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Questions about a Ukulele Program/Unit

This question recently popped up on a Facebook forum from Nadia Armsworth. I asked if I could respond at greater length on my blog, and was given permission to do so. Facebook threads are just not a great way to answer longer questions, and I wanted to make my responses available to anyone that is interested. So, the question:

Hello everyone, I have many ukulele questions for you–BLESS YOU if you answer all the questions:

I need a bit of help. I am not a string person at all. I bought 15 ukuleles for my classroom. I am just barely ahead of my students and I don’t have strong enough skills to do anything crazy except a simple up down strumming pattern. We learned “a-minor” chord and sang “Oh My No More Pie”, then next lesson we learned “C-Major” and “F-Major” and are working on “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley. I showed the kids the relationship between a-minor chord and F-Major chord just so they knew that they only needed to add one finger to make the difference between the chords. I’m teaching all this to 5th grade because I wasn’t sure how young I could take these instruments down to, so I started with them. I see my students on an 8 day rotation and I planned about 4-5–maybe 6 lessons with the ukuleles. So here’s my questions:. 

1. What would you do next if you didn’t have a curriculum? (I’m just winging it at the moment–i haven’t found anything I really want to do other than get the kids loving the instrument and singing while they play). 

2. Would you add chords–maybe G-Major? What songs would you do? 

3. I’m stronger in Orff, but I’m also CS [Feierabend Conversational Solfége) trained, I am not super creative–so how would you combine these instruments into that? Do you do any Orff lessons that include these? I was thinking maybe another echo song with “I” and “IV” and just not play when you would naturally have a “V” chord? Thoughts?

4. My biggest class has 26 kids, so the 5th graders are really enjoying it, but don’t love having to share with a partner–so it does take longer to teach. Any suggestions about how one teacher can speed up the learning of where fingers go? I have a smart board and use it to show enlarged images of the chords in TAB form. What I’m discovering is kids functionally can’t read a map and that’s what a TAB chart really is. They don’t know how to do coordinates. I almost feel like we need to have a game of battleship before we introduce the instruments so they comprehend which string, which fret, which finger. It’s a real brain twist for my kiddos?

5. What prep work did you do to get kids ready to play ukuleles? How young did you start this instrument–i was hoping to go all the way down to 3rd grade. What skills did you build into your students to prep? Again, I am jumping in with gusto and no experience and we are having a blast, but it’s tough!

6. And lastly, the question everyone probably deals with–storage! What do you do? I blew through all my funds to get these, so I’ve kept the original cardboard boxes, but those will not last–I need to address this by next year–what do you love/hate about your storage?

Thank you all for tips tricks or lesson plans. I am excited to keep doing more with this instrument!

Okay…so let’s start with my answers. Before we do, please note that my thoughts are my own, and there are educators who would disagree with me.

1. What would you do next if you didn’t have a curriculum?

So, in context of the question, the teacher is teaching ukulele to 5th grade. I know teachers who are eager to get them into the hands of kindergarten students, but I will say that 5th grade is a great time to get into ukulele–at least the way that I teach it–because the more I read online, the more I see 5th Grade listed as a “hot spot” for trouble in many schools. In my particular school, most 5th grade students are in band, choir, or orchestra in addition to general music, so they are getting exposure to many musical skills that don’t need to be reinforced in music class. That isn’t to say that you cannot support those skills–but you are not solely responsible for them at that point. This gives you freedom to do other things with 5th grade, such as music technology or ukulele. My advice: keep 5th grade relaxed and happy, which does not mean to to challenge them, but showing them what you can do with music for the rest of your life versus the details of music. One way or another, a large percentage of your students will no longer be in performance classes by the time they reach high school (some by middle school) so 5th grade is the perfect time to expose them to the idea of music for life.

That’s not going to be a very popular opinion with some teachers–but I taught high school choir for 16 years and middle school music for 6, and every year I was teaching basics of music to those levels, too. I’m not sure where the knowledge goes, but it disappears…which makes me really appreciate John Feierabend’s First Steps method that focuses on helping students become tuneful, beatful, and artful (TBA). Quite honestly, if all students came to middle school or high school TBA, it would be amazing to see what those secondary ensembles could achieve.

So, in terms of curriculum, I tried to teach ukulele as a “real” instrument. That approach completely failed, for two reasons. First, the instrument was created as harmonic support–not as a virtuoso instrument. There are virtuosos, such as Jake Shimabukuro and Taimaine Gardner. But they are stretching the instrument to new heights. The instrument was created and continues to provide harmonic support for any kind of music that you want to throw at it (Even Billie Eilish mentioned this in her recent Carpool Karaoke). Second, kids watch YouTube. They have watched videos of other children playing instead of playing themselves. When it comes to ukulele, they have watched other young adults, teens, and pre-teens playing and singing covers and their own songs on YouTube. That’s what they want to do. When you start off ukulele having them pluck out individual notes and melody lines–you’re in for a battle.

