Mr. T's No-nonsense Guide To Starting A Ukulele Program
Tried-and-true advice from the front lines of classroom ukulele instruction
By Jamie "Mr. T" Thomas
An indispensable collection of tips and ideas from one of Canada's most successful ukulele teachers. Whether you're thinking of starting a ukulele program or breathing new life into an existing one, Thomas' no-nonsense advice will put you on the right track.
Starting a school ukulele program isn’t easy but it’s worth it. I grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and was fortunate to be fully immersed in the ukulele program of Mr. J. Chalmers Doane. More than thirty years later Chalmers is still my teacher and I am proud to say that he is now also a good friend. I have carried with me much of the knowledge from my years in Halifax and I’ve applied it to the program that I presently run at Belmont Elementary School in Langley, BC.
In order to set up a ukulele program, you have to find and develop what works best for you. To get you started, here are a few tips that I find help me run a successful program.
Preparation: Setting the Stage
Making a "Sales Pitch"
Don't kid yourself: if you want a successful ukulele program, you have to promote the idea and create a "buzz" both in your school and in your community. Whether you are just starting a program or trying to keep one running, it helps to give your program a promotional boost. Here are some ways to do just that:
Hold a parent meeting. Be prepared and give a short, to-the-point “pitch” for the program. It would be a great idea to share some good recordings.
Use your resources. If you know of a successful ukulele teacher or a proficient ukulele player in your community, invite him/her to your parent meeting and/or classroom. Or bring in a ukulele group to share their music with your students. If all else fails, play good-quality ukulele recordings for your students and their parents.
Practise. Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote your program is to become proficient on the ukulele yourself. You need to get good enough to inspire your students.
Letter to Parents / Guardians
Here's a copy of the letter I send out to parents at the beginning of the year. Feel free to use it as a template. Whatever you do, make sure to clearly communicate these details to students and parents.
I teach uke to all students in grades 4, 5 and 6 and all split classes including those grades. This means that some students begin uke in garde three (in a 3/4 split). Like any subject area, we have the challenge of teaching classes with students with varying degrees of abilities. I will address this below.
In a school program it is ideal if each class gets two forty-five-minute music lessons a week throughout the entire school year. I realize that this may not always be possible. Clearly, as we reduce the amount of time spent with our students, our expectations for what they can accomplish must be reduced as well. As a result some teachers teach a “sing and strum” program. This alone can yield some wonderful results, but the theory/note reading potential of the program is sadly left behind.
No matter how little time you have with your students, you can maintain high expectations and help your students to become musically literate. It’s your attitude and the quality of your teaching materials that make the difference. Ask yourself: are you teaching ukulele or are you teaching music?
Purchacing ukuleles and books
Some schools have a class set of ukes that can be used. Ideally your students should buy their own ukes. This allows for home practice and makes the student and his/her family care more about ukulele in general. You must be careful to try to monitor what they buy. There are many ukes “out there” that are really just toys. A good uke and case can be purchased for less than $60.
I prefer tuning pegs instead of machine heads. I find that they stay in tune better and are easy to repair and replace. I also buy used ukes from students no longer playing and sell the instruments to beginners. Doing this can often get a good quality uke into the hands of a beginner for $20.
I have had great success with Empire Music (ph. 604- 324 -7732 or www.empire-music.com). When placing my order I always include spare strings, picks, pegs, and books.
Method Books available from Empire Music:
Ukulele in the Classroom by James Hill and J. Chalmers Doane
A Music Reading Program for Ukulele by Marven Shields
Ukulele Encore by J. Chalmers Doane
Classroom Ukulele Method by J. Chalmers Doane
Classroom Techniques and Setup
The big day: starting up
In their pre-uke primary years my students are taught about the treble clef and about basic rhythms. This material can also be taught while waiting for the new instruments to arrive.
As you can imagine, there is great excitement in the classroom when new ukes arrive. Before handing out new ukes students are instructed to never touch the pegs! New ukes will often come with a metal device that looks like a guitar pick. It is meant to be used as a screwdriver to tighten pegs. All metal “picks” arriving in my classroom go straight to the garbage.
Also, I do not allow “lefties” in my classroom. No ukes are tuned backwards. No Hendrix or McCartney in my world. I tell the kids that the left-handed students are the fortunate ones because all the tricky stuff we do on the uke is with the left hand.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! I use the same seating arrangement that Chalmers Doane used with the classes that I was in forty years ago. We use four rows of chairs with four sets of two chairs in each row. Each set of two chairs shares a music stand. With this format the teacher can easily move through the room while teaching.
There is no no easy solution to tuning a class set of ukes. Like anything, practice makes perfect; set up ten ukuleles and see how quickly you can tune them accurately. Don’t spend half of each class tuning ukuleles. Aim to have the class tuned up in about five minutes.
Some teachers have a student walk around the classroom with them, playing the strings of a tuned uke as the teacher tunes the class ukes. I sit at the piano and have students - one row at a time - bring their ukes to me.
Teaching to the entire class
As mentioned, like any subject area, we have the challenge of teaching classes with students with varying degrees of abilities. It is especially challenging in two ways for a music teacher.
Firstly, not only are the ability levels different, but imagine a 4/5 split where the grade four students are beginning uke and many of the grade five students started in grade three in a 3/4 split. These grade fives are entering their third year of uke and see their classmates not knowing how to hold the instrument.
The other challenge unique to a music teacher is that we can not divide the class in half, asking these fifteen kids to “work on chapter seven ” while I work with the others at their level.
I would suggest that there are two secrets to success: pacing your lesson and your own ability on the uke.
If a lesson fast paced, the students stay on task. There are many components of a ukulele program: singing, reading/theory, ear training, playing by ear, strumming, learning songs by rote. Break your lesson up and keep it moving along. (Free lesson plan templates are available here.--Ed.)
It is extremely important that you stay well ahead of the class with your own playing ability. By doing this there are always ways to challenge your advanced students while still addressing the needs of the others. For example, while your beginners are learning their first chords, your advanced students could be learning various bar chord positions. While your beginners are learning their D scale others can be playing the scale with an “unemployed first finger” (i.e. using only the second, third, and fourth fingers to play the scale), harmonizing in thirds, or playing with a more advanced pick/strum pattern. (For specific examples of these strategies, see this Ukulele Yes! Pedagogy Corner article.--Ed.)
Look for workshops that will help you become a both a better player and a better teacher. The annual Langley Ukulele Conference is a great one.
It isn't easy but it's worth it
Many of us involved in teaching school ukulele programs strongly believe that it is an excellent form of music education in an elementary school. Our students become immersed in the joy of making music. They learn to sing, learn music theory and harmony, play by ear, read music and prepare to carry all these skills to other musical endeavors throughout their lives. Enjoy!