Ukulele Juggling Act
How to Teach in Two Tunings at Once
By James Hill
The C6 vs D6 debate may well rage on for years to come. In the meantime, what can you do when you find yourself teaching to a class split along tuning lines? Here is a tried-and-true way out of what can be a very perplexing situation.
Picture this: you're hired to teach a ukulele workshop. You've spent days creating your lesson outline. You start class and notice some people looking completely befuddled. Your teaching is clear and methodical but they just aren't getting it. Desperate, you check to make sure everyone is in tune and discover that half of the class is in C6 tuning and the other half is in D6 tuning. What now? Transposing on-the-fly is daunting even for experienced players and not everyone carries a capo in their back pocket. You're stuck. Half of the class is going to struggle through the rest of the lesson, assuming they even stick around for it. Let's look at how this scenario could have unfolded differently if you'd prepared in advance for a split-class possibility.
Advance preparation is the only way to make a split-tuning class work. I've tried several approaches to teaching a split-tuning class and the method I'm going to outline here is the only one I know of that works.
Step 1: Prepare Handouts in Both Tunings
It's not fair to ask your students to transpose chords, fingerings and melodies on-the-fly. Why? Because an "easy" chord in one tuning isn't always an "easy" chord in another. Take Mary Had a Little Lamb, for example. In C6 tuning, a "friendly" key would be F major (ergonomic chords and a straightforward pentatonic-scale melody). In D6 tuning, however, Mary Had a Little Lamb in the key of F major is much more challenging; the analogous "easy" key is G major. The solution? Prepare handouts in both keys. Clearly label the F major version "C6 Tuning" and the G major version "D6 Tuning":
Step 2: Tune to the Majority
When you arrive in class, cut right to the quick. By a show of hands determine whether you have a split-class. If so, have everyone tune their open strings to the more popular tuning in the class. If, in the unusual situation of an even split, tune to C6 as strings will occasionally snap if they're suddenly tuned up a whole step.
Step 3: Let Birds of a Feather Sit Together
This step is optional but recommended. Have people in the same tuning sit close to one another. This will make it easier for you to stay on top of things and also make it easier for students to help each other.
Step 4: Play!
Make sure students receive the handout appropriate for their "native" tuning (i.e. if they're in D6 tuning make sure they receive a copy of the handout marked "D6 Tuning"). Play! Although all students are now tuned the same way (some perhaps differently to what they're used to), they will produce the same sounds and each will be able to think and read in his/her "mother tongue." What's more, they'll all be able to take advantage of the same ergonomic fingerings.
Of course, this isn't a new idea; the same concept is applied in every symphony and concert band in the world. Music for some instruments (e.g. saxophone, clarinet, french horn) is written in one key but sounds in another (for more on "transposing instruments," click here).
Step 5: Watch Your Language
Whenever possible during a split-tuning workshop, stick to language that works in both tunings. For example, explain that Mary Had a Little Lamb starts on the "tonic" chord. This is a true statement in both tunings and, as a bonus, offers a chance for you to briefly explain what the word "tonic" means in music.
Solfege syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) work well for the same reason. For example, the melody of Mary Had a Little Lamb goes: "mi, re, do, re, mi, mi, mi." Once again, this applies to both tunings and also gives you a chance to teach students about the solfege system.
Referring to the strings by number instead of by letter can also help. "String number 1 is the string closest to the floor," I'll often say. "Just like the storeys in a building, we count from the ground up." By using string and fret numbers you can pinpoint a note on the fretboard using language that applies equally to both C6 and D6 tuning.
Note that these strategies are designed for special circumstances. They're not intended to replace your everyday teaching strategies; your students should, of course, know chords, notes and strings by their letter names as well as their solfege and number names. Having these split-class solutions in your repertoire, however, will make you a more versatile teacher and might just save your bacon someday!