Why Do You Uke?
Tailoring Your Ukulele Program for a Perfect Fit
By James Hill
So, you’ve decided to start a ukulele program. What now? Before you rush out to order instruments and books, decide what kind of program you want to run.
One Instrument, Many Faces
Not all ukulele programs have the same purpose. Some are bona fide music education modules in which students are expected to learn general musicianship skills (e.g. sight-reading, music theory, and improvisation) which can then be transferred to other instruments. Other programs, such as the wonderful Israel-based Ukuleles For Peace project (in which children from Arab and Jewish communities come together to play ukulele, sing, and discover common ground) have a distinctly different goal.
Identifying the purpose of your program will help you to answer many questions including “what tuning should I use?” “what size ukuleles should I buy?” “what teaching materials should I order?” and “how often should I meet with my students?”
The Primary Purpose of Your Ukulele Program
First question: is music education the primary purpose of your program or are you more interested in creating a “jam session” environment? Both can foster learning and both can be lots of fun but you should identify the primary purpose of your ukulele class.
In Hawaii, the word “kanikapila” (ka-nee-ka-pee-lah) means “jam session.” A kanikapila-style ukulele gathering is not a rehearsal. It’s a casual (sometimes impromptu) meeting of friends; a recreational, community-building event. These days, the number of kanikapila-style ukulele groups is increasing as the ukulele grows in popularity with players of all ages.
One good example of a successful kanikapila-style group is the Vancouver Ukulele Circle which meets twice a month at Our Town Cafe in downtown Vancouver, BC. Founder Ralph Shaw is a good friend of mine; he does a brilliant job leading songs, creating a relaxed atmosphere and keeping in touch with members of the group (after each jam, Ralph sends out a detailed—often hilarious—mass-email in which he re-caps the evening’s activities). Other successful kanikapila-style ukulele groups include the Portland Ukulele Association and the Ukulaneysfrom Eugene, OR. These groups are successful because they have strong leadership and they’re well-organized; each has an official “club songbook,” a website, and an email list to keep members connected and up-to-date.
If your goal is to facilitate a kanikapila-style group for beginner/intermediate level players, you should make sure that:
Every member has access to a soprano, concert, or tenor-sized ukulele that will stay in tune and has a pleasant sound (these usually start at around $45.00)
You can lead all of the songs in the book (this means you know the words and can call out the chords as you play)
You can tune a ukulele quickly and accurately
You can provide a meeting place or organize one
You have a way of contacting your members (phone, email, or online group)
Classroom Ukulele Groups
By contrast, a school-based ukulele class—one intended to form the core of a general music program—must operate somewhat differently. It has been shown time and again that the ukulele can provide the foundation for a comprehensive music education program (see Doane, Dobson, Wallace, Smith, Smith/Yasui, and others) but such a program must be well thought-out and well organized. So let’s take a look at some of the nuts-and-bolts features of a school-based ukulele program.
In most kanikapila-style ukulele groups, music is taught by ear or by using chord/lyric sheets or tablature. Most of the time, this is suitable in a “jam session” context. In the context of music education, however, tablature falls short.
Tablature (or “tab” for short) is a system of notation that uses lines and numbers to represent strings and fret numbers, respectively. It is not a replacement for standard musical notation but rather a specialized system for fretted instruments. Tablature can be rewarding in the short-term but in the long-run it is of little use to the student who wishes to transfer his or her ukulele skills to the piano, violin, French horn, clarinet, or any other non-fretted instrument. Standard notation, on the other hand, is just as the name implies: standard for all instruments.
When taught in a methodical, sequential way, learning to read music is immensely rewarding and there are plenty of resources available that will guide your students toward music literacy. These include Ukulele in the Classroom (Hill/Doane), A Music Reading Program for Ukulele (Shields), and U for Ukulele (Dobson).
If you think you could use a sight-reading tune-up yourself, click here to download free sight-reading quizzes from the Ukulele in the Classroomresource site. A little practise will go a long way!
You’re Biased... And That’s OK
Each of us is drawn to music in a different way. Some are enchanted by melody, some are captivated by harmony, still others are mesmerized by rhythm. Examine the music you love; what makes you love it? Try to identify what makes you excited about music and be aware of how this can affect your teaching. Most importantly, remember that each of your students is going to be drawn to music in a different way. It’s your job to open as many doors to music as you can.
For example, do you prefer strumming or picking? For some, strumming is where it’s at. For others, there’s nothing more satisfying than picking the notes of a melody. If left unchecked, your likes and dislikes (and whatever musical insecurities you may have) will be quickly absorbed by your students. If you prefer to pick melodies but shy away from chording—or visa versa—your students will quickly follow your lead. The only way to provide a balanced musical diet for your students is to compensate for your own biases.
Here’s one way to do just that: use a lesson plan to make sure your lessons are well-rounded (click here to download free lesson plan templates from the Ukulele in the Classroom resource webpage). As you can see, skills are organized into seven broad categories: singing, strumming, picking, note reading, ear training, solo skills and music theory. You should aim to work on five of these seven categories in each lesson. Here’s the important part: keep your lesson plans in a file and review them every couple of weeks. Are you consistently leaving out the same two or three skill areas? If so, you’ll get a clear indication of your own biases. This is valuable feedback; use it to improve your own skills as a teacher and as a musician.
So, if your goal is to establish a ukulele class in which music education is the focus:
Make sure that very student has a soprano, concert, or tenor-sized ukulele that will stay in tune and has a pleasant sound (these usually start at around $45.00)
Consider the benefits—in the music education context—of low-4th string ukulele tuning
Follow a well-organized curriculum
Make sure you can play well enough to inspire your students
Learn to tune a ukulele quickly and accurately
Meet with your students at least once a week (for school classes, two 45-minute sessions is ideal)
Clearly communicate your expectations to both parents and students
For practical tips on starting a successful ukulele program, click here to read Jamie Thomas’ article Mr. T’s No-Nonsense Guide To Starting A Ukulele Program (Ukulele Yes!, Winter 2008).
Your Teaching Philosophy
Whether you teach a school-based class, run a club or teach private lessons, you should be clear about your teaching philosophy. You’ll be able to better identify what materials you need to purchase, what tuning you should use, what resources you need, how often to meet with your class/group, and so on. Most importantly, you’ll be able to clearly communicate the purpose of your class/club/lesson to your student(s) and, if applicable, to their parents. This will help you to get everyone on the same page from the get-go.
Mr. T’s No-Nonsense Guide To Starting A Ukulele Program (Ukulele Yes!, Winter 2008)
Tablature vs. Standard Notation (Wikipedia)
An introduction to "U" for Ukulele (Dobson)