Singing the strings

from the vault Feb 01, 2023

Once again, we are reaching back to the original Ukulele Yes! print magazine, this time with an article by J. Chalmers Doane who teaches you how you can use the ukulele as a vocal harmony generator.

From Ukulele Yes! Vol. 5. (1976). p. 12.

The fact that singing is the best way to train the ear is pretty well accepted within the music educational community. However, the excitement and musical thrill of singing in harmony is too frequently sidelined until Junior or Senior High and sometimes ignored completely. Many music teachers find it hard enough to teach a whole class to sing in tune without attempting harmony, especially when the students do not read very well. I would like to suggest that not only can elementary children learn to sing in harmony, but that the process of teaching them this rewarding musical skill can be quite simple and lots of fun for both student and teacher. The system to which I refer is "singing the strings".

The ukulele has four strings. Consequently, when all strings are played simultaneously to form a chord, the result is four part harmony.

The ukulele has four strings. Consequently, when all strings are played simultaneously to form a chord, the result is four part harmony. If the note produced by a single string were to followed through a simple song it would be discovered that the line would be smooth as far as voice leading is concerned and simple as far as intervals are concerned. When this is done in two, three, or four parts a most pleasant sound can be produced very quickly from youngsters who need no more basic knowledge than that required to play the chords for a simple tune.

Step I

If your class is starting to sing harmony for the first time, I would suggest dividing the class in two Have one half sing the melody while the other half sing the harmony produced by the first string while chording the song. To establish the principle of what is being attempted, have the class sing "Michael, Row the Boat" while strumming the chords as on page 10 of "Classroom Ukulele Method". [The song "Ev’rybody Loves Saturday Night" (see Ukulele in the Classroom Book 1 p. 5) also works very well. -- Ed.].

Step II

Now have the whole class play the song all the way through, chords only, but, instead of strumming in the usual manner, play only on the first string. As soon as they have learned to do this they will discover that the entire song, when played on the first string in this manner, has only four notes.

Step III

While repeating Step II, have everyone sing the words to "Michael..." and the tune being played on the first string. In the case of a class who have [sic] never sung harmony before, I would suggest splitting the class in two and have them sing the melody plus the first string harmony while gently playing the chords. Do this then in two parts with half a dozen songs for a week or two until some skill is developed.

Step IV

The next step is to add string #2. Singing the second string, first string and the melody will give you a nice little arrangement very quickly. Although with Gr. 3 students you might want to stay with only two parts for a while, with students from Gr. 4, 5, and 6 you can move quite rapidly into three and four part arrangements. In the event that you do not have a full class of ukulele players, this procedure works very well with just two or three uke players each of who is designated captain of his team. It then becomes a captain’s responsibility to play the proper harmony and lead his team in singing the correct harmony.

This really works. I hope you’ll try it.

J. Chalmers Doane is a musician and retired music educator who introduced thousands of children and youth to the beauty of music making, with a particular interest in the ukulele as an accessible and versatile instrument for all. 

You can read a two-part interview with him here: The Godfather of Canadian Ukulele: J. Chalmers Doane

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