End Of Term - What Have I Learned?

As I walked home from the last uke lesson I’d do for the year fives at Darell Street Primary School, I knew I was one very fortunate ukulele teacher. It had been a very memorable day to a great year of uke teaching and I was holding a stack of colourful hand-made ‘Thank You’ cards and feeling very privileged to have this job indeed.

But as a teacher, what had I learned in between here and starting my first year as a uke teacher in a school in November last year….

‘There Ain’t No Right and There Ain’t No Wrong’.

From the many people I have taught the uke to, I’m very aware that people come to the instrument for a wide variety of reasons and with a wide variety of ambitions. But one thing that seems to be in there across the board of all age groups is that they want it to be fun, easy and with quick wins. And that’s how I approach my teaching. I try get people singing and strumming songs really quickly and keeping musical theory to the bare minimum. This is usually achieved in the first half an hour of the first lesson. Clearly one of the main reasons why the uke is so popular across all age groups.

In terms of techniques such a strumming and chord changes, I use the line ‘there ain’t no right and there ain’t no wrong’ a lot. I’m fully accepting of how it’s not great English, but it really sums up my approach to teaching. I also emphasize alongside this that, if I do see someone doing something that I know will seriously affect their ability to develop on the instrument, I will need to pick up on that. But apart from the most often one of people holding the uke a bit too ‘sound hole up’ there’s not much that falls into that category.

So with the kids when I first started to see some of them playing F or D by hooking their thumb over the neck, I did point it out that it could hinder them later. But as many had really small hands and this seemed to work for them, I just thought, ‘well why not’! There’s no grades or exams they need to pass on the uke, so if this gets them playing and enjoying a rousing version of ‘Hold Back the River’ and they can impress their mates and parents with what they can do then, really not a problem.

On the G7 chord, I also taught some of the slightly less proficient players a two finger version, which misses out fretting the second fret on the C string. Does it sound good? Well it’s not ideal, but again if it means they can all join in the playing the songs then just go for it. It’s also amazing what little discrepancies can be covered up with 25 ukes all being energetically strummed at the same time!

Keeping them engaged.

With 25 kids in the class, it was certainly mixed in terms of what they wanted to get out of the lessons. Some were clearly keen on music in the general sense and were also learning other instruments so wanted to add the uke to their collection of instruments and took things very seriously. Some were well advanced in being able to read music so were used to translating notation and even though I only use chord sheets still got to grips following a song sheet quicker than some others. Others just wanted to enjoy the weekly singalong and some (mostly the boys!) clearly had ambitions and ‘heavy rockers’. One thing that was amazing to learn on this front was that ‘Smoke On The Water’ is still the riff of choice which is quite something for a song written 35 years before these guys were born!

It was apparent that there just has to be a major element of straight fun in the session in order to keep the kids engaged. So every few weeks, I would introduce some music based games, some involving playing the uke and some not. Also, splitting the class into boys versus girls seemed to add a healthy amount of competition. Though it was good to learn from the music teacher that also splitting them into non gender based groups would be beneficial so as to not establish fixed patterns.

Towards the end of the second term I also took a whole lesson as four groups and with the game of seeing how they worked in teams to try and tune up the ukes. I had put one in tuning but put three completely out of tune. The goal was to use the in tune one as reference to tune the other three. The learning point here for me was to be vigilant that everyone was included in the exercise and that the quieter children were not kept on the outside of things.

The session was certainly one of the most lively (and noisy!) but they seemed to enjoy it and most importantly at the end some had mastered tuning the uke! And not always the ones I would have expected!

 

 

Song Choices

This was a tricky one! My own musical interest tends to be in blues, folk and Americana so not what might be called ‘current’! So, taking advice from the music teacher, we worked on a couple of reasonably contemporary ones with ‘Budapest’ and ‘Hold Back The River’ proving to be very successful. However, also amazing to note that when I asked the class who had heard of The Beatles, every hand went up. Very handy as one of the songs I use when teaching complete beginners is Paperback Writer as it only has two chords!

Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ was also a very popular choice and they seemed to really like singing it too. We also managed to fit in ‘Johnny B Good’ which certainly kept the trainee hard rockers happy.

Alongside these songs there was a need to work with some more traditional school songs to fit in with themes at assemblies and the mix seemed to work well.

However, I was very aware that it being my first year and had effectively had to dive in at the deep end when I started mid the first term that I was to quite a dregree ‘busking it’. As I’ve (thankfully!) been invited back to teach a new batch of year fives in September, the music teacher has advised we take some time in the summer break get a more formal schedule in place so that it fits in with the wider musical curriculum. The thinking here is to embrace a ‘music around the world on the uke’ approach. Very much looking forward to working that up.

