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by Philip Tamberino (originally published at NAfME)

The past several years have seen the ukulele make its way into music classrooms at an unprecedented rate. Whether starting a new program or revisiting a newly started program, the following points can ensure students get the most out of their experience with the ukulele in school:

1. Pre-teach about positions, proper care, vocabulary, and a little history

Before students ever have their hands on their own ukulele in a classroom, they should understand:

  • What “resting” and “ready” positions look like
  • What “picking” and “strumming” look like
  • Where and how the instruments will be retrieved and stored
  • Who will take care of adjusting the tuners (the teacher)
  • What the names of the important parts of the instrument are

This information is critical to cover beforehand in order for expectations and communication to be as clear as possible when instruments are present for the first time and excitement is high. In addition, the following information can increase motivation to learn the instrument by making it more relevant and relatable:

  • How and where the ukulele was invented
  • How it became a popular instrument
  • Famous contemporary performers or enthusiasts

2. Give students a seat and a music stand, if available

If enough chairs and music stands (or anything to hold music upright) are available, students should play the ukulele seated and looking towards the teacher over a music stand as they would in a traditional ensemble setting. As with other instruments, posture and position contribute to a more comfortable and efficient manner of playing, and sitting on the floor can become uncomfortable. Likewise, visual materials at eye level are much easier to follow than if lying flat on the floor or a desk, particularly if also trying to pay attention to a teacher or director. If space allows, all students should also be physically accessible to the teacher—not only to help with fingering and positions but also to deter or discretely address off-task behavior.

ukulele ensemble

3. Keep the learning curve gentle

The ukulele is highly accessible for beginners, requiring very little technique or knowledge to make a sound, strum a simple chord, or pick a simple melody. Adding a finger on the fretboard or a chord to a song actually multiplies the amount of mental and physical work involved, and students who have not had sufficient practice may become easily lost at these junctures. Fortunately the instrument is flexible enough, and enough music literature exists, that there is no need to rush into multi-chord songs using multi-fingered chords. The open strings contain four out of five notes in the C pentatonic scale and are perfect for singing and playing basic melodies. One-chord songs are also a great way to get students used to simultaneous singing and playing. Two-chord songs are great for practicing a new chord, because there are only two possible changes (either to, or from, the new chord). At least six chords can be played on the ukulele using only one finger, and another six can be played using two fingers. Making use of substitutions like Fsus2 (one finger) for F (two fingers), or G6 (two fingers) for G or G7 (three fingers) can make transitions smoother while allowing students to expand their repertoire.

chords

For an idea of how this can work, consider the literature sequence for Uke Can Do It 2! (full disclosure, I am the author and NAfME is the publisher):

  1. Open string melodies
    Open string songs
  2. Songs including one-finger chords
    Melodies including fretted notes
    Songs including fretted notes
  3. Songs including two-finger chords
  4. Songs including three-finger chords

4. Enforce the correct positions and fingering

ukulele

It’s common for beginners to assume that fingering and positions aren’t really important as long as they elicit the correct pitch(es), but being vigilant in this area from the start can prevent bad habits and difficulty later on. The commonly accepted fingerings for ukulele chords and notes are not only based on comfort but also the ease of transitioning to other closely related chords and notes. Using the incorrect fingering can make common changes unnecessarily difficult. Another key aspect of fingering and hand position is the location of the thumb, which is never shown in chord diagrams because the thumb is never used on the fretboard. Placing the thumb squarely on the back of the neck not only gives the fingers more force but also lengthens their reach, making it more comfortable to bridge over open strings or barre.

5. Provide supports for retention

Since classroom music can occur as infrequently as one period a week (or less when there’s a holiday), retention can be dramatically helped by the following supports:

  • Color-coding dots: A limited number of small color-coding dots can be affixed to the fretboard in order to jog students’ memories about key finger positions for chords or notes. Including a dot on the back of the neck for the thumb is also helpful. Teachers may also label the side of the fretboard to show fret numbers, the top of the instrument to ensure it’s facing the right direction, or the open strings to help students remember their names. Color-coding dots are available cheaply at any office supply store and do not damage the instrument, but they should be used sparingly in order not to create more confusion than they are intended to allay.

ukulele strings

  • Chord and note diagrams with fingering: Lead sheets generally do not show fingering on the chord diagrams that appear above the staff. Even in many method books, once the student is past the page where the chord fingering is shown, it is common to use unlabeled chord diagrams. If materials showing fingering are not available, teachers can add finger numbers below the diagram, or use the free diagrams from Uke Can Do It! if creating their own materials. 

chord

  • A ukulele to practice at home: This one might seem obvious or idealistic, but should not be automatically written off. Unlike almost any other instrument that is as versatile, the ukulele is simultaneously light, portable, surprisingly durable, and relatively inexpensive. To purchase a school set of ukuleles and never allow students to take them home, or to never provide students with information on how to get their own ukulele, fails to take advantage of some of the instrument’s greatest assets. These same qualities that make it conducive to use in school also make it highly adaptable to different lifestyles beyond school and can foster lifelong music making—one of our central goals as music educators!