Two days with ukuleles

I have ten classes of students (approximately 340 of them) split over two days. We started with our ukuleles on Friday, and as of today, each class has had two days with the ukuleles. I will be gone for the next two days (missing one contact day for each class) as I will attend and present at my state's music education conference [for the record, I live in Wisconsin, but teach in Minnesota–the benefit is that I get to pay income taxes to both states as there is no reciprocity between them].

The first day was spent going over expectations, making the rules extremely clear. Over ten classes, I have had to ask seven students to put their ukulele back–most commonly because they were swinging them around, pretending to hit another student or another object. For the most part, saying “strings down” and having them rest the ukuleles on their strings works–but the “worse” classes struggle more.

Overall, kids are really enjoying the process. I do have about 10 students that openly ask, “Why do we have to do this?” Or, they are already “checked out.” These are the kids that don't want to be in music at all, so it really wouldn't matter what we did. I could take them all to Chuck E. Cheese and they would still complain. What is positive is that the kids I consider singers are all very excited about the ukulele, and they see where I am going with all this–giving them a tool to better understand music, and more importantly, a way to accompany their own singing in the future.

After going through the rules, they chose a ukulele (all are numbered) and then entered their hour, last name, and ukulele number in a Google Form. This has already come in handy as about a dozen kids couldn't remember which ukulele they had from day to day. It will also help us to track damage should it occur. One ukulele already has a chip in it–but I have only heard three drop so far.

After tuning, we went over the parts of the ukulele, strumming (pointer finger with the wrist), how to tune the ukulele, the basic four beat down stroke strum, and only a couple of classes made it to the C chord on the first day.

The biggest problem has been students messing with tuning. I want them to learn how to tune the instruments, and during “practice time” I ask them to come up and learn how to tune. I have a couple of students who seem to simply enjoy de-tuning or over-tuning the instruments. During my prep periods, I make a quick trip through the 54 ukuleles and identify those that are WAY off. It won't take long to track those students down.

My seventh grade classes are filled with very challenging students. I have a lot of students in seventh grade as it is, but even so, I have a disproportionate number of naughty students…many who were kicked out of band and orchestra (even today, my administrator and I talked about how in our middle school model, choir is the dumping ground). Three of our worst students spent most of today's class tuning ukuleles for other students–which seems noble, but they were avoiding learning the skills that were taught. These are the students that we, as teachers, have basically been advised to “leave alone.” So it will be interesting to see how they do when they are asked to test on these concepts–and as I am gone the next two days and had to focus on sub plans, I didn't get a chance to go and check how their tuning went.

[Incidentally, they will be seeing the first 40 minutes of the documentary “The Mighty Uke” in my absence.]

On another note…each of the ukuleles finds itself back in the exact numbered spot each and every hour. I'm amazed by that because my former high school students couldn't seem to put their choir folders in the right slot.

Day two was a review (it allows kids to catch up if they were gone) about parts of the instrument, how to hold, tune, and strum the ukulele, and the four beat downstroke pattern. Then we added (reviewed for a couple of classes) C, and then added F. The rest of the hour…between 5 and 15 minutes depending on the class…students were asked to practice switching between C and F, and to come up and tune.

I expect students to learn these two chords pretty quickly–but I don't expect them to gain fluency in shifting chords very quickly. The next class period will be a review of tuning, C and F, and then putting those chords into a song (London Bridge). I think G will be added in class #4.

At the start of each hour, students do a daily question. When we are using the S-Cubed sight reading method, we use Dale Duncan's questions (or derivatives that I make up) that reinforce the sight singing. As a result, I have made a daily question packet for the ukulele in place of the S-Cubed method. I might also start having the students play the S-Cubed “Forbidden Pattern” game with ukulele single notes (likely C and D) long before we start working on individual notes. I think I will use solfege as we sing and play the notes together.

I am finding that thumb placement is critical for good chords, and that students have the tendency to put their thumbs anywhere on the next OTHER than behind the neck. Students also go to the 4th fret instead of the 3rd fret on C–I'm not sure why. I have been having them make the sign, “OK,” move the “OK” to the third finger, then place their thumb–followed by moving the curved third finger down the first string.

For F, I have found that letting students know that they need both X and Y coordinates helps…they need to know Y (fret) and X (string) to properly place a finger. I also keep encouraging the proper placement of the thumb, and ask them to make sure they are making a claw, or a really good “Bunny Foo Foo” with their fingers, to keep them from being flat and deadening the sound.

A lot of kids also like to put their fingers right ON the fret band instead of above, even when you work with them individually.

Depending on the class (some students cannot stay in their seats if I am working around a large class helping individual students), I try to get around to each student as we learn the chord, and then I have us strum them together. I surprise the class with the F Chord, asking them to switch to C in the middle. I also ask them to turn to the students next to them from time to time to check each other's chords. One boy who was completely lost (he doesn't pay attention) was getting a lot of coaching from the girl next to him. It is awesome when they can help each other.

Using the app ChordTunes, I made two lines of chord changes for them to practice with. One simply rotates between C and F, the other switches it up a little.

The students have been asking how long we'll do this–and I answer honestly that it depends. We might continue through our little break (we fire up choir music again at the beginning of March) or we might keep playing part of the hour through the rest of the year. It depends on how many kids check out and keep us from moving forward. Wouldn't it be awesome to have a fully embedded choir and ukulele program at the same time? If we can do that, the potential musicianship of these kids will explode. That said, kids at this school have the tendency to quit when the going gets tough–and that happens any time practice or additional work is required (not for all the kids, but for a large majority). With the ukulele, that means as soon as we add more than three chords, I am afraid. I hope I am wrong.

What is interesting is that these kids would happily strum the ukuleles on open strings (C6) for the entire class period without complaining. That would bore me in minutes. They don't like strumming with their pointer finger and beg to use their thumb (I try to tell them that they need to be able to do both). If I don't tell them to strum with their right hand, some try to strum with their left hand while FORMING chords. That simply amazes me–I don't know how they think of that. Of course, there are a few kids that just don't “get it.” I look forward to trying to work with them to “get it.” Most of those kids won't make the effort to come in for extra help, through.

I will keep updates going about the project.


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