Monday, 8 September 2014

Uke Till You Puke

Hands up, who's sick of the ukulele?
Good, that's all of you, so I will go on.

It seems that these days, I can't go through town without being aurally assaulted by a godawful Flash Mob of ukulelists, keen to let me hear their rendition of "Bring Me Sunshine" and "I'm Yours".  To which I'd like to reply "bring Me a Bonfire of Ukuleles"and "Up Yours"
And has there ever been a greater oxymoron than a Ukulele Orchestra? 

Sorry, sorry, sorry. For a few minutes there I thought I was Jeremy Clarkson. 

Truth be told, I think it's one of the best, if not the best, instruments to teach music with.

Also, I just became proud owner of this little beauty.


The ukulele is not just the instrument du jour because it's a little bit quirky and appeals to a certain aging demographic. Its popularity lies in its simplicity and the fact that even played badly, it's not too harsh on the ears. 

No other instrument makes it so easy to play chords in the keys of C, G and D. And when you're playing along with popular music, that's a real bonus.

So the start point is the C chord and its relatives.  Compared to the guitar, this is a walk in the park. 
One finger on the first string (always count from the bottom up) at fret 3. 
Then A minor. Finger 2 (Middle) on string 4 fret 2. We all have a good laugh at the way our middle finger is now extended...

About now I get the first complaints. "My fingers are not good at this", "I can't keep up" etc.

So we stop for a moment. I reassure them that the marks on their fingers will be gone by the time they leave my class and that the only thing standing between them and success is a few short minutes of commitment.
I ask them how their fingers know where to go on a phone or a gaming console. 
"Awww, you just learn it. It's not hard..."

But the unspoken part here is that you have to want to.

Kids have exquisite control over their gaming console because they understand that the better they get at playing that game, the more fun they will have. By contrast, I am hopeless on a gaming console because no one has convinced me that I need a Playstation in my life. And I'm fine with that.

I just want to convince my classes that they need a bit of music playing in their life and that the ukulele is a pretty good place to start. Because most of these kids are fine with not being able to play a ukulele, or any instrument for that matter.

So where to start musically? Well Stand by Me is a pretty old song but still reasonably well known. It's got a nice easy chord progression that loops through c, Am, F, G and back to C throughout the song. There's even a great playalong version here with chords displayed. 

You can also play Somebody That I Used to Know with just 2 chords- Dm and C. (Ok, there's an F in the chorus but D minor sounds pretty much fine to a bunch of 12 year olds playing along for the very first time)
I've managed  to boil Ed Sheeran's "I see fire" to Am, F and G with occasional Dm but to play along you will have to tune up a semitone or run the backing track through a program like Audacity that will tune the original down a semitone.
For New Zealanders, Anna Mac's "Girl In Stillettos" is always popular. (For the rest of the world, that's not as racey as it sounds). Anyway, Am, F, C, G repeat...

And a final song suggestion and one that never ever fails, you can't go past Call Me Maybe. 
This infectious little earworm starts with 8 counts on G then it's C and D all the way, only stopping for another 8 on G after the first chorus. 
Have fun!

All this frothy pop music on ukulele is especially good when you consider the alternatives. For many years the go-to instrument in the classroom was the recorder. And on balance, that's an instrument that probably did more harm than good.

In the hands of a well trained player, a wooden descant recorder is capable of playing beautiful baroque music. But a class full of cheap plastic recorders, honking and squeaking through 5 note folk tunes is hell on earth. Last year I experimented with some Tin Whistle lessons, as an easier to play and more pleasant sounding alternative to recorders but even they had limited success because they are no good for playing songs that kids want to play.

So let's throw the recorders on the bonfire instead of the ukuleles. They won't burn as well but it might be more satisfying. 

Today's kids don't want to learn how to play Mary Had a little Lamb and nor did the the previous recorder playing generations if we're honest.

They want to be able to play along to Ariana Grande and 5 Seconds of Summer and they need an instrument that lets them do that easily. So, if it's good enough for G.R.L. to use a ukulele for breakthrough single Ugly Heart, it's good enough for me and my students.

If you know a great pop song that works on ukulele, please leave the title and the basic chord pattern in the comments. 
Uke on...



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