get a chance to write about something in [my] life, other people learn about stuff that happens to me and get to know me better.”
By putting himself out there and making a connection, he’s able to build his community—a community he might depend on for support in the future.
“When I meet someone new, I can find out that they’re really good people. Maybe we can be friends, and if I ever need help and they’re strong at that, I can ask them for it.”
TJ has plans to try new things and continue building his community. “I think I can learn other things. When I was a kid I really wanted to play the drums. When I get a little better at ukulele, I think I could take a drum class,” he says.
TJ is excited to develop new skills and explore his talents, and he encourages other young people to follow suit. “When you start something new, don’t worry if you mess up because you’re getting a chance to show people who you are.”