Uke Can Play! Beginning Ukulele for Librarians, Teachers, Parents, and Kids

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There’s a reason I call myself The Loudest Librarian.  My storytimes tend to be a little loud.  One patron even took the time to fill out a comment card complaining, “that librarian’s storytimes could be heard in San Francisco!”  (San Francisco is only about 8 miles away, so that’s not as bad as it sounds).

It’s not so much the reading part that’s loud, although I do encourage the kids to participate as much as I can by having them make animal sounds or chime in on repeated words or phrases in the story.   It’s more that I do a lot of songs.  Often I open the storytime with Raffi’s Shake My Sillies Out, and when we get to the verse, “I’ve got to yawn my sleepies out,” I pretend to fall asleep, the kids yell, “Wake up!” and then I open my eyes in surprise and yell back.  Yes, that’s loud, but it never seems to get old.  For the kids anyway.   I can’t speak for the parents, or that lady at the computer on the other side of the library.

At the end of the storytime, before the craft, I always pull out a box of shakers, drums, and other instruments and we all play along with a song on the CD player.  It’s the kids’ favorite part, and I often get asked, “Is it instrument time yet?”

You might wonder what music and instruments have to do with storytime.  Admittedly, a big justification for me is that the songs sometimes help younger kids, especially toddlers who may have gone off exploring during the book, a chance to refocus and come back in to the group.  If it’s a song or rhyme with motions, like “No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” it gives them a chance to move around.   It also gives them a chance to participate, rather than just being passive listeners.

Beyond those pragmatic reasons though, there’s a great deal of research that suggests that music improves reading skills.  Specifically, it helps children recognize and remember words and the sounds that words are made of (phonemes).  This literature review by Jonathan Boldoc from the University of Ottawa cites numerous studies demonstrating that children who participated in a music class where they learned songs and/or played instruments did significantly better on tests of pre-reading skills than children who did not receive the music instruction.  (There have been countless other studies on music education, citing benefits that include stronger language development, higher IQ, better spatial skills, and higher test scores.  Music instruction may even make kids nicer, more helpful, and better at solving problems.  All of which makes you wonder why music is often one of the first subjects to be cut from schools.)

If one of the primary goals of a library storytime is to help kids grow up to be better readers, it makes sense to include songs and rhymes.  Nursery rhymes are especially important.  In fact, Mem Fox, in her book, Reading Magic, states, “Experts in literacy and child development have discovered that if children know eight nursery rhymes by heart by the time they’re four years old, they’re usually among the best readers by the time they’re eight.”  So even if you’re not comfortable singing, you can still have a tremendous impact by getting kids to clap along to Pat-a-Cake, Pat-a-Cake or Little Miss Muffet.

For years, I did all of the songs in my storytimes without an accompanying instrument.  I had taken guitar lessons years ago, but I never felt confident about my playing skills, and the guitar itself seemed too big and awkward to manage with all the books and puppets I was bringing to storytime (that said, my boss, Thom Ball, does a fantastic job performing storytimes with his guitar, so I know it can be done).

Then I discovered the ukulele.  The ukulele is small and light, and only has four strings.  The strings are nylon, so they don’t bite into your fingers like the steel strings on an acoustic guitar.  And it’s so easy to learn!  At least for playing simple children’s songs.  Most of the standards like The Wheels on the Bus, and The Itsy Bitsy Spider only require two or three chords.  You can even get by with one chord for Row, Row, Row Your Boat and Frere Jacques.  Ukuleles are also fairly inexpensive.  I got my first one for around $50 at a local music shop. (You don’t want to go too cheap though, or you’ll end up with one that constantly goes out of tune).

Admittedly, it took me a while to work up the nerve to bring my ukulele to storytime.  I was still struggling with chord changes, and I wasn’t sure how it would go over.  But, oh, it was worth it to see the kids’ faces when I brought it out.   They were so excited!   I let them take turns giving it a practice strum, and they were mesmerized.

I don’t even remember what song I played that first time, although it must have been one of the three chord songs, maybe The Alphabet Song or Twinkle Twinkle or Baa, Baa, Black Sheep (it’s embarrassing how many years it took me to realize those all have the same tune).  And yes, I made mistakes, but another nice thing about the ukulele is that it’s a fairly quiet instrument, and mistakes tend to be covered up by your voice, especially if the kids are singing too.

Plus the saving grace about playing for children is that they LOVE mistakes!   You can usually tell a new children’s performer (especially a magician), from one whose had a few years on the library and birthday party circuit.  The new magician may perform a fantastic show that moves seamlessly from one amazing trick to another.  The adults are astounded.  The kids are mildly intrigued.  An experienced children’s performer will spend ten minutes trying to blow up a balloon: stretching it and snapping himself on the hand, dropping it on the floor, letting it go before the end is tied up.  And the kids are howling with laughter.  Mistakes are their own magic. But I’m not even sure my mistakes were noticed.  Several parents came up afterwards to ask me how long I had been playing.  I was embarrassed.  “I only know three chords,” I said.  But it’s so rare for people to see a live music performance of any kind nowadays.  A little goes a long way.

Even today, with a few more chords under my belt, I don’t play my ukulele for every song, or even every storytime.  A lot of songs, like The Itsy Bitsy Spider, have motions that require me to have my hands free.  But I have a small repertoire of favorites I like to play: Old MacDonald, Twinkle Twinkle, When Ducks Get Up in the Morning, No More Monkeys Jumping on the Bed (Asheba’s version) and my favorite, Elizabeth Mitchell’s version of Freight Train. Ever since I started playing at storytime, a number of parents and caregivers have told that they’ve gotten their own ukuleles, either for themselves or their kids.  So, even though I know I will never be Jake Shimabukaro or IZ, maybe one of my storytime kids will be.  But in the meantime, I’m having fun.