Furthermore, we spend five years (K-4) hammering students with melodic and single-line activities (singing, boom whackers, Orff instruments, recorders, hand bells, band instruments, orchestra instruments, and piano). How much have you focused on harmony? Why not let the ukulele function in its first and foremost function, and focus on the harmonic aspects of the ukulele?

Listen–I had to massively fail with my students and try other things before I realized all of this. Learn from my mistakes.

Ultimately, I learned about the work of Dr. Jill Reese (and others) who was (were) making ukulele play along videos out of lyric videos on YouTube. I tried some of these videos (not all of them are 100% school appropriate), and they were a hit. I also found out that students were singing along (sometimes they’ll stop playing and just sing!) even though they weren’t the main source of the music. So I bought in and started making videos. I’ve made videos for over 450 songs at this point in all kinds of styles and genres.

I then added other video tasks (e.g. skill drills and “how to” tutorials, and eventually came up with my own method–which just is an organization of the many resources that are already available on the Internet. You can learn more about what I do at the “Video Ukulele Method” link on the top of this page. I have intentionally kept it very inexpensive so that cost it isn’t a barrier for any teacher. I’m not aggressively marketing it–but I do want to let people know it is there.

There are some really good resources out there…but I needed something different that appealed to students and kept their interest. And it worked.

2. Would you add chords–maybe G-Major? What songs would you do? 

As the method is the only way that I make any income from this work (the play along videos cannot be monetized, and my other channel–at the time of writing–is not yet eligible for monetization), all I can say is that my method is completely based on introducing chords in the order of how they are most frequently used, and then using skill drills and actual songs using the chords they know to reinforce the learning.

3. I’m stronger in Orff, but I’m also CS [Feierabend Conversational Solfége) trained, I am not super creative–so how would you combine these instruments into that? Do you do any Orff lessons that include these? I was thinking maybe another echo song with “I” and “IV” and just not play when you would naturally have a “V” chord? Thoughts?

I’m not Orff, Kodály, or Dalcroze certified, nor am I FAME certified. I had required exposure to the first three, and FAME is relatively new to me. I know there are teachers that keep everything going, and by fifth grade, students are holding concerts where some students are playing percussion instruments, others are playing Orff instruments, others are playing recorder, and some are playing guitar and ukulele. I’m not that person.

I’m okay with just letting ukulele be ukulele for a while; not worrying too much about defining chord function (I know some adult groups where the leader starts teaching the Nashville Chord Numbers to brand new players because they have to be able to play in every key–and no, I’m not a fan of that approach, but I understand his passion). Help kids learn the chords, in the context of music, and get to pop music as soon as you can. Help them realize that making music is for them and that the ukulele can be used for their own music.

4. My biggest class has 26 kids, so the 5th graders are really enjoying it, but don’t love having to share with a partner–so it does take longer to teach. Any suggestions about how one teacher can speed up the learning of where fingers go? I have a smart board and use it to show enlarged images of the chords in TAB form. What I’m discovering is kids functionally can’t read a map and that’s what a TAB chart really is. They don’t know how to do coordinates. I almost feel like we need to have a game of battleship before we introduce the instruments so they comprehend which string, which fret, which finger. It’s a real brain twist for my kiddos?

There is a lot in this question. First, there are 15 ukuleles available. You need 15 more. The best, most affordable option that I recommend is the brand new Flight TUSL-35 (The other recommendations are the Enya Nova and the Outdoor Ukulele Soprano or Tenor…both which cost more). I simply don’t think it is good for any school to have ukuleles with a wooden fretboard. Either we all live in climates that get too cold, or it gets too humid–and our buildings are not climate controlled very well. The Flights are about $55 each…so I would get a principal’s permission and ask families straight out to consider buying one and donating it…or perhaps even buying two ukuleles, where their child keeps one (permanently) and the other is donated to the school. You could also ask your Parent/Teacher/School Organization. That’s less than $1000, very well spent.

I know some people will argue for their ukuleles (Makala Dolphins, Kala KA-15, etc.) but if you have a wooden fretboard, you’re going to have issues. If you go with a plastic ukulele (and I cannot endorse Waterman models, sorry…too many problems with string action) such as those listed above, you’ll be happy…heavy duty, great sound, and ideal action.

