Arts Education, Experiential Learning

Ukulele in the Classroom

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Ukulele in the Classroom

By Martha Beach

Canadian musician Melanie Doane leads a Ukulele in the Classroom lesson. The grade three students are perched on the edges of their plastic chairs, clutching ukuleles, and looking at the music books set on stands in front of them. For many, this is the first opportunity they’ve had to hold a real instrument. Doane, Halifax-born and now based in Toronto, plays a multitude of instruments, but today she focuses on the ukulele, a mini guitar lookalike with four strings. Melanie leads the students as they pluck Twinkle,Twinkle Little Star. A melody begins and students observe as Melanie strums chords. By the end of the class, half the students are plucking and the other half is strumming. This grade three class is making music.

Making music with a ukulele is a great group learning experience. Classes as young as grade three can learn the elements of music. Ukuleles are a good size and price, and they contain levels of complexity. A ukulele is also easy to carry and just the right size for little hands. A basic ukulele is roughly $40 and, unlike a recorder, a ukulele has layers of intricacy that are ideal for group learning. “It’s a springboard into music,” says Melanie.

Ukulele in the Classroom is based on a program originally created by Melanie’s father, Chalmers Doane. A few years ago, fellow Canadian musician James Hill relaunched it. Since then, he and Melanie have instructed and certified educators across Canada to teach the course. “We don’t want an army of ukulele players,” Melanie says. “But it’s an attractive, affordable, easy way to learn music.” The ukulele is relatively new (it is less than 150 years old, compared to the 2,000-year-old violin) and while it lost the spotlight for a couple of decades, it’s making a comeback in contemporary music and in the classroom.

Melanie’s father Chalmers, an East Coast musician, now teaches and performs close to his home in Brookfield, Nova Scotia. He plays more than ten instruments including the trombone, banjo, saxophone, xylophone, and of course, the ukulele. Chalmers spent the 1960s and 70s performing across Canada. He found the ukulele perfect for young children and pioneered an instruction method. In the span of a decade, Chalmers certified 150 people to teach the program, but that’s not enough spread over ten provinces and three territories. Chalmers could only train so many. The program fell out of fashion, until Hill revisited it.

Hill relaunched the Ukulele in the Classroom certification program three years ago. But to Hill, it’s not a re-launch. “In my view, it never really went away,” he says. Originally from Langley, British Columbia, Hill now lives close to Chalmers in Nova Scotia. The two men coauthored a book series about the method. “It wasn’t so much a rescue project as natural progression. It seemed to me there was a window of opportunity to connect with the generation that started the project,” says Hill. He is quick to point out that today’s program is based on Chalmers’ method from the 60s. “I really appreciate the couple of generations before me,” says Hill, who is in his 30s.

Hill notices the ukulele leaking into the pop culture of today’s generation. It turns up in radio tunes like Hey Soul Sister by Train, You and I by Ingrid Michaelson, and I’m Yours by Jason Mraz. “Suddenly we don’t even have to convince the students to play it. You don’t have to sell it,” he says. “It’s like broccoli that they want to eat,” he says. Playing the ukulele is now cool.

Melanie started music lessons at the age of three. She wanted her own young kids to learn an instrument. Three years ago she started teaching Ukulele in the Classroom at her children’s school. “Once I started it there, I realized it was just as much work to do a lesson plan and all that for one school as it was for ten schools,” says Melanie. Her involvement in the program grew. Now Melanie and others on her team provide lessons at lunch hour or after school to students all over the city in the Toronto District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, and private schools.

“My job is to make sure that it’s a really successful, fun class,” Melanie says. She starts with easy songs so that everyone can make music. “If you’re not making music, there’s no point,” Chalmers says. Melanie agrees. “Because you can make music, it is so exciting to teach it,” she says. Music education is about learning all the elements: beats, notes, fractions, and more. The three basic parts of music (melody, harmony, and rhythm) can easily be broken down with the ukulele. Children who learn at different rates can all play the same song because it can be taught in several layers. Some kids play the song in a simple way by plucking individual notes, and others play in a more complicated way by strumming chords. “In an ensemble, there are different tiers of learning and layers of things to teach,” says Melanie. “It’s pretty complex for such a small, affordable instrument.”

Ukulele in the Classroom is designed as a step-by-step exploration of music. “Using this method we can create musicians,” Melanie says. Becoming a certified trainer is tough work. The course begins with a two-day, in-person program and continues as a correspondence course for nine months. “It takes teachers a number of months to sink their teeth in,” Hills says.

The program is designed to avoid the beginner’s plateau. The learning curve of a ukulele is soft at first. “It’s like an elevator and you can’t feel yourself going up,” says Hill. “But that gentle, warm, learning curve levels off and students hit a plateau. Then you need good material and pedagogy to get past that second floor. And there are 100 floors!” It takes commitment to get past the second floor.

It’s not for everyone, however. “If you’re not a music educator, you’re going to have some trouble,” Melanie says. “You need the training so you can succeed.” A teacher’s success and student success stems from enthusiasm. “You can tell [who] the teachers [are] who love their subjects,” says Sarah Lapp, cello player and Toronto-based teacher of 20 years. She recognizes the importance of music and uses it every day as a teaching tool.

Many kids do not have access to instruments or live music, so bringing that into a school is important. “Somebody has got to push it. A parent or a teacher has to really push it,” says Lapp. Melanie agrees music is a necessary element for many children. “Kids who really need music in their life just grab on to it,” says Melanie.

Ukulele in the Classroom is just beginning to get big. “My goal is to ultimately have all of the players near each other so they can do jam sessions,” Melanie says. She also hopes to lead a senior ukulele ensemble with grade seven students who want to continue to play. Continuation is critical. “The measure of success with regard to teaching ukulele or any instrument is whether students continue to play,” Chalmers says. “We’ve taught thousands of kids and we’ve heard lots of stories of people who go on to play other instruments or sing in a choir.” If a person is serious about creating music they will do so, professionally or for fun.

The ukulele is fun, affordable, and kid-friendly. It’s also wonderfully elaborate. “People look at the ukulele and they see fun. But they don’t see the depth of the instrument and how broad it can be,” Hill says. “It’s real fun. The fun of connecting with people through music.”

Martha Beach is a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.

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