By Rachael Sanguinetti
Happy National Ukulele Day!
If you’ve visited the AC chorus room in the last two years, you probably noticed a huge addition to the decor of the room: 22 concert-size ukuleles on the back walls. They are a point of conversation on many tours of the music building and have become an important part of the AC Middle School music offerings.
We use these instruments in 6th Grade Foundational Music and in Ukulele Electives offered each semester. They are also used in Lower School General Music classes and for Upper School clubs. Over the past few years they have been used by many students across divisions for composition, performance, and group music making.
Over the years many people have asked why? Why the ukulele? What makes this instrument unique and why is it so important to our musical offerings? February 2nd is National Ukulele Day which is the perfect opportunity to answer these questions.
The ukulele has a rich history in Hawaiian culture but didn’t make it to the mainland until 1915 when George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet played a concert in San Francisco. In recent years, it has found its place in popular culture with songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, which reached No. 14 on the Billboard Digital Tracks Chart in 2004, and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam’s “Ukulele Songs,” a collection of tracks solely featuring the ukulele released in 2011.
AC first started using the ukulele in 6th Grade Foundational Music in the 2016-2017 school year. After taking a course on the instrument and spending many hours playing on my own, I was hooked and knew the students would be, too. The first thing I love about the ukulele as a teaching tool is the ease of playing. Students can learn their first chord on the instrument within a minute of picking it up for the first time; and that’s exactly what I do when I teach it.
My ukulele classes start with a C chord which requires one finger on the third fret. Students are able to play “Lime in the Coconut” in the first five minutes of class and then they are hooked. This concept of “quick success” encourages continued interest in learning. If they can play one chord and one song in five minutes, imagine what they can do in a class period or in a week! The four nylon strings are also easier on young fingers than an acoustic guitar and lead to less finger pain and fewer strings to worry about.
As students continue their ukulele learning, they quickly learn new chords and more tunes by popular artists. They love being able to recreate songs they hear on the radio and sing along. This quickly leads to an interest in writing their own songs and expressing their own point of view. Many of the songs that have come out of ukulele classes over the years have been humorous; others have been very personal and touching. Students enjoy sharing their music with classmates through performances and group playing. They often display incredible pride in their own creations, and I am frequently awed by what they come up with.
The question then becomes this: why is the ukulele a good fit for AC, our music programs, and what we stand for as a school? Upon revisiting our core values, this becomes quite clear.
The importance of connections
I see my students connecting in each and every class to each other and to the musical world around them. Students often work in small groups on compositions and performances, and find ways to collaborate and work together to accomplish musical goals. They love playing together as a whole class, as there is something special about a group of diverse students singing and strumming together. They feel the power of group music-making and often grow very close as a class. They also connect to the diverse musical world they live in by exploring artists they love and new musical genres.
Minds that are curious and creative
The ukulele students are constantly asking questions and finding new ways to do things. I give them open-ended requirements for most projects to allow their creativity to take over. They dream up ideas for lyrics and songs, experiment with chord progressions, and reach their own conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work for their compositions. I am always amazed at what they come up with when given space to create.
Developing a resilient spirit that dares to take risks
Learning any instrument is challenging and has its successes and failures. Students experience both when learning the ukulele for the first time and they have to navigate through that. We talk as a class about trying, failing, and trying again. Risk taking is also part of the process. Students who have never sung before find their voice when accompanying themselves on a “uke” as it quickly gets nicknamed. Something about having an instrument in their hands makes taking that leap a little easier.
Mastering strategies for learning
Over the course of the semester, students develop their ability to focus on a task, meet deadlines, collaborate, and think creatively. Students understand the importance of daily practice and determination. They also learn the value of finding a release for stress. Many students come into the chorus room during breaks or free time to grab a uke and play their favorite tunes for even just 10 minutes. Understanding the need for self-reflection and unwinding time is so important for future success. All of these skills benefit them in their other classes at AC and in their lives as learners.
One student enhanced his learning by developing a tutorial video to help others learn ukulele:
It doesn’t seem possible that all of this could come from such a tiny instrument. I continue to be amazed by my students and their growth over the course of a few weeks or a semester. Students frequently come back after taking a ukulele class to refresh their skills or just play for fun. Our ukulele program has grown over the last few years, and I look forward to seeing its continued success in years to come.
Rachael SanguinettiRachael is in her third year teaching music at AC. A recent graduate of the Eastman School of Music with majors in Music Education and Musical Arts with a minor in Psychology and an Arts Leadership Certificate, she's working toward a masters degree at Ithaca College. She brings experience teaching kindergarten-8th grade music in Rochester, 6th-8th grade general music and choir at Burger Middle School, and 2-3 year olds as part of the Eastman Community School Early Childhood Music Program.
Posted in: Authentic Learning, Highlights, Lower School, Middle School, Upper School