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!
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!
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.
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!