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Playing on Day 1: How I Start My Ukulele Players

I love the beginning of a new semester. As a middle school teacher, I am able to offer a ukulele elective every semester. Students who sign up are a mixed bunch; some are my students from my Middle School Chorus or other ensembles. This is the group that call themselves "music kids." Others who sign up are students that I've only seen in the halls of our very small school. Within the first 10 minutes of class, every single one of them is playing a song on the uke. This is not by chance and not because they are ukulele prodigies (they definitely are not); it's because of my own teaching philosophy and what I've learned from exploring popular music education.

Here's my process:

1. Instrument in hand in the first moments of class

The moment my students walk into my room on the first day of class, I hand them a ukulele. I show them how to hold it (neck in left hand, body on lap, right hand strums) and invite them to start strumming. It's a cacophony of sound but putting an instrument in their hands in the first 30 seconds is critical. Instant engagement – an interest in the ukulele is why they signed up for the class, and putting one in their hands catches their attention and let's them know that we'll actually be playing today instead of reading a syllabus.

2. Start with a chord

Next step is to teach them a chord. I put up a chord chart on the projector and tell them, "These represent the frets and strings of the instrument in your hand." I then show them on my uke how to place a finger for the C chord and check each student to make sure they found the right place. Then we all play together. I introduce the most basic of strumming patterns: Down, Down, Down, Down. It's a four quarter-note pattern, but they don't have to know that yet. They just want to play.

3. We all play together

Final step is one of my favorite videos of the semester, "Lime in the Coconut" with Kermit the Frog. You can find this fabulous video here. I put it on and we all play together for the whole song. Sometimes I call out a new strumming pattern half way through: Down Wait Down Wait. It's a quarter note, quarter rest alternating pattern but again, they don't know that yet.

4. "You are all amazing!"

My favorite part of the class comes at the end of the video. I look at all of them and congratulate them for playing their first song in the first 10 minutes of class; I tell them how sensational they all are at the ukulele and how we're ready to move on to more! They all congratulate each other and ask what song is next. They ask to play the song again. They ask for more chords. They can't get enough!

Why I do it this way

The concept of "instant success" is something I learned from Bryan Powell of the organization, Little Kids Rock. Instant success with a song they might have heard before is critical to keeping them engaged and committed throughout the learning process. For my room full of middle school students, they say to themselves 'Man, if I could play a song in 10 minutes, imagine where I'll be by the next class. I can do this!'

My students leave the first class and tell all their friends how awesome they are on the ukulele; this self-confidence is huge for anyone learning a new instrument but especially for middle school students who often struggle with self image and self confidence. The more I build up their confidence, they more determined they become to practice and get better. When things start to get harder, they are far more resilient to failure and determined to make it work. They practice more, and they get better.

I promise, I do get to teaching them the music theory and all of the other important concepts. Over the course of the semester, we talk about what makes up a chord, we read standard notation, we talk about chordal functions, we read tabs, and we compose. All of this is slipped in to lots of playing time. They learn the theory from hearing it and playing it, not just from me standing and telling them.

Where are we now

We are now in the end of Week 1 of the semester, and I have had three classes with my ukulele kids. They have now learned a total of four chords, they have read rhythm patterns in standard notation, and they have discussed, at length, the typical I V vi IV chord pattern and all the songs they know where this is used. They are working independently on songs of their choosing that use C, G, A minor, and F; they are singing and playing non-stop, and they groan when I tell them have to stop and go to their next class. I haven't had a single discipline issue in the class. They love playing the uke and they feel they have been successful in their first week. They are looking forward to next week when they will each record their own song with both vocals and chords changes. I've got them hooked and all they want to do is spend time making music. If they're playing all this now, just imagine what they'll be able to do in June.

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