Yesterday, my coworker Nicol Cassidy-White and I led our first ukulele workshop at the library. We had advertised it for kids aged 5-10 and their parents, and required registration to keep the group small.
Most of the kids brought their own ukuleles, but we had a few to lend out to those who didn’t, thanks to a grant from the Mockingbird Foundation, a wonderful volunteer-run foundation for music education (it was founded by fans of the band Phish). I had originally asked Mockingbird for $300 to buy new rhythm instruments for the kids to play at musical storytime, since our old instruments had gotten ragged and broken. To my surprise, they actually gave us $500, enough to buy 6 ukuleles with cases, which we are hoping to use for future classes and possibly even lend out to library patrons.
Our class consisted of 9 kids and a few parents who actively helped their children. They covered our whole age span: one five year-old, one six, three seven year-olds, an eight year-old, two nine year-olds, and one ten year-old. As you can imagine, our class was a bit, well, loud, especially in our tiny library. In between exercises, there was a lot of random strumming, so we started using the command “Ukes Up!” and holding our ukes upright in front of us whenever we were explaining the next step.
Here was the structure for our class:
TUNING AND BASICS:
As soon as we had the group all together in a circle, we did a brief overview of the parts of the ukulele (body, fretboard, tuning pegs). We asked the kids if they knew why the strings made noise, and had them strum a string and watch it vibrate. We talked about the hole in the body and why it was there (I had them sing into the hole so they could hear how it made their voices louder). And then we talked about the tuning pegs, and how they made the strings tighter (and the sound higher) or looser (and lower).
After that, Nicol and I went around the circle to help everyone tune up. This took a little while. Nicol had a ukulele tuner, and I had the GuitarToolkit app on my iPhone (I love this app, by the way. It comes with a digital tuner, a metronome, and diagrams for all of the guitar and ukulele chords). When everyone was tuned up, we had them play the open strings to hear how each note sounded, and that this made a tune called “My Dog Has Fleas.” I also told them the names of the notes for each string (from the top string to the bottom: G C E A), and that I remember them with the silly phrase, “Good Cats Eat Apples.” (I should probably come up with something that makes more sense, like Great Cockroaches Eat Anything).
We also talked about the different ways of holding the uke: either down in your lap, or close to your chest. We showed them how to cup the fretboard in their open left hands, with their right hands coming across the sound board. We actually had two left-handed kids in the group, a statistical anomaly (but then both my kids are left-handed, and my husband and I are righties, so go figure). This definitely made it harder for them to play, and I suggested that they get their ukes restrung upside down at a local music store.
Earlier this summer, when I was showing my son how to play the ukulele, he complained about the strings hurting his fingers when he strummed. For the class, I ordered some felt picks from Amazon.com, and handed them out to the kids. Many of them opted to use the pick for the rest of the class, although we did show them all the different ways to strum otherwise: with the fleshy part of their thumb, or their index fingers. I often use all of my fingers.
We talked about how you can strum down across the strings, or up, or alternate between the two. And then we had them practice strumming together as a group. I was surprised at how quickly they picked this up. (I volunteer to teach music at my son’s school, and getting the class to play anything together is usually the hardest part).
After practicing strumming together, it was time to talk about chords. I explained that chords are two or more notes that are played at the same time, and that most chords on the ukulele are made of four notes, because of the four strings. Then we showed the kids how to hold their fingers on the fretboard to make a C chord. We had little white dot stickers to put on the spot where their fingers should go.
For the C chord, you usually hold your ring finger on the third fret of the bottom string. This is obviously really hard for kids to do, since they don’t usually use their ring fingers independently. I showed them a trick I learned from Alfred’s Kid’s Ukulele Course 1, which suggests that you can put your index finger on the first fret, and your middle finger on the second, to give your ring finger more support on the third. Mostly though, we just let the kids hold the note however it felt the most comfortable (a lot of them used their index or middle fingers).
There are lots of songs you can play with just the C chord. We had them try three: Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Are You Sleeping? (Frère Jacques), and The Itsy Bitsy Spider (Nicol had the great idea to have them play the Itsy Bitsy Spider softly at first. Then we did the Great Big Hairy Spider, and had them play loudly). Again, I was really surprised at how well this went. Yes, some of them were having a hard time holding the note, and many of the ukes (being new) were slipping out of tune by this point. But for the most part, they were strumming together and singing.
At this point, we had been going for about 40 minutes, and I could see that some of the kids were starting to lose focus. I wanted them to have some idea of where to go from this point though, so we showed them how to read a chord chart, by imagining that the ukulele is standing upright, and lining up the chart with the strings to see where their fingers should go. For example, here is the chord chart for a C chord:
We briefly showed them how to make an F chord, which was really hard, especially for the younger kids with small hands, since they have to reach all the way to the top string. For the five year-old, I suggested that his dad hold the chord while he strummed. A few of the older kids were able to manage it on their own.
Everything is awesome!
F C F
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team.
F C F C
Everything is awesome when we’re living our dream.
Admittedly, this part of the class sounded less than awesome. The chords themselves are challenging, and switching between them even more so, but at least it gave them the general idea. (In retrospect, it might have been easier for them to learn G7, and play something like The Wheels on the Bus, but I was kind of hoping to use something current and popular).
So that was the end of our class, although one 7 year-old, who was the only one with experience playing, asked it she could perform a song, and she did! She sang Go Tell Aunt Rhody, which she played with F and C7 (C7 is actually even easier than C, because you put your index finger on the first fret of the bottom string). I thought she did really well, and told her it took me years to work up the nerve to play my ukulele in front of a group, which is true.
We sent them home with their picks, and a handout I made up (you can print it from here: BEGINNING UKULELE (.doc) or BEGINNING UKULELE (.pdf, along with a chord chart of 8 basic chords from ukulele-chords.com. We also had them fill out a contact sheet to be notified of future classes. In the future, we are hoping to offer four-week sessions for very small groups (no more than 4 at a time), and group them by age (kids, tweens, teens, and adults).
Overall I was happy and relieved with how well the class went, since I had no idea how much kids under the age of 10 could pick up in one class. But I was really pleased with how receptive the kids were, and how hard they tried, especially on a sunny, summer Saturday afternoon. I’m excited about teaching more, and supporting the Ukulele Revolution! (Ukuleles are everywhere nowadays. If you don’t believe me, just listen to the music on most TV commercials). Plus, I just read an article yesterday about all of the many positives ways learning an instrument affects the developing brain: http://commonhealth.wbur.org/2014/07/music-language-brain.
I’ll leave you with a joke that one of the boys described to the class (I found this cartoon version later on Modern Life Is Awesome):
If you have any questions or suggestions, please write them in the comments below. In the meantime, happy playing!