How To Improvise On The Ukulele: Teachers Tips

pedagogy corner Apr 14, 2020

This post explains how to teach students how to learn to improvise on the ukulele! These are formidable times for music educators. Many of the teaching strategies, motivational techniques and rules of engagement for face-to-face music instruction have had a major overhaul to accommodate our new online world, like with Uketropolis, we've become the premier place to learn ukulele online.

By Angela Dwyer

In spite of the many challenges we face as music educators in an online world, we're lucky to have a wonderfully creative community of ukulele leaders out there who are generously sharing their ideas and experiences. In this article I'd like to add my voice to that conversation with some ideas on how to include improvisation in your online ukulele lessons, how to overcome student fears and bring a sense of "play" into the learning process.

Now you take it! The fear of improvising  

We might not see improvising on the ukulele as an important tool in our teaching toolbox. If you are like me, you are very much an amateur when it comes to improvising. In fact, the thought of “trading fours” still invokes a feeling a panic in me! However, this doesn’t mean we can’t facilitate the start of a journey with our students and perhaps even learn something ourselves along the way.

Learning how to improvise on the ukulele s important because it is truly intrinsic playing. It goes beyond the rote learning of a scale or song and allows our inner musician to develop. Experiments have shown that during improvising there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex which is the area of the brain associated with self-expression.1 Let’s free our inner creative and help those brains light up!

How to improvise on the ukulele: Step-by-Step

In our previous pandemic lives we probably did not have enough time to delve into this with the pressure of preparing for performances or making sure our students understand basic musical concepts. However, now with group playing out of the mix we need to look for ways to encourage our students to spend some time on their own personal playing skills.

“Play is our brain’s favourite way of learning."
Diane Ackerman

Here are a few strategies to get you started based on the scales. You can work on these in order to help build your students’ confidence in using all the notes and practicing how to improv on the uke. These can be done online or in person and students can practise on their own. You may need to record a few backing tracks for them to play along with as they explore their creative selves.

Pentatonic scale: Using the pentatonic scale is an easy, risk-free entry into the world of improvising. Pick a tune based on the Pentatonic Scale and play the chord progression,  use C, F and G (D, G and A for D6 tuners) or try a blues progression in the key of A (B for D6’ers)

Blues scale: I learned this one from James! Start with a high C (D) and gradually work down the blues scale and back up with a blues chord progression. Start improvising with just two notes and gradually work your way to include all the notes on the scale. 

Major scale: If you have covered the lesson on intervals in Ukulele in the Classroom Book 1 and/or Book 2, you can review these as a starting point for this activity.

Encourage students to take risks and embrace everything, even the awful sounding stuff!

Review the scale. Then, as you play the harmonic chord progression have your students, playing quarter notes, alternate between one note (tonic or 1) and another on the scale, always going back to 1 (i.e. 1-5-1-3-1-6). Then have them switch to starting on any note except 1, and then coming back to 1 (ie.  5-1-3-1-6-1 and so on). You may want to invite them to begin and end on 1 or you may just let them play around and discover what sounds good.

You can add rhythm to this as well. Be creative. The goal is to encourage students to self-discover!

Chromatic scales: Once you have covered the lesson on the chromatic scale in Book 2 you can use this as a springboard to do similar exercises using the Chromatic scale only. Now you have all the notes in your toolbox to use! I find that staying on one string and keeping it linear tends to get better results in the beginning, but eventually you can move on to crossing strings.

The important thing to remember with these ukulele improvisation exercises is to take one step at a time. If you try to offer too much it may be overwhelming and students could get discouraged. Encourage them to take risks and embrace everything, even the awful sounding stuff! It’s a great way to introduce your students to playing with their ukes, opening up a gateway to creativity and mastery. How fun is that?!


1 Learn more about research being done around improvisation and its incredible impact on our brain by going here

Angela Dwyer is a music educator from Truro, NS and is part of Team Uketropolis.

This post was shared during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and makes reference to this.

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