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Middle School students take a huge risk trying out the ukulele. As educators, we can encourage and support their success by helping them be successful on the instrument in the first few minutes of the first class. By helping them to achieve success early on, we set them up a great future with the instrument.
The beginning of a new unit or a new semester is an exciting time for middle school students, especially when starting the ukulele. Students are often excited and nervous to try out this new instrument; most come in with little or no experience with a ukulele and are anxious to start making music with it. Why then, as educators, do we often spend the first few classes reading syllabi, discussing the dos and don’t of the ukulele (don’t throw it, do hold it up on your lap, don’t swing it around by the neck), and learning to read tabs? Why do ukulele method books often start with songs such as Hot Cross Buns and Mary Had a Little Lamb when many of our students have no interest in playing these tunes? Students want to play songs they know and can show off to their friends. Students want to feel successful on this instrument quickly and make great progress in the first few classes. As teachers, it’s our job to get them playing on day one and to hook them in; we can discuss all of those other rules about the instruments later.
I have fond memories of my first actual ukulele class; before taking the class, I was figuring out the uke from looking up chords online and using my very basic guitar knowledge. My first real lesson was a session with Dr. Jill Reese sponsored by NYGIML early on a Saturday morning. I arrived with a uke that was owned by my school and handed down to me by my predecessor; I had no idea what I was doing. Within the first few minutes of the session, Dr. Reese had everyone in the room strumming away to “Lime in the Coconut”, and we all felt amazing. A group of new players all able to play a song in just a few minutes. Imagine what we could all do with a little more practice!
Quick success is important to students. They enter class apprehensive and wanting to learn and play but also afraid of failing. By attempting to play the ukulele, they are putting themselves at risk of failure and for students, especially middle school students, this is terrifying. If we as educators start class with the rules and expectations or plucking Hot Cross Buns, we’ve lost their focus and attention. Students have come into our classroom either because they had to as a school requirement or because they’re curious about these “tiny guitars” they’ve seen others playing. It’s important to keep them excited and playing tunes they recognize as much as possible throughout the learning process. Thanks to the simplicity of many popular tunes, it’s easy to get them playing music they recognize within the first 30 minutes of playing. This is a process I’ve done many times with my own groups of 5th-8th grade students; every time I’ve tried it, I seem to spend less time talking and they spend more time playing.
Here's the process:
1. Instrument in hand in the first moments of class
The moment students walk into the room on the first day of class, hand them a ukulele. Show them how to hold it (neck in left hand, body on lap, right hand strums) and invite them to start strumming. This creates a cacophony of sound in the room but putting an instrument in their hands in the first 30 seconds is critical; the sound isn’t nearly as bad as the sound of 20 new recorder students. Because of this quick contact with the instruments, students are instantly engaged. Putting a new instrument in their hands catches their attention and gets them excited to listen to what the instructor has to say. They have the instrument, now they want to know what to do with it.
2. Start with a chord
Reading tabs is confusing and plucking is tricky. Starting with this skill means a longer period of time before the student can play anything resembling a song. Finger coordination on the fret board is a skill that takes time and requires patience; students on day one just want to play. Starting with the simplest of chords means everyone is playing something that is appealing to listen to within minutes. Start by putting a chord chart on the projector. Tell the group, "These lines represent the frets and strings of the instrument in your hand." Show them on the uke how to place a finger for the C chord and check each student to make sure they found the right place. Then everyone plays together and presto! Point out to the group that they’ve been in class for 10 minutes and can already successfully play a chord on the uke; this encouragement is critical to keeping up their motivation and keeping their attention.
Introduce a strumming pattern to them next. Start with something easy like Down, Down, Down, Down. This simple four-quarter note pattern fits with many songs and can be grasped by any student who can keep a steady beat. Hold all conversations about quarter notes and beats until they’ve played at least two songs; at that point, you’ve got them hooked enough to throw in some basic music theory. They don’t need to fully understand what they’re doing to feel successful.
3. Students all play together
Find a song that uses just the C chord and get everyone playing together. The easiest and most entertaining I’ve found is, "Lime in the Coconut" with Kermit the Frog. You can find this fabulous video here. Most of your students will recognize the characters in the video; adding a familiar element into their learning helps with the engagement factor. Playing the C chord on quarter notes throughout this video works perfectly; the song lacks major tempo changes or long rests, and students can just strum and experiment with the uke. If students seem to be understanding the C chord and the pattern, call out a new strumming pattern half way through: Down Wait Down Wait.
4. "You are all amazing!"
The best part of the class comes at the end of the video. Look at all of them and congratulate them for playing their first song in the first 10 minutes of class; tell them how sensational they all are at the ukulele and how we're ready to move on to more! They all congratulate each other and ask what song is next. They ask to play the song again. They ask for more chords. They can't get enough!
Why this works
The concept of "instant success" came from a course I took with Bryan Powell and the organization, “Little Kids Rock”. Instant success with a song they might have heard before is critical to keeping them engaged and committed throughout the learning process. In my own experience, my students often say to themselves 'Man, if I could play a song in 10 minutes, imagine where I'll be by the next class. I can do this!'
Students leave the first class and tell all their friends how awesome they are on the ukulele; this self-confidence is huge for anyone learning a new instrument but especially for middle school students who often struggle with self image and self confidence. The more you build up their confidence, they more determined they become to practice and get better. When things start to get harder, they are far more resilient to failure and determined to make it work. They practice more, and they get better.
The music theory does come eventually. Over the course of the semester, you can talk about what makes up a chord, read standard notation, talk about chordal functions, read tabs, and compose. All of this is slipped in to lots of playing time. They learn the theory from hearing it and playing it, not just from standing and telling them.
And a few weeks later...
Looking ahead to a few classes into the semester, it’s amazing what students are able to learn. They quickly learn standard four chords, they read rhythm patterns in standard notation, and they discuss, at length, the typical I V vi IV chord pattern and all the songs they know where this is used. They work independently on songs of their choosing that use C, G, A minor, and F; they sing and play non-stop, and they groan when the instructor tells them have to stop and go to their next class. In my experience, haven't had a single discipline issue in my ukulele class. My students love playing the uke and they feel they have been successful in their first few weeks. They look forward to next week when they will each record their own song with both vocals and chords changes. I've got them hooked and all they want to do is spend time making music. If they're playing all this now, just imagine what they'll be able to do in June.