Walking The Walk
Why Improving Your Playing is the Most Enjoyable Way to Improve Your Teaching
By James Hill
This holiday season, after the rush and bustle and before school is back in session, take some time to play ukulele for your own enjoyment. Here's why it'll make you be a better teacher and here's a piece for you to sink your teeth into on your own time.
"There are very few people who can produce good ukulele players if they don't play themselves. Being one step ahead of the students is really not enough for a long-term, serious program in Music Education."- J. Chalmers Doane, Teacher's Guide to Classroom Ukulele, 1977
Hungarian gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi has produced some of the best Olympic gymnasts the world has ever seen. I first saw footage of Károlyi during the 1996 Olympic games; over six feet tall with greying hair and moustache, he stood in stark contrast to the four-foot-something young women he coached (and once, famously carried) to the podium. I wondered if he had ever attempted a vault or a balance-beam dismount himself. "How is it possible," I thought, "for someone to teach something they can't do themselves?" The answer is that, with some notable exceptions like Károlyi, it isn't. For most of us, we must be proficient at the skills we expect our students to learn.
In a recent edition of his excellent e-newsletter The Ukulele Entertainer, Ralph Shaw talks about motivating children to discover their musicianship. Ralph asks: "When parents (who don't sing, dance or play music themselves) vigorously enforce a daily practice regime on their offspring how are their kids supposed to take that? Will music feel like a timeless activity or like a chore?" Ralph's questions apply equally to teachers and parents.
Children are perceptive. They can pick up on insecurities and biases you don't even know you have. They resent hypocrisy (who doesn't?) and they need strong role models. What does this mean for you and your ukulele? It means that if you're not in love with playing ukulele, you need to fall in love with it. And if you're already in love with playing the ukulele you need to challenge yourself to keep growing as a musician. It's fun for you and it's good for your students.
Chalmers Doane once told me about a ukulele class he visited in the 1980s. Privately, the teacher confided in Chalmers that her students "don't like to pick, they'd rather sing." Chalmers asked the teacher to demonstrate the kind of picking that she was trying to teach to her class. She couldn't. Clearly, the teacher was uncomfortable with picking, not the students. We all have biases and musical preferences; that's what gives each of us a unique perspective on music. But in the classroom context we need to be aware of our biases and learn to compensate for them if we are to engage all students on as many fronts as possible.
One way to discover your own biases is to use a lesson outline for each lesson (like the free ones available here). Make note of the skill areas that you leave out in each lesson and, after a month or so, look back over your lesson outlines. Are you consistently leaving out the same areas of skill? If so, you may have discovered something about your biases and how they affect your teaching. Bear this in mind as you plan your next lessons and focus on these neglected areas in your own practise.
Speaking of which, let me just say one quick thing about practise: practise isn't practise if you only play what you already know. Be adventurous: shine a light into the darker corners of your musicianship. For example, do a straight double strum for three whole minutes using a metronome, take a familiar song and play it in a new key, learn a new inversion of a familiar chord, transcribe a song from the radio, challenge yourself. Do this at the beginning of your practise session when your mind is fresh. Then reward yourself by playing some of your favourite songs, just for fun. Your practise sessions need not be long; 15-30 minutes of high-quality practise every day will make a world of difference. It might just be the easiest, fastest and most enjoyable way to become a better teacher.
This One's For You
J. S. Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
This Winter, after the rush and bustle of the holidays and before school is back in session, take some time to play ukulele for your own enjoyment. Here's an arrangement designed with you in mind: something that sounds pretty, that you can really sink your teeth into, and that will challenge you to play "outside the box." It's an arrangement of the theme from J. S. Bach's famous Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring:
Learn to play the piece as written. Measures 9 to 11 are challenging but very beautiful when played correctly. This is what it sounds like played on an inexpensive soprano-sized student model ukulele:
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An Extra Challenge
Now, take a look at a more challenging arrangement of this piece:
What do you notice? That's right: all of the notes are the same but many of them are played differently.* (If you're new to reading tablature, the lines represent the strings and the numbers are fret numbers.) This advanced arrangement incorporates elements of the campanella ukulele style pioneered by the late John King.** Campanella (literally "bell-like") is a style in which each consecutive note in a melody is played on a different string whenever possible. The result is a flowing, harp-like sound in which each note dovetails into the next:
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Learning to play a campanella arrangement is like playing sudoku or doing a crossword puzzle: it forces you to think in new ways. Each measure presents a new musical "problem to solve," each with its own reward. Try to master a measure a day; like a musical advent calendar!
Take your time with this arrangement. Lose yourself in the learning process and enjoy the rewards. Although you may never teach this arrangement to your students, your experience with it will only strengthen your teaching and broaden your musical horizons.
* Generally speaking I'm against the use of tablature in the context of music education. This, however, is an exception as the playing position of every note must be transcribed exactly.
** Unlike most campanella arrangements, this one does not require the re-entrant 4th string; it can be played in either linear or re-entrant tuning. It is not a 100% campanella arrangement; there are times when consecutive notes are played on the same string. On the whole, however, the harp-like effect of the campanella style is preserved.