And action is worth mentioning…if the space between the first fret and the bottom of the string is more than 0.5mm, it is going to make it very hard to play that ukulele. Most school instruments are not set up by anyone, as they should be…and as a result, kids have a much harder time playing than they need to.

Second, I STRONGLY encourage the use of KIDS strings by Aquila. You can buy them in bulk from Aquila directly, but it color codes the strings. G is Green, C is Red, E is Yellow, and A is Blue. I know a lot of people teach with colored stickers…and I get that (I know of at least 4 different colored dot systems). The Aquila KIDS strings eliminate the need for those dots, because kids can think “Blue string, 3rd box/fret” but to say “1st String, 3rd Box/Fret” causes their brains to melt. There are also color chord fonts ukefarm.com that work with those colors.

As for TAB…my advice is…just don’t. Not yet. There is a place for tab and individual line reading–particularly if you are trying to make a “ukulele orchestra.” But otherwise, wait to introduce TAB until you have taught at least the first 10 chords…and then only dive into TAB occasionally. I personally think that it is best to start with chord melody after the first fifteen chords are learned (including the first barre chords…although I teach barre chords from day 1 in a very non-threatening way), because playing single line notes on a ukulele by itself is boring.

5. What prep work did you do to get kids ready to play ukuleles? How young did you start this instrument–i was hoping to go all the way down to 3rd grade. What skills did you build into your students to prep? Again, I am jumping in with gusto and no experience and we are having a blast, but it’s tough!

There are two answers to this…first, if you have students who are TBA, that’s really all they need. While I teach music literacy and I support music literacy and I want every student to be able to decode real music–when it comes to real life, they don’t need to be able to read or write music to participate in music–they just might not do so at a concert hall. However, knowledge is never bad. Second, the way I approach ukulele, it’s a different skill–harmony based–and it’s a complete reset in class…and I find that students really enjoy that massive change in pace.

6. And lastly, the question everyone probably deals with–storage! What do you do? I blew through all my funds to get these, so I’ve kept the original cardboard boxes, but those will not last–I need to address this by next year–what do you love/hate about your storage?

The best solution for school instruments is hanging, if you have space, for a couple of reasons. First, it keeps them up and out of the way, but always accessible. Second, it is super-easy to keep them organized. Third, it makes tuning them easier (and if you don’t have a Jowoon Smart Tuner T2…buy one as soon as you can. See Amazon or links on my pages above). And finally, it is an advertising tool. You will have students in K-4 begging to play them. And as much as I want to make them happy, it is great to have things that they can see in their future and to look forward to. For example, I have 2nd grade using Boom whackers. Third and Fourth use recorders. And fifth gets ukulele. They are super-charged to get to all of those places.

If you don’t have wall space, I have seen rolling racks (bought or made by custodians or by/with spouses) and I have also seen large plastic tubs used by teachers, but hanging is easiest. All you need are 2x4s mounted to the wall, and then “U” tool hooks from your local hardware store (usually $1 each). You don’t need fancy instrument hangers, although if you have budget you can buy them if you want.

There are a ton of other topics that can be discussed, and even these questions deserve more time–but hopefully this is enough feedback to help with future choices. Again, I’m speaking from my perspective and my own experience–and what I’ve come to believe about the ukulele and how it should be taught in a group. I don’t think it is my way or the highway…but I do know that what I’ve been doing works, and students are able to show that they have learned the skills that I have been asking them to learn. Six lessons isn’t really enough to make much progress on ukulele. The first day will be spent on issues of care, holding, basic strumming, and the C chord…and if there is time, the F Chord. The second lesson is review and more work on C and F (perhaps introducing F). The third session reviews the previous day and then introduces G (in my approach) and that becomes a focus for the next couple of days. That’s already 5 of the 6 days. Ukulele can be a full year unit if you wish to do it–moving to other concepts such as chord melody and composition throughout the year (once a “critical mass” of chords are used.

I’m so very glad that you found ukulele–I’m so very glad that I found ukulele–and I am so very happy you are bringing it to your students. As a classically trained tubist and vocalist, I practiced when I had to, and always had to do so in a special location. Performances were always linked to other instruments or ensembles. The ukulele is truly amazing…relatively inexpensive (even the most expensive ukuleles cost less than my tuba–or even the cheapest bassoons), completely portable, and capable of being an instrument that provides harmonic support, rhythmic support, and eventually melody (and all of those combined). I find myself practicing ukulele all the time because it is fun, I can do so anywhere, I can play whatever kind of music that I want to play, and it really doesn’t bother anyone–in fact, it usually makes them smile (unlike what happens if I sing a Mozart tenor aria or play a solo work on my tuba).

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