All Uke Can Do: Enhancing General Music through the Ukulele

All Uke Can Do: Enhancing General Music through the Ukulele

By NAfME Member Shelbi Busche


Every week I get to work with a talented group of musicians who analyze, arrange, compose, improvise, and perform amazing pieces of music, all before recess. These musicians are my Kindergarten through 5th grade students.

You may be wondering how all of this is possible? My students have been able to reach these objectives through the use of the ukulele. When not being used as an isolated unit, but as a cornerstone of the curriculum, the ukulele can do more than you ever thought possible.

When educators think of the ukulele in music education, our minds often go to 5th grade and junior high students. We never even fathom the idea of teaching it to students who are only 5 years old. But I can tell you from personal experience, by teaching ukulele to students starting from Kindergarten through 5th grade, we are setting our students up to become engaged self-motivated learners of the music making process.


How Do You Teach It?

Answering this question is very complex, because how I utilize the ukulele in teaching is dependent on the lesson concept and age-level. My applied teaching may greatly vary between classes, but they all follow a guided four-step instructional sequence.




Step 1: Experience

Whether it’s Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, I want my students to enjoy the music they are creating. I believe there is a correlation between how a student feels about a song and how motivated they are to learn it. If a song is preselected for a student without allowing the child to play with it, they are less willing to learn it, no matter what age. But if you introduce any song with a dance, game, story, etc., students are more willing to work hard at learning it because of that positive experience they originally had.


Tinker Tailor with Kindergarten:


Step 2: Comprehension

Students learn best through exposure to knowledge beyond their current understanding. Therefore, I believe in starting students off by learning the full musical staff. The only difference with my musical staff is that I color code every music note, as well as the chords notated above the staff. I do this because you will find that I added on every ukulele in my classroom nine stickers on the fretboards that have color-coded pitches on them (see photo below).

In this step, students understand what they are looking at when they are reading the music. If they are working on plucking, we focus on the pitches on the musical staff. If they are working on strumming, we focus on how to play the chords of the song, and how we identify when to play those chords. By the end of these exercises, students will have the information they need to apply their skills to music.

Ukulele Color Coded Pitches


Step 3: Application

In the application step, students do just that—apply their comprehension of the music to the ukulele. I have found this step works best when I allow students to choose the way in which they want to work. I let students choose wherever they would like to sit in my classroom and who—if anyone—they would like to work with. I also set up a “Rainbow Blanket” at the front of the room that designates a spot where students can physically communicate their need for additional help—offering a space where students can get additional help without the need for raising hands or disrupting other students by yelling for attention.


Drip Drop with first grade:


Step 4: Extension

Ukulele Heart


Once students have mastered the song they were working on, they are allowed creative freedom to make their own arrangement of the song. We conclude this activity with a Performance Day, which is the first opportunity for students to proudly showcase their arrangement of the song for the class, while the class will listen and respond by giving the performer(s) two compliments. When this process is finished, students leave music class feeling proud of what they have accomplished.


Shortnin’ Bread with third grade:


In my classroom, I use the ukulele as the tool students can always go back to when applying different musical concepts. When we—as educators—teach the ukulele as a stand-alone unit, we are not tapping into all the possibilities the ukulele can do, especially for the K-2 grades. Using the ukulele as a fundamental instrument, students can springboard their musical education from the very beginning, encouraging our young students to become engaged self-motivated learners and proud musicians.


About the Author:

Shelbi Busche

Ms. Shelbi Busche is a 2014 graduate of North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, where she received her Bachelor’s degree in K-12 Choral Music Education. After stumbling upon an inexpensive orange ukulele at a music store her freshman year, Ms. Busche has arranged, copyrighted, and performed a variety of ukulele pieces for students of all ages. She has communicated with a number of educators around the world, has held a variety of demonstrations for diverse learners, and created an extensive ukulele curriculum and performance project during her student teaching experience. This October Ms. Busche presented a clinic entitled “All Uke Can Do: Enhancing General Music Through The Ukulele” at the South Dakota National Association for Music Education All-State Conference in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and she also presented a clinic at North Central College’s Second Annual Technology in Education Conference entitled “Technology: Making It Practical”. On top of that, this October, Ms. Busche will be able to present her ukulele clinic again at the National Association for Music Education’s National In-Service Conference in Nashville, TN! Throughout her undergraduate years, Ms. Busche held a variety of leadership positions at North Central College such as Secretary of the Collegiate National Association for Music Education Board, Web Tech “Guru” for Women’s Chorale, and Vice President for Concert Winds. Currently she is getting her Masters in Educational Technology from Aurora University and teaches K-5 General Music at Western Avenue Elementary School and K-1 General Music at Fabyan Elementary School located in Geneva, IL.


For more information and free resources for your classroom, please visit my website:

Shelbi presented at the 2015 NAfME National Conference. Registration for the 2020 NAfME Conference will be open soon.

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