From Zero to uke heroes…..

As mentioned in my previous blog, this was all a new experience for me. I had worked in TV for 35 year with some uke teaching along the way but having left that industry last year I’ve now been dedicating my time to this on a ‘full time basis’.

When I started with the class a few weeks before Xmas 2016, none of the class had played the uke at all. One of the messages in the cards I think best summed up how the year had gone. One of them said ‘Thank you so much for everything you have taught us this year and it’s really great to now be able to say I can play the ukulele’. And that really is such a rewarding thing to feel that you have played a part in that. Pretty much everyone in the class can now have a song sheet put in front of them (even of a song they don’t know) and can all work out what chord to play when by following where the come on the sheet and produce a very competent version of the song. That’s a real achievement!

Next Steps.

Because of the way that music is taught in the school ie they learn a new instrument each year, they will move on to something new in year six. However, I’ll be sad to think that after all the hard work they have put in to learning the uke that this will be the end of their time playing the instrument and really hope that at least a few of them carry on with it. I made a big point of saying that they would all be really welcome to join the breakfast uke club I run at the same school on a Thursday morning so have fingers crossed I’ll be seeing some familiar faces at that.

Highlights.

There really has been a lot but the stand out one has to be when in just after the first three lessons (less than an hour’s playing in total) they were able to play a really competent version Paperback Writer at their Xmas school fair as The Darell School Ukulele Orchestra. Only the uke can do this!

 

 

Back To School.

Teaching the uke – Back to school!

For the last six months I’ve been enjoying what has turned out to be one of the most rewarding things of my time as a ukulele teacher – teaching a class of year 5’s at a local school.

How Did It Come About?

Literally from a chance encounter in the street where I live! A neighbour who publishes the excellent local magazine www.livinginmagazines.co.uk I was teaching the ukulele. In a conversation with the music teacher at one of the local junior schools she had mentioned that they had been donated 40 ukuleles which was great…….but they didn’t have anyone to teach it! The music teacher had said that at a push she could probably cover the very basics but she was really keen to try and find someone to do properly. I had been teaching an adult group at www.ritzmusic.co.uk for the last few months which I was really enjoying and decided that this was a challenge not to be refused. So what happened next…..

We Sorted Out The Foundations.

 

Meeting the music teacher Kim Bloomfield, could not have been a better experience. We hit it off straight away and talked about her aims for the ukulele in school www.darell.richmond.sch.uk which was essentially to give the year fives a fun music experience that would be above anything else fun, accessible by all and free of the formal rigour of learning musical theory and graded exams.I emphasized that I didn’t have any formal teaching qualifications but was confident that by enthusiasm for the instrument, energy and tapping into my time at the BBC as a management trainer (this turned out to be extremely useful!) that we would get there. would be working as a volunteer and in the capacity of classroom assistant. Was I concerned that I would be working for free? It’s always nice to have ones worth valued and rewarded but this gig could only be done on a for free basis so I just had to accept that was part of the deal and move on. I knew it would be such a great learning experience for me that I viewed it as a fair exchange. The school admin manager sorted out the all important ‘Enhanced DBS’ (previously CRB check) and we were good to goThen It Got Scary!

The school were very keen to launch to the kids and parents that they were introducing the uke to the school so the first thing I was asked to do was a presentation at the school assembly.

I’ve done a lot of gigs over my time as a musician and to some large size audiences but for some reason walking into the assembly in front of about 300 kids and parents got the adrenalin going way more than any of those! After a straight play of ‘Lion Sleeps Toninght’ to show the uke in its usual guise as a straight strumalong instrument, I decided to present some things that the uke is not generally known for and played a a medieval tune called ‘Kent’s Jig’ which I play on a Noah Uke in open F tuning www.noahukuleles.com then a faux Hawaiian tune on an Ashbury 8 string in slack key tuning www.ashburyguitars.com and finished with some bottleneck slide on a solid electric uke through and amp with the gain cranked right up. Needless to say the kids really went for the play it loud style of the electro uke!

As it was in the run up to Xmas, I played ‘Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’ as they kids all left the assembly with the teachers clapping along. Everyone had been so welcoming and I couldn’t have asked for a better start.

Let The Lessons Begin.

I started the next week teaching the year fives for a 30 mins class. I got there early and so pleased I did as tuning up 30 Maholo ukes which had not really been tuned before in ten minutes was a bit of a challenge to say the least. The kids arrived and there was a great amount of activity around choosing their ‘favourite colour ukes’. They were a great bunch and many of them mentioned that they had seen the assembly and couldn’t wait to get started learning the uke which was great to hear.

