Because of my touring schedule out West I had a very short window of time with the students. I worked with each of five classes (grades 4-8) twice; I arrived Tuesday with twenty-four E755T soprano ukuleles from Empire Music and a handful of songs. On Thursday afternoon, students from the grade 4, 5, 7, and 8 classes performed two songs for their entire school, including one song translated by the students into the Innu-aimun language.
There were many challenges and lessons learned along the way. In spite of cultural barriers and understandably heightened teen- and pre-teen restlessness, I was able to teach students how to hold the instrument, how to pick the open strings, how to pick simple ostinatos, how to strum two or three chords and how to sing at least two songs. The grade 8 class also created their own verse to All Night Long using a template-style "directed creativity" process.
In point form, here are three lessons that I learned:
I had suspected this for a long time but my recent experience has convinced me that Low-4th tuning doesn't work on soprano-sized instruments unless a wound 4th string is used (recommended gauge is between 0.026" and 0.030"). The nylon low-4th string works in D6 tuning because the tension on the 4th string is higher. In Sheshatshiu, I opted to teach in high-4th tuning because ArtsCan Circle had already established the use of C6 tuning in their programs, because high-4th tuning tends to be a more "forgiving" tuning for beginners and because I didn't have any wound strings with me.
Line 'em up!
Jamie Thomas has long been a proponent of friction peg tuners and I finally became convinced that - in the classroom context - they are better than machine heads because 1) they make tuning much faster once you get used to them 2) they're easy to replace if/when they break 3) pegs can be used to hang ukes from the white/blackboard ledge (see photo, right).
The grade 6 classes (combined) were especially challenging for a number of reasons that I won't go into. Suffice it to say that it was the most extreme teaching situation I've encountered and I really had to think on my feet. My bias is toward hands-on teaching and that was my goal. However, when that wasn't working I reverted to a more "show-and-tell" style in order to keep students' attention. My trump card - something I discovered quite by accident - was rock guitar riffs. This goes against much of my teaching philosophy but, frankly, I was desperate. While the irony may be staggering, the only thing that seemed to inspire this class of Innu youth was hearing AC/DC and Metallica riffs played on the ukulele. Note to teachers in challenging learning environments: learn to play a few rock licks. There may be moments when it's the only leg you have to stand on. Do whatever it takes to inspire them to pick up the instrument and play. Once they're "into it," try to steer them gently toward your chosen curriculum.
Do you teach a ukulele group? Are you a student in a ukulele class? If so, send us an update on your activities: what you've learned recently and what you're learning now. Make sure to include your name and location.