GETTING STARTED: YOUR FIRST SONG

There are so many videos and resources online that can teach you everything you need to know, step by step, much more clearly than I can.  For example, here’s a very basic video on how to tune your ukulele. The most important thing to learn is how to read chord charts, which are easily found online.  Here’s one from a website called Ukalady.com.   If you have an iPhone, there’s a great app called Guitar Toolkit, which has all the ukulele chords, and also includes a digital tuner and a metronome. Here’s a C chord on a chord chart, and here’s how it looks on the ukulele:

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Imagine that the top of the chart (where the C is) is the end of the fret board, where the tuning pegs are.  The four vertical lines represent the four strings.  The horizontal lines represent the frets, which separate the different notes on each string.  It’s a little confusing, because you have to mentally rotate the chord chart, and imagine it overlaid on the ukulele, with the right side of the chart representing the bottom string.

For the C chord, you’re going to put your finger on the bottom string at the third fret (luckily the third fret has a convenient white dot in the middle, which makes it easy to find).  In order to make chord changes easier, it’s better to use your ring or middle finger, which is going to feel strange at first, but you get used to it.  Then you use your right hand to strum all four strings just over the sound hole. There are lots of ways to strum.  You can curl your fingers loosely, and strum with the nail side of your index, middle, ring and pinkie fingers all together (keeping your hand loose).  Or you can strum with the nail side of your index finger only.  Or you can strum with the fleshy side of your thumb.  Find something that feels natural, and just practice strumming down across the strings, keeping an even rhythm.  

Once you get the hang of this, you are ready to play Row, Row, Row Your Boat.  Here’s what it sounds like:

There you go.  Just one chord.  And it’s a great song for almost any age group.  For babies, you can have them on their parent’s lap, with their parents moving their arms like oars.  For toddlers and older kids, I like to add these two verses: Rock, rock, rock your boat Gently to the shore. And if you see a lion, Don’t forget to roar! (ROAR!!!) Row, row, row your boat Gently down the stream, And if you see an alligator, Don’t forget to scream! (AAAAAAHHHHHH!!) If you want a real challenge for older kids, you can try teaching them how to sing it as a round.

So there you go.  Your first song, which is fun and easy, versatile, and yes, loud! Another one chord song is Are You Sleeping? or Frere Jacques.  For this one, I added an up-strum, by moving my fingers up the bottom strings briefly in between downstrokes.  Here’s what it sounds like:

If you add in one more chord, a G7, you can play The Wheels on the Bus.  Here’s the chord on the chord chart, and what it looks like on the ukulele:

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It’s a little tricky at first to fit all your fingers on the fretboard, and even trickier to switch back and forth between the C and the G7.  It’s good to just practice alternating chords evenly (C   C   G7   G7  C   C  G7  G7) until you get the hang of it.  Then you’re ready for The Wheels on the Bus.  It goes like this:

C                       C                 C                C

The wheels on the bus go round and round

G7                    G7         C                     C

Round and round, round and round.

C                        C            C                    C

The wheels on the bus go round and round

G7             C

All over town.

And here’s what it sounds like:

The Wheels on the Bus is also a fun, versatile song.  You can make the wheels go really fast, or very s-l-o-w, or backwards.  You can have the kids suggest crazy things that might be on the bus: cats, ducks, cell phones, peacocks (but not elephants.  I’m no good at elephant noises).  My favorite is to sing, “The parents on the bus cry, ‘Waah!  Waah!  Waah!” then wait a few seconds for the kids to catch on.

Another two chord song I like with C and G7 is When Ducks Get Up in the Morning.  Here’s how it goes:

C                C                 C       C

When ducks get up in the morning

G7        G7                   C 

They always say, “Good day!”

C               C                C       C

When ducks get up in the morning

G7         G7                  C

They always say, “Good day!”

C            C            C            C

They say, “Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!”

G7          G7                 C

That is what they say.

C             C               C           C

They say, “Quack! Quack! Quack! Quack!”

G7          G7               C

That is what they say.

You can have the kids suggest other animals.  One of my coworkers begins her toddler time with this song, at a library where there are lots of stuffed toys.  The kids are usually holding different animals, and those become the animals for the song.  She always ends with “When kids get up in the morning,” and asks the kids what they say.  (It’s usually, “I’m hungry!”)

Once you learn the basics of chord charts, you can play just about anything.  My favorite ukulele book is The Daily Ukulele: 365 Songs for Better Livin’ by Jim Beloff.  It’s a wonderful collection of songs, including a section of kids songs (Rainbow Connection!), but also songs by the Beatles, Irving Berlin, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, as well as lots of folk music and holiday classics.  The best part is that there’s a chord chart for every song, right at the top of the page.  I love to flip through and play a song at random, and I’ve learned a lot of chords that way.  There’s even a Leap Year edition, with 366 more songs, which is also great.

You can also find an impressive collection of songs with ukulele chord charts for free at DoctorUke.com. Another book I’m enjoying right now is Ukulele Exercises for Dummies.  The text assumes a fair amount of comfort with reading music, although there are audio files provided online to help you understand the exercises.  But it covers a wide range of ukulele skills like different types of strumming patterns, fingerpicking, playing percussively, finger rolls, slides, bends.   It’s fun to just go through a couple of exercises a day.

I hope this is helpful.  If you have any questions, please write them in the comments, and I’ll try my best to find an answer.  If you are a uke player and have suggestions or corrections, please write those in the comments too.  I can use all the help I can get! Happy playing!

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One thought on “Uke Can Play! Beginning Ukulele for Librarians, Teachers, Parents, and Kids

  1. Pingback: How I Use Ukulele at Storytime | Storytime Ukulele

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