In the first lesson they picked up things very quickly and by the end of just the first lesson had all managed basic strumming, the chords of C, F and in no time at all a very credible version of ‘Paperback Writer’ was starting to appear. Kim

By the end of just two more lessons they had ‘Paperback Writer’ up to a standard where they felt confident enough to perform it at the Xmas school fete. It was such a great achievement by them and certainly a proud moment for me.

Since then they have mastered more chords including, G7, Dm, Am and really nicer versions of the songs ‘Hold Back The River’ and ‘Budapest’. They also performed ‘Apache’ in front of the Mayor and governors along with other members of the school on percussion, glockenspiels and recorders. Another landmark in the ukulele careers! Kim has been at every lesson and her presence and support has been the big thing that has made it possible for me to be able to make a success of it at my first run at teaching ukulele in a school. I would strongly recommend working with an experienced music and classroom teacher if you get the opportunity to teach at at a school.   

‘Are There Grades For The Ukulele?’

This was a question asked by one of kids. I’ve always been keen to make sure that learning the uke stays in the ‘fun, accessible to all and no homework’ for the kids. I think they have enough other formal stuff and exams to do. So I explained that there were but we wouldn’t be doing them. However, I put together a ‘Uke Skills Award’ certificate and started with the ‘Bronze Level’. I presented them to everyone at the last class before Easter and they were really well achieved. So Silver and Gold ones are now on the radar in the run up to half time and summer break.

What Have I learned?

That this is about as much fun as a uke teacher as you can have! Any minor discipline issues that do come up are dealt with by the music teacher and also the form teacher who also sits in on the class. Quite simply I’ve learned some real teaching skills and had a great time. In the last lesson before Easter break, the class asked me to play a song so I decided to ‘Three Little Birds’ and was genuinely surprised that most of them knew it. When I finished, one kid came up and said ‘How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts?’ ‘Jammin’. Best job you can have.

 

 

Ukulele clubs: What makes a good (or bad) one?

U-kew-lele gets their uke on @ The Uke-Academy (rehearsal is the first Monday of every month)

U-kew-lele gets their uke on @ The Uke-Academy (rehearsal is the first Monday of every month)

In the latest edition of the excellent ‘Uke magazine' the editor Matt Warnes (Follow them on Facebook) posed the above question. Despite running a club for the last five years I don’t suppose I’d ever actually tried to crystalize my thoughts on this. For sure I was confident that I’ve always tried to run things as professionally as I could to give me a good night out, but this got me thinking.

How I run U-Kew-Lele at Ritz Music

In running the club in at Ritz Music Richmond (West London) needless to say very keen to try keep it in what is thankfully seen to be the 'good club' category. Our format seems to work and is a bit of hybrid as the first half is an actual more of a structured lesson and the second half more a jam/singalong. 

There’s clearly a great many reasons why a club does or doesn’t quite work, but I think the key to success is some genuine balance in the organiser / attendees dynamic. For instance as a gigging musician with interests playing blues and Americana, I have to be clearly respectful that the majority of the group are keen on a much wider range of songs and genres and also want to have a nice social sing along.

However I do try and keep things nudging along in terms of musicianship so that we're not just playing C, F and G7 all night and people (particular the more advanced players) feel they are also progressing on the instrument. i.e. by learning a blues riff or jazz rhythm strumming technique etc.

The work involved in running ukulele clubs

Alongside that as anyone running a club will know, it takes quite a lot of work to get all the song sheets prepared, dropbox updated, arranging gigs for the group etc so its great when people are supportive on that side too and chip in to spread the load, which is always appreciated. There’s so much to think about in getting what is often a large group (20+) out to a gig (not least the weather for a lot of them!) so all extra help is always gratefully  received!

On the support front, it’s also great that other uke enthusiasts out there in the blogsphere like Barry Maz  (http://www.gotaukulele.com/  @bazmaz_ukulele) who go to such great lengths to write such helpful articles on things like what insurance cover you should have in a band or arranging a gig.

Keep it open

Lastly, from my point of view, keeping things open in terms of it not just being 'all uke' is important. We've had all sorts of other instrumentalists turn up (including one of Johnny Cash's ex harmonica players!) and think they can really add a lot to a club night - particularly in this case when playing Folsome Prison!

Uke, banjolele, sax, mandolin, tenor guitar - you're all welcome in Richmond!

To find out more about joining U-kew-lele

To join us at the next Uke-Academy (the first Monday of every month) check the events calendar