Ukulele has been hands down the BEST instrument I have used to build music literacy skills in the classroom. After hearing about James Hill’s Ukulele in the Classroom (UITC) series from a friend, I looked into the level one books and decided it would fit really well with my grade three music program. In 2015 my school administration team agreed to purchase a set of ukuleles, and it has been musical success ever since! For my students, this small but mighty instrument brings excitement, an eagerness to learn, and a strong desire to make music together as a group. In a child’s eyes, it’s a “real instrument” that real people and real musicians play, and it has a certain cool factor about it.
In 2017 I began my journey through the JHUI teacher training program at the Vancouver location. It immediately opened my eyes to new ways of explaining basic music rudiments, how to effectively use physical cues when leading a group through a song, and the importance of knowing your repertoire really well.
The thing that makes UITC so great is the accessibility for all types of learners and music abilities. The differentiated multi-part songs, plus the option to layer chords, enables everyone in the group to be challenged but also experience success. I absolutely love that melody picking and reading notes on the staff is the first focus. Then, the added element of harmony through the use of chord accompaniments is secondary. You’ve got to learn to walk before you can run, right?
And I LOVE that singing and listening are such integral parts of the program. Kids need to learn how to play, sing and listen all at the same time so that right off the bat, they are able to “musical multi-task.” As a teenager, I remember trying to play the piano in a band after playing solos my whole life. Even though I was an accomplished piano player, it was SO hard at first because I hadn’t had the opportunity to develop the skill of making instrumental music with others. With UITC, moving from a solo piece to a duet, or playing in an ensemble just comes naturally because you build those skills from the beginning.
I believe in James’ method so much that I started writing my own ukulele songs using the same differentiated structure. I wanted his approach of combining melody, rhythm and harmony while simultaneously playing and singing, to be accessible to the young beginners at my own private studio. After seeing the success with those students, I decided to expand the ukulele program at my school to include the younger grades. We now start ukulele in grade one, and when those three months of study are done, they are begging for more!
Christina O’Brien is the Primary School music teacher at Rundle College in Calgary, Alberta Canada. She also runs her own part-time private studio Creative Keys, and is writing a ukulele book for young children.
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