Issue 27: The Ukulele Fix-It Survival Guide


Table of Contents

  • Prelude

  • Ukulele Reports

  • Pedagogy Corner


Two Years Later...

Welcome to the Spring 2011 issue of Ukulele Yes!. This issue has plenty of springtime goodies for all, starting with a feature article by Gordon and Char Mayer of Mya-Moe Ukuleles about how to take care of your ukulele and how to repair minor damage (great tips for any teacher who has ever heard "my tuners keep slipping" or "my strings are buzzing!"). We also have an interview with ukulelist/teacher/bassist Steve Boisen and a free arrangement of the Peter, Paul and Mary hit The Cruel War.

There's also a pedagogy corner article by yours truly that carries on where this column left off. Two years later, what began as a short list of popular hits that also happen to be traditional songs has blossomed into a new book called Great Popular Songs, a collection of traditional songs that have been recorded by some of the greatest popular artists of all time. It's the best way to teach songs that are "cool" and that have stood the test of time. A great way to have your cake and eat it too!

Finally, Ukulele Yes! is co-sponsoring two upcoming ukulele events: The JHUI Ukulele Teacher Certification Program in August, 2011 and The Langley Ukulele Workshop in October, 2011. Click here for more about these events. Hope to see you there!

Uke on!


Ukulele Reports

Updates on ukulele classes and events around the world.

Fire Island School District, Ocean Beach, NY, U.S.A.

By Philip Tamberino

Since 2007, the children of Fire Island (year-round population less than 500) have learned ukulele in classroom music at the island's public elementary school. With the novelty of the program gaining the attention of many adult staff and community members, last fall the school district began offering a beginner ukulele course in its adult education program. Taught by the school music teacher and meeting once a week after school, the course did not require any musical background and focused on the common techniques and songs associated with the instrument. Now in its second session, the repeat enrollees include the president of the school board, a former school board member and parent, the district clerk, the school nurse, and the school reading specialist. Fire Island is proud to join the ranks of the ukulele's many other esteemed island homes.

Visit the Fire Island School District Music Department website.

Deep Cove School, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

By Eileen Hayes

I thought you might be interested in our concert efforts of December and more recently, February. Thanks to one of my tech-savvy parents I'm finally able to see what the audience hears and sees!

Here's the latest from our French-immersion ukulele class!

Click here to for more videos of Mme. Hayes' ukulele class.

Gatesville Elementary, Gatesville, TX, U.S.A.

By Christeena Sweeney

We had our first Ukulele Club meeting yesterday! 42 students came and 19 had their own ukuleles! The school board has asked us to play at their next meeting so we are practicing 3 songs for that. I am looking into getting tie-dye t-shirts with our logo on them. I was thrilled with the response! However, my classroom was so packed that about half had to sit on the floor. I'm thinking we may need to practice in the auditorium next week!

Pedagogy Corner

What Makes a "Teachable" Song?

By James Hill

There's a difference between "a good song" and "a good song for teaching music." James Hill explores what it means for a song to be "teachable," concluding that when it comes to choosing repertoire, you can have your cake and eat it too!

In the Spring 2009 issue of Ukulele Yes! I made a case for teaching popular traditional songs in the classroom. Sensitive to the fact that many teachers want to teach "cool" popular songs (i.e. songs that are on their students' iPods), I suggested a handful of popular hits that are also traditional songs (e.g. Scarborough Fair, Sloop John B.). I then set out to find other songs to add to this list. The result is a new book of arrangements called Great Popular Songs, the first in a series of three volumes of supplementary repertoire for the Ukulele in the Classroom series. (A free sample lesson from the book is included in this issue.)

As I worked on this new collection of arrangements I came up with criteria that each song had to fill in order to make the cut. These criteria were:

  1. The song must have been recorded by great popular artists (so that students and teachers can hear inspiring – and contrasting – interpretations by their favourite performers).

  2. The song must be in the public domain (so that no one has to worry about recording/performance rights).

  3. I must like the song (I'll probably be teaching these songs for the rest of my life so this was an important consideration!).

  4. The song must be "teachable."

It's this last point that I'd like to explore. What does "teachable" mean? What is a "teachable" song?

Perhaps the best way to define what I mean by "teachable" is to give an example of a song that falls short of being teachable in my view. Take The Banana Boat Song ("Day-O"). The Banana Boat Song has been recorded by popular artists (Harry Belafonte, the Muppets and others), is in the public domain, and has a rich history that connects to non-musical subjects like geography, economics and math. What's more, I personally like the song (especially the Muppets version). In my view, however, it scores low on the "teachable" scale. Why? Because it's essentially a solo vocal feature. The best performances of this piece are delivered by a single (often charismatic) individual. In order to keep the spirit of the song intact, the performer must be free to infuse the song with his/her personal experience and to be somewhat whimsical with both tempo and phrasing. Sure, we could "iron out" the rhythms, notate every ornament and create a "choir" arrangement of The Banana Boat Song but I, for one, would rather scrub a chalkboard with steel wool.

By contrast, a song like The Cruel War (the free arrangement included in this issue), fills all four of the above criteria. It was a hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1966 and has been recorded by a number of other popular groups since. It's in the public domain and, with its civil-war-era story of separated lovers, can be related to extra-musical topics in social studies and literature. I personally love it's choral-like melody which is ideally suited to multi-part harmony singing. In my view, the song is also very uke-friendly and "teachable." That is to say, it uses chords that are easily played on the ukulele, has straightforward rhythms and a melody with a very comfortable range for singing. This allows the teacher to focus on more advanced concepts like harmony singing and suspended chords.

The lesson I learned from compiling and arranging Great Popular Songs is one that applies to all teachers: be discerning and purposeful in choosing repertoire for your students. The good news: while it may require a little research, it's possible to find songs that a) have rich stories rooted in cultural traditions, b) are enjoyable for the students, c) are enjoyable for the teacher, and d) lend themselves naturally to the ukulele and the classroom teaching context.

But don't just take my word for it; try a free sample from Great Popular Songs and decide for yourself.