Confessions: Ukulele and Guitar

One of the results of my experience with graduate school is that I have become more of a music educator than a “pure” choral musician. While I still love choral music and miss working with high level choirs, I find myself at a place in life (professionally) where I care about what students know and can do, perhaps even more than how well they sing. This can be blasphemy to many “pure” choral educators.

My current teaching “gig” also has stretched my philosophy of music education. As I have stated in the past, music is required in our middle school. We have no general music class, so if students aren't in band or orchestra, they are in choir. Students that don't make it in band and orchestra also end up in choir. As a result, I get a mixture of students that want to be in choir, and those that are forced to be there. This wouldn't be a bad thing if students that didn't want to be in choir would simply go with the flow. Many do–but there are a number of students, the high flyers throughout the school, that seem to thrive on disrupting classes. Choir gets nearly all of these students, as does Physical Education and Art. There is a clear message in our school that our classes “don't really matter,” sometimes even from other teachers in the building.

So yeah, teaching is tough in the environment. I knew this coming in–but I was foolish enough to think that I could make a difference. Three years in, and although I have restored order to a program that had lost order, there is a point at which–regardless of how hard you work–things aren't going to get any better.

Even with the tough job, I don't stop trying to give our students different experiences–and I don't shy away from focusing on our state standards. When our district adopted the middle school model, music moved to an every-other-day subject, flipping with Physical Education. The middle schools then scaled back the number of concerts from three per year (one per trimester) to two per year, based on the loss of rehearsal time (extra-curricular pay was scaled back at about the same time).

What this means is that we have a gap in the middle of the year where there is no pressing concert, and you really wouldn't want to work on music for May in January, as the music would tire out long before the snow thawed.

In the past years, I have held an annual composition project (look at the NotateMe projects from the past), as well as had students help find music for the spring concert.

This year, I have expanded the “music search” project to meet a few more state standards (focusing on genre and functions of music in addition to selecting repertoire). I am shortening the composition project and trying, having students write choral warm-ups. And we are going to do a ukulele unit.

Yes, our Title I school in a generally underfunded district (although we did pass an operating levy AND we are building a new school to replace my current school) is going to have a ukulele unit. Not a single cent is being provided by the district, even though I did ask for support (I didn't ask my own principal, because I know the budget has no wiggle room).

We hold a few fundraisers each year. We sell a local set of restaurant cards in the fall, and coffee/chocolate right before the holidays. I sell lollipops from the choir office before school (Ozark Delights), and kids stop in before and after school to buy them (Did you catch that? They come to me). And we collect, very causally, donations at our concerts. With about 320 performing students, we take in between $200 and $350 at a concert. I used some of this money to buy 25 ukuleles, and parents have donated money for us to buy another 30 (My largest class size is 53).

Ukuleles have become an interest of mine in the past six months. I never really paid attention to the ukulele (and considered it a toy like many people and musicians). However, I kept seeing articles about ukuleles and education. I decided to buy a few ukuleles in October to see how they would hold up in our school environment, and I was hooked. I just watched the documentary “The Mighty Uke,” and I am even FURTHER hooked!

I am not a great guitar player. I like guitar a lot and I love my JamStik. I think guitar should be offered at every high school (I really do–and wouldn't mind seeing it being offered via the JamStik even in independent study cases). I have taught guitar at the high school level with success.

The ukulele offers a whole different experience than the guitar. With its four nylon strings, small size, and small cost, it isn't threatening at all. While I am nowhere near a ukulele expert, I was playing songs on one of the school's ukuleles within minutes of picking it up. I think I could get good at it. And while I have had methods classes involving nearly every instrument–I don't think my skills are that far above any other person's.

What I found out about the ukulele, after doing some research, is that you can get into one very cheap, there are a ton of free resources on the web (from music to videos), and that it isn't a toy–it is a real instrument. There are true virtuosos of the ukulele. It doesn't hurt that the ukulele is incredibly popular in folk music right now, either.

