By NAfME Member Philip Tamberino
So you want to start a school ukulele program? First of all, congratulations on making this momentous decision that will change your music program for years to come! The ukulele is a fantastic learning tool for classroom music but is also perfect for extra-curricular clubs and performing groups. The fact that it continues to be resurgent in popular culture only enhances its value anywhere in a school music program. And so far, it is still the most affordable instrument that is as versatile as it is.
If you’re like most music teachers, you probably did not learn how to play or teach the ukulele in your undergraduate or graduate preparation program. As a folk instrument, the ukulele is relatively free of any overbearing orthodoxy in terms of pedagogy and performance, but while this avails it for much creativity and innovation it’s also important not to waste time reinventing the wheel. Here are some steps that have worked for others along the exciting path of starting a ukulele program:
- Identify your goals
Just like planning a lesson, or a unit, or a year, it’s good to begin with the end in mind. What do you envision, and for which students, as a result of having the ukulele in your program? Are there larger, district goals you can help meet with a ukulele program? You can teach the ukulele to students of almost any age and ability, but most general education students will be able to pick it up at a good speed in fourth grade or later. Progress is generally slower the younger you go from there. You can use the ukulele in the classroom as a tool in learning music theory, ear training, improvisation, and/or composition, and it’s also great in the more casual setting of an after-school activity. Your goals should shape where, when, and how you implement the program.
- Learn to speak ukulele!
If you’re going to pioneer a ukulele program, you may as well embrace and live up to your role as local ukulele expert. This includes learning to play well, so get yourself your own ukulele for goodness’ sake! Teach yourself the basics, take a lesson from a professional if you can, go to meetups and enjoy the friendly and supportive atmosphere. You’ll learn the common songs people play on the ukulele and may teach some of them to your students. If inspired to delve deeper, it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about the history of the ukulele and listen to the music of its important contributors over the years.
- Become familiar with teaching and learning resources
There are many ukulele method books, but currently very few specifically designed for the classroom setting. NAfME is releasing one next year (full disclosure: I’m writing it!). Other kinds of method books can be adapted. Choose a method book that is age-appropriate and includes the notation, concepts, and repertoire you want. You will have to supplement this book with additional literature anyway! Participate in online communities such as UKE Can Do It! to learn from, and share with, other teachers doing the same thing as you.
- Obtain instruments and accessories
You need ukuleles, but you’ll also need cases to protect them, and maybe even electronic tuners. Several major brands sell value packages that include all of these items. Try to work with a local music store for the best deal. Aim to supply each student in your largest class with their own ukulele, plus a few extra. Go with a brand that’s established, not necessarily the least expensive you find, sold near you, recommended by a fellow teacher, and/or that you’ve already bought and tried yourself. Stay away from instruments that cannot play in tune, don’t project well, or have flimsy tuning mechanisms. If your school cannot pay for the program in full, look into offsetting the cost with fundraising or grant opportunities.
- Organize your space
School-owned ukuleles must be stored so they are protected, easily accessible, and accountable. If storing in cases, any organized shelving system works fine. Storing outside of cases conserves class time and can be done using u-brackets on the wall or a freestanding rack (think: violin storage), but it’s a good idea to keep a gig bag on hand somewhere for each anyway. If you assign the same ukulele to each student each week (by numbering them), students take greater responsibility and you can easily account for any misuse or damage. Plan to seat students in chairs, with music stands—like any other ensemble—and arrange seating so you can get physically near each student to help with hand positions and deter any off-task behavior.
- Develop and teach your classroom management plan
It’s best to start teaching ukulele at a time of year when your students are already well-versed in your basic classroom routines and expectations, because you’ll have to teach new routines for lessons with the ukulele. Carefully model and prepare students for the responsibility of their own instrument, including what the procedures will be for retrieving and putting away instruments, knowing when to play and when to stop, and taking proper care of the instrument at all times. Develop a structure to follow your lessons that includes a warm-up, skill-building time, practice of new literature, and practice of old literature. Minimize down-time and your own talking, and enforce a zero-tolerance policy with fiddling on instruments at the wrong time.
- Invite parents into the fold
It’s good to send a letter home informing parents about the ukulele and all of its wonderful assets, or demonstrate the instrument on open school night if you feel confident. Include information about how they can purchase one (without endorsing a particular store or brand). The more kids who own their own instruments, the better. Even if you say nothing, at least a few students will probably ask about how to get their own ukulele (a very good sign!). Parent organizations can also help with funding the program.
- Plan for a performance
Students will appreciate an opportunity to show what they’ve learned, and a culminating event of any scale can bring focus to the course of study you choose. If you’re teaching an entire grade level with one set of ukuleles, try creating a ukulele club, which will attract only the most interested students and into which you can subtly recruit (students who bring in their own uke are a good place to start!). If you have a small group, you may need to amplify them in a large room. A single instrument on the bass line balances out the sound of a ukulele ensemble nicely. Singing should definitely be part of the performance. Somewhere alo ng the line, take the opportunity to highlight the novel nature of the program, any investments that were made, and support you may have received from administration or parents.
PHILIP TAMBERINO teaches classroom and instrumental music for Fire Island School District in Ocean Beach, NY, and is the author of Uke Can Do It!: Developing Your School Ukulele Program (NAfME / R&L Education, 2014). He started teaching classroom ukulele in 2006, founding the program in Fire Island as well as Brooklyn P.S. 199 in New York City, where he taught concurrently until 2014. He has given workshops for NAfME, the New York State School Music Association, and L.I.U. Post College, and is the founder of the UKE Can Do It! network for school ukulele teachers.
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