Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Ukuleles - A Tool for Teaching All Year Long, Part 1

I didn't play ukulele until just a few years ago, and even then I was not really playing anything beyond a C chord.  This is probably true for many of us catching the "wave" of uke in the general music classroom.  I don't teach uke as a "unit" as I am not a "unit" kind of teacher.  I incorporate uke throughout the year, beginning in first grade - yes, really!
Today we begin a short series about ways to use the ukes as a tool in the music room, and incorporate it in a meaningful way throughout the school year.

1.  Define

Before you begin, define your purpose; how will you use ukes?  Will you teach them to one grade level or several?  I know many music teachers who teach ukulele as a unit and extensive as it may be, I personally don't. I prefer to use it as a tool to teach and reinforce concepts and skills.  Think about it more as a vehicle to get in and ride; similar to how we use Orff instruments or classroom percussion; we aren't necessarily teaching the instrument for the sake of the instrument alone, but to learn/reinforce beat, rhythm, melodic direction, harmony, dynamics, etc.
Elizabeth at Organized Chaos has a great post about this and shares several other resources and ideas.
I prefer a ratio of 1:2; one uke for every two students.  Although I am incredibly fortunate to teach in a school with a plethora of instruments, and have enough Orff instruments for each student, I always have students share until students have learned a piece.  Students playing Orff instruments often disengage their singing voices as they are concentrating on what and how to play.  While this is not "always" true, it is often.  With ukulele there are more mechanics involved; correct hold, coordination of strumming, and fingering chords.  That is a lot of coordination for younger kiddos! 
Having a 1:2 ratio leaves half your class as the singers and the other half as instrumentalists. In an upcoming facebook video I will walk you through how to switch instruments quickly without losing focus or beat - the way I do it almost creates a short "B" section!

2.  Deciding What to Buy

West Music has a great blog post about the decision making process called, "Models and Tunings and Sizes, Oh My!  
Shelley at Pitch Publications has a side by side comparison of brands that is extremely helpful!

3.  Things to Consider

Where will your ukuleles be stored? Hanging them is the BEST way to ensure tuning is quick and easy! Mine hang on the wall while I tune and I can get my 13 tuned in about 5 minutes! These wall hangers are what I have. 
I have Diamond Head soprano ukuleles and like any uke, they need at least a week (usually 2) to stretch out after you unbox and hang.  There are lots of "cute" ukes out there- watermelons, sharks, pineapples, colors, etc. I decided to go basic and everyone got the same color - no arguments about who got to play the purple one last class and who hasn't played the blue one yet.
The first couple of weeks you will be tuning daily - trying to get them to the point where they need slight adjustments and not big ones. I really like the Diamond Head - good entry level uke and very affordable - around $30.00 and they stay pretty well in tune after the initial stretch.  I also personally have a Kala concert that I am a little in love with - it is turquoise!! The sound is richer and fuller and the slightly bigger size is a little more comfortable for me. 

4.  Getting Started

A fabulous "go-to" for me is Bernadette Teaches Music.  She is a music teacher with an extensive youtube channel and she is VERY responsive to questions!  Her youtube channel is invaluable - watch the video about Common Beginner Mistakes!  Love the dots on the fingers! This made a huge difference with my students and they love getting sharpie dots on their fingertips.
Definitely put the colored dots on the uke, too- I resisted this until I tried it with my after school ukulele group and it is amazing how much faster their progress was.
This video from Cynthia Lin Music is very detailed with great info about playing using your pointer finger. Her pace is great, and she is very clear!  The two main points in the video are:
1. Using the thumb to get more power and grip.
2. How to position the index finger to get more clarity and control.

5. Basic Strum Patterns 

THIS video from Ukuleletricks.com.  It teaches 5 basic strum patterns, and I appreciate his use of the words "steady beat" and counting in four. Again, great pacing on this video, very clear, and easy for everyone to grasp.

To use this concept with beginners, first tune bottom strings to "C" instead of "A".  When strumming open strings this creates a C chord without needing to worry about coordinating two hands.  Use this combined with strum pattern one below with a song in pentatonic you might normally play a bordun on!   I created these slides to go with these strum patterns - and look, already you are reinforcing the concept of steady beat. I would not teach all these the first day; strum pattern one is perfect to play along with a previously learned song in "C" pentatonic. All those SLM songs? Yes! Perfect to revisit them and play along! The next blog post will go into more detail about teaching uke as a tool all year!

6. Get Them Excited! 

Your students will love Grace Vanderwaal. She won America's Got Talent and is just 13 years young!!!  She has a very distinctive voice and has a timely message about not trying to be a pop star, but instead to simply be yourself.  Check her out here.
She has several videos on youtube- this is her initial audition for AGT and she surprised everyone!

See you next time for part 2 - we will start getting into the "how" with lessons, activities, and ideas for using uke as a tool to teach and reinforce concepts and skills!
Happy Holidays!


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