Teaching Ukulele

Apr 4, 2014

Last fall, quite unexpectedly, I became a guitar teacher.  The director of a local music program contacted me and said, Our guitar teacher just left town.  Can you fill in for him?  Next thing I knew I was presented with a roster of seven students, five of whom had never played the instrument before.  And ten days to prepare.

Like any new teacher, I had a pretty rough start.  I spent hours in a self-imposed crash-course, honing my chops on Sweet Child O Mine, Thunderstruck, and Hot Cross Buns.  I pulled together charts and diagrams.  Watched videos.  Asked fellow-teachers for advice.

Even so, I was hardly prepared for the repeated terror of facing a seven-year-old clutching a brand new student guitar.  Especially when the guitar was bigger than the seven-year-old.  And very quickly, that became my big question:  How do you teach a student with tiny hands to play an instrument that's just too big for them right now?  Remember how it would feel when you were young to try and reach something on a kitchen counter when you were too short?  That's what it felt like for these kids to play Amazing Grace.  They would reach - they just couldn't get there.  It was frustrating - and over the weeks, we were all getting discouraged.

But then something amazing happened.  The day after Thanksgiving, in the big sales, I found a store selling brightly-colored ukuleles for $25 each.  On a whim, I bought two - one pink and one blue.  And in that moment, my world changed.  The Ukulele!

The soprano uke is a thing of beauty.  Smaller than a tennis racket, and with considerably fewer strings.  Easy for a child to hold and play, yet also capable of amazing musical feats in the hands of an adult virtuoso.  It's an instrument you can grow into, literally.

Within a week, I was up and running with a slew of new teaching materials - simple songs with fun arrangements.   And I had ordered two more ukes for the herd - a yellow one and a green one.  Thus equipped with my new rainbow coalition, I plunged back into the fray.

In early December, I presented my younger students with ukes to try.  One took the pink uke, and named it Pinky.  The yellow one went next, and was named Ralph.  I kept the blue uke, now known as Blueberry.  I don't think the green one got a name, but it got played regularly.

We started simply.  On a uke, you can play a C chord with just one finger.  And lots of chords with just two fingers.  It was a revelation. All of a sudden, these kids who could barely see over a guitar just a month ago, were holding an instrument comfortably and playing music. 

My very youngest student was still a bit unsure of where to put her fingers.  We decided to fix the problem with stickers.  We put colored stars on her uke fingerboard to remind her fingers where to go for different chords.  Then we put stickers of the same color on her sheet music for every chord change.  Blue for C, Pink for F, Yellow for D.  And so on.  Let's pretend that I'm a doctor, and we're doing surgery on this music, she told me.   Yellow, she called - I handed her a yellow.  Blue - I gave her a blue.  We're losing her - Pink, stat!  And so we progressed, until we had saved the life of "This Land Is Your Land."

Hey, if you can paint by numbers, why not play by stickers?  It worked for this kid.

What I have loved is the way these youngsters have caught a love of music, and of playing along, through these cheerful little ukuleles.  As their hands grow, these students are discovering that the skills they are learning along the way - chord shapes, strumming patterns, counting - all translate right back to the guitar.  None of this has been wasted time, and we've had a ball.

This first year of teaching has been a revelation.  It has made me incredibly grateful for the good teachers I have had in my life.  I have found that I love my students - I think they are fantastic young people.  I have also discovered the truth that teachers often learn as much as their students. 

Most surprising of all, I have fallen in love with the ukulele.  Last week, I bought another one - this time with a smiley face painted on it - ready for my next student.  Bring it on!

Give me a ukulele, and a kid, and I will change the world.