I'm kind of hooked, and I think my students will be, too. The other day one of my worst students asked to hold and look at a ukulele–and I very hesitantly handed one over to him. I was afraid that he would smash it (this wouldn't be out of the question). Instead, he held it very gently and examined it closely before handing it back to me. I was shocked–it was a bit like experiencing the ending of the “Greatest Christmas Pagent Ever” in person.

Granted, there will be challenges ahead. While true of all students, students at our school are exceptionally talented at giving up on things once hard work and commitment are concerned. There is a point where the ukulele will require work (changing chords, for example). But I am hoping the instant playability of the ukulele will translate to a new experience with our students.

Do I want choir to turn into full-time ukulele class? No, of course not. First of all, we follow Dale Duncan's S-Cubed sight reading method every day (except for concert week). Second, we will get to our spring music eventually (the goal is the beginning of March). At the same time, one of the other qualities of ukulele is that people usually SING with them. So we will be doing that, too–and may even have a chorus of ukulele players accompany one of our songs in the spring concert. And on any day that gets weird (shortened schedules, large number of kids gone for an activity), we can pull the ukuleles off the wall and get playing.

And I'm already thinking that with only 4 strings, and soft nylon strings, ukuleles are a better match for middle school than guitar. While the exact chords may not translate to guitar, the interaction with frets and finger positions would allow many students to transfer to the guitar at a later time (sadly, our high schools do not offer guitar any longer now that I am no longer in a high school position).

We will be hanging the ukuleles in the back of the choir room off of 2x4s. We have about 40 feet of back wall space, which is split by an electrical conduit (the room was built with 2 outlets, and sometime they added a few more with conduit). So I can do two 18-foot runs of 2×4's. Menards sells “U” tool hooks (2 for $1.50) that can be screwed into the 2x4s to hold ukuleles. Each ukulele requires 8″ of space (giving it plenty of side room), meaning that I can hang 54 ukuleles, and have one ukulele to spare. I am buying the 2x4s (two 10 foot, two 8 foot), and our awesome custodian will mount those to the concrete wall for me (I don't have a hammer drill). Then I'll do the drilling and installation of the U tool hooks. For less than $100, we will have a very functional ukulele storage system, which could be painted at a later date.

As for the ukuleles, I am convinced that Kala makes the nicest entry level ukuleles, although I am far from an expert. That said, the Kala Sopranos start at $55, which was out of our budget. As a result, we are going with Mahalo MK1 models–which have been $26 each (plus tax) or less from Amazon. I ordered them on back order, and most of them are arriving in the next two days. The four “trial” MK1s have held up well, and after a few days of string stretching, have held up their tuning. I am also thinking about buying a large humidifier for the choir room (in Minnesota, we only really need it in the winter months). The entire cost of all 55 ukuleles will be less than $1,500–significantly less than many individual large band instruments!

[Side note: Amazon has had crazy pricing. Last week the MK-1 was $23.26. Eariier today it was $24.75. Right now, it shows as $36.69. Before Christmas break, they were $37 each. We still have 6 ukuleles to order–waiting for money to come in from parents–and $12 per ukulele is a huge difference.]

I had vinyl decals of the choir logo made last year, and we will put those decals on the back of each ukulele, and each will be numbered as well.

The only eventual need will be replacement strings for the ukuleles, which are slightly less than $10 each. So at some point, we'll need another $500 for strings–which may be an annual cost.

How often have you brought a potential program-changing project to your students for less than $2000?

So…my confession is that we're going to be using ukuleles in choir. In the process we will be meeting state and national standards–and we'll be singing choral lit (eventually) and singing along with the ukuleles; and we might just hook a few more kids into “music” for their lifetime, even if they normally hate choir.

I can live with that.

I'll be sure to let you know how it goes.

P.S. I stopped by our local music store tonight and they had a Kala Concert Banjo Ukulele in stock. I immediately fell in love. I don't think a musical instrument has ever called to me like this–the only thing I can compare it to is the draw that Apple products have for me, and if you know me, that's a strong statement. I already have the Kala MK-CE coming for my use; how do I make an extra $300 to buy a banjo ukulele?





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