Ukulele 101: Beginner’s Guide to Ukulele in the Elementary General Music Classroom
By NAfME member Kristin Loos
In my upcoming session at NAfME’s National In-Service Conference, I will provide a common-sense, no-stress approach toward elementary classroom ukulele. You will have access to tons of free online resources that I have created through the years. I’m hoping to spark your interest here and begin a conversation with you about starting your own ukulele program. I want to make things as easy as possible for you as you begin. Below you’ll find some practical advice for starting ukulele players during general music classes. If you like what you see here, join me in November to learn more!
Setting Up for Success
Let’s talk about the physical layout of the classroom, storage of materials, and classroom procedures. I use Wenger flipFORMS in my classroom, and I separate them in the room so that my students are in groups of 4-6 at each riser with a couple yards between each riser. Don’t feel like this specific product is the thing that matters.
Here’s what matters: My classroom layout enables students to work together in small groups, and helps facilitate me moving around the room as much as possible while I teach. You need access to each student so that you can see what they’re doing and physically help them when necessary. I’m a big fan of students taking ownership over their own education and taking the initiative to help other students be successful. Find a layout that allows for and encourages this type of community. Once you put a ukulele in every student’s lap, you don’t have enough eyes to monitor everyone at once. You will need all students to constantly assess their own mastery level and seek opportunities to help their peers.
I was so overwhelmingly grateful that my supervisors, PTO parents, and donors saw fit to bless my classroom with higher quality Lanikai soprano ukuleles several years ago. We had been limping along for many years on low quality instruments that would not stay in tune and which constantly required time-consuming repairs. I was determined to keep the new instruments in excellent condition as long as possible. I knew that I would very likely not see that kind of funding again for many more years. I used my small classroom budget to purchase wall hooks for each of my instruments. During the school year the back wall of my classroom looks like this:
Each student in the class is assigned a specific instrument. This means that each student is, in reality, sharing a ukulele with 2-3 other students in other classrooms. A chart on the wall makes them aware of who else is using their specific instrument throughout the week. The first day they have their instruments, I tell them to look very closely at all the special things about their instrument that makes it just a little different from that of the person next to them. This means they are looking at little scratches, knicks, faded spots, and so forth. There’s a method to this madness: Students are taught to inspect their instruments quickly when they retrieve them from the wall and report any new damage to me right away at the beginning of class.
In my General Music classes, I tune all of the instruments BEFORE students arrive. Sometimes this means tuning first thing in the morning or using part of my planning time. Trust me when I say that it’s absolutely worth the time investment. Students are NOT allowed to touch the tuning pegs during class. Ever. I encourage them to raise their hands and ask for tuning checks whenever they feel like they’re out of tune. I calmly and quickly check tuning for anyone who asks so that they always feel comfortable doing this.
We’re All in This Together!
One of the tricks to having a successful ukulele class is fostering the idea that we sound better and make better music when we are successful together. At least 2-3 times in each class, I leave space for students to practice with a partner or small group and check each other’s fingerings. When I’m giving direct instruction, I walk around and adjust anyone’s hand position or fingerings as needed. When I see a student who is doing something perfectly, he/she is rewarded by being asked to walk around with me and help adjust fingerings for other classmates. I choose different students each time so that at some point or another, everyone gets a chance to feel like the teacher.
I’m about to confess something to you. I hate assessments, especially in music. I want my class to be about making music together. I want students to feel that in-the-moment joy that comes from the act of performing in a group. The atmosphere of assessment—or imminent assessment—really kills that sense of joy. There are so few truly joyful experiences left in school, and I intend for my class to remain joyful whenever possible. Wouldn’t it be nice if this served as a sufficient rebuttal to those who would have me tracking student progress with a clipboard all day? Sigh.
Ok, so we can’t get away from it entirely. But I think I’ve found a way to minimize the stress for students. The first playing test on ukulele is a folk song using two chords: C and F (there are tons of them, so you can pick your favorite). The day that I introduce their first playing test song, I make them a promise: We won’t take the test until they are ready. Our district has a 4-point self-assessment scale that we use to track whether students feel they have mastered the content in a given lesson. We don’t take this first playing test until the whole class is at the top of the chart, feeling like a “4” on the scale. Sometimes we know 4-5 chords and many, many songs before we take that playing test. That’s okay.
Here’s what I DO assess during every class:
- Holding the instrument correctly, every time you play it.
- Parts of the instrument. We take a quiz on this near the beginning of the unit.
- Chord fingering checks. The chord fingering charts are posted at the front of the room AT ALL TIMES. Even on test days. At some point during each class, I announce that I’m about to do a chord fingering check. Students have a few seconds to show me that chord. They can get help from a neighbor or use the charts in the classroom to get there if they don’t have it from memory. Here’s the message: In the real musical world, when you don’t know how to pla y something you can find the answer. You have fingering charts; you have neighbors; you even have Google. Why would I insist that fingerings are memorized when you’re a beginner? Memorization grows from practice.
I don’t always “grade” the above assessments, but I do keep track of progress in my own little shorthand way for my own reference.
Books and Resources
You don’t really need a specific method book for ukulele. For me, part of the draw of teaching and learning ukulele is the relaxed nature of the instrument and the culture that surrounds it. Most of my teaching materials are in PDF format and projected on the screen in my classroom during class. I print those PDFs along with supplemental materials and I provide repertoire books at the back of the classroom. Sometimes students come and spend their recess in my classroom with a few friends, just playing their favorite tunes from the books.
I encourage students to request songs they like from the radio, too. If the content and language is school appropriate, I do my best to find or create a lyrics sheet with the chords. Sometimes I transpose to make the chords more accessible for them. I really like offering these “extra” songs and giving students time outside of class to figure things out with friends. Students will go out of their way to learn more complicated chords and melodies in order to play a song they really enjoy.
About the author
NAfME member Kristin Loos has been teaching ukulele to elementary students during most of her 16 years as a General Music Teacher. When she first began teaching, Kristin’s principal told her that all 5th graders learned to play the ukulele every year. “She showed me the cabinet of instruments and told me to figure it out,” says Kristin. “I began teaching in 2000, but the only resources in that first classroom were faded method books from the ’70s and some illegally copied sheet music. Needless to say, I stumbled a lot in those first years.” Without any budget for purchasing music, Kristin also began creating some of her own materials. She used the old method books, but quickly figured out what she liked and what she didn’t like. “I found my own way eventually, and now I want to share what works with you,” Kristin says. “Every year that goes by I find something new to love about teaching, and ukulele is one of my favorite things about my General Music classroom.”
A few years ago Kristin attended the Annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii in Honolulu, and all of the things she holds most true about teaching music to young people were affirmed in that experience. “It was a beautiful few days where the best ukulele performers and teachers freely exchange information and jam together,” describes Kristin. “It’s less about going to hear wonderful music and more about engaging and being a part of making the music. Everyone plays at his/her own level and everyone has a great time. We all are teachers and learners. Musical participation is for all of us. We can all feel like rock stars. To me, there is no finer example of music education than that.”
Kristin Loos presented on her topic ”Ukulele 101: Beginner’s Guide to Ukulele in the Elementary General Music Classroom” at the 2016 NAfME National In-Service Conference in Dallas, TX. Register today for the 2018 National Conference.
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