The ukulele is the Tom Cruise of musical instruments: small in size, but mighty in stature. Undergoing something of a renaissance in recent years due to bearded Indie bands and inane yellow cartoon characters, this plucky instrument has also established itself as a firm favourite in the classroom. Music shops sell about 250,000 ukuleles a year in the UK, with a huge number of these being delivered to schools. It is easy to see why.
Being small, brightly coloured and easy to play, the mighty ukulele is an ideal first step on the road to musical enlightenment. It sounds wonderful played solo or in a large group. Perfect for wowing the crowds in assemblies or school concerts. Follow this handy guide to get started…
You will need an armoury of ukuleles. Luckily for your school’s music budget, they are amongst the cheapest instruments you can buy. A decent one can be picked up for little more than a tenner. Mahala and Malaka are decent brands, which seem to stay in tune more easily. Try to order enough for one between two at least. Go for a range of colours and designs that will appeal to the boys, girls and Spongebob Squarepants fanatics in your class.
The top string on a ukulele is tuned higher than the others. This lends it the famous sing-song quality you will have heard on Hawaiian lullabies and cloying adverts for mobile phone companies. The first string should be tuned to a high G, then the others to a lower C, E, and A. Teach your class to do this using the mnemonic Good Children Eat Apples. Generations of children have learned to sing the tones of these open strings by singing the words ‘My Dog has fleas’ as they are plucked, though no one seems to knows why. My dog would never stand for such slander.
Demonstrate the correct posture – stand up straight and hold the ukulele against your chest, pinning it underneath the elbow of your strumming hand. Don’t be concerned about how small a ukulele looks on an adult. I am 6ft 3, and I look ridiculous when I play. This is all part of the instrument’s diminutive charm and bulldog spirit. Besides, the naysayers will be silenced when you start to play. In essence, you should be trying to pull off the effortless glamour and joie de vivre of Elvis in the photograph below. Shorts are optional.
Your First Song
In the first lesson, go over the ground rules and spend some time plucking the open strings, creating a pleasing South Sea wall of sound. Have a go at playing quietly, and then loudly, strumming a C chord in time with a tambourine. At this point you will inevitably attract the attention of passers-by and neighbouring classes, who may start banging on the walls in a show of support.
Hand out the chords and lyrics for a song you know your class will love, be it a Disney singalong or Ed Sheeran ballad. There is no need to wait until everyone has mastered every chord, just dive in and see what happens. The wonderful thing about playing the ukulele in a large ensemble is that mistakes and wrong notes go largely unnoticed, and can even add to the enjoyment. The same cannot usually be said for listening to novices on the trumpet or violin.
How much more enjoyable than the usual hellish routine of trying to get a tune out of a squeaky plastic recorder… In marked contrast, the novice who picks up a ukulele for the first time will be stunned at the ease with which they are able to start making a joyous noise. With only one finger on the fret board, newcomers can be strumming a C or an A minor chord in minutes. Put them together and you’re playing the start of doo-wop classic ‘Stand By Me’.
The seven year olds in your class will be delighted to know they can play Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off with only three chords (C, Am and G). He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands requires two chords, as does David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel. Teach your class the chords below, and voila! The entire repertoire of popular music is now at their fingertips.
Be merciless with people playing when they shouldn’t be. Don’t be tempted to play with a guitar pick. Try to keep it pacy and fun, and know what you want to achieve by the end of a session. That’s all there is to it, your class has just learned to play the ukulele.
Uke Can Do It!
Where you go from here is up to you. At Hazlegrove, we started our ukulele group in the autumn term, and began by learning Christmas carols. Away in a Manger and Silent Night sound lovely when plucked in 3/4 time, to the accompaniment of carol singers and a roaring fire. Triangles and bells all add to the festive sound.
At a recent concert, the ukulele group played Joy to the World, and were joined for the final verse by a fanfare of brass and percussion from the school band. A handful of brave teachers joined the throng, and our Headmaster even played along for a song or two. Instant ukulele camaraderie!
You will find that children bring in their own songs printed from the internet, or form their own ukulele bands to play in talent shows and the like. They also make for an ideal Christmas present; you can expect to be tuning new ukuleles for your children well into the New Year. Last year I had a child bring in a marvellous Union Jack uke, who proceeded to play God Save the Queen to the huge delight of the class.
I think every school should have a ukulele band. Bring some island spirit into your dark school corridors this winter, and banish the gloom with this cheery joymaker. Don’t let the Hawaiians or those little yellow minions have all the fun. Get your class strumming, and start a ukulele revolution in your classroom today!
Ukulele for Dummies by Alistair Wood
School Ukulele Orchestra by Tim Lewis
The Ukulele Handbook by Tom Hodgkinson and Gavin Pretor-Pinney