Ukes in the School and Community

by Alex Masso. Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 19 Issue 2 (February 2013)

The Music in Communities Network’s Alex Masso recently went to the Teachers and Leaders of Australian Ukulele Groups (TALAUG) forum in Newcastle. The meeting inspired a new phase of the school-community links project.

What is it about the ukulele that attracts so much interest and brings so many people together to play music? What makes it the highest selling instrument in Australia, overtaking guitars and keyboards? Why do we have ukulele festivals across the country where there are so few festivals for other instruments?

As an outsider to ukulele culture, these things fascinate me. When I met 25 leaders of ukulele groups from Australia at a recent forum in Newcastle I learnt a lot in one day about the instrument, its culture, and the impact it can have. I don’t have the answers but I suspect that the easy entry point, group-based learning and playing, and having fun all play a bit part.

The forum itself was part of the Newkulele Festival, which is the first uke pun for this article. I have a theory that ukulele enthusiasts are in a competition with Thai restaurant owners for the most widespread use of puns. I propose the term ‘ukuleluns’, or perhaps ‘pukes’, to describe all ukulele puns. So, while I’m at it, here are a few that I’ve heard recently:

  • Karaoke with the ukulele is ‘KaraUKEy’
  • Open mic nights are ‘Open UKE nights’
  • In Melbourne there is a group called ‘UKElear Powered’
  • I heard someone suggest to a Christian minister, enthusiastic about the instrument, that they could deliver a UKEarist
  • A New Zealand-based ukulele education organisation calls itself Kiwilele

That’s all a bit of a distraction from the article but there’s a crucial point: the ukulele community likes to have a bit of fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Could this be part of the reason for the rapid growth of ukulele groups in Australia?

The topics covered at the forum included teaching/leading adult groups as well as students, and it seems that both are pretty common. Without being an expert on the ins-and-outs of teaching ukulele, I noticed a few things about this community that set them apart from some other community music groups.

As is the culture in pipe bands, for example, the instrument itself is often taught within the community group. This is quite different from the approach in many other music groups – community-based, school-based, professional or whatever - where people arrive already having some degree of skill on the instruments. The ukulele groups represented at TALAUG had players with some experience, combined with complete beginners. Some run ‘beginners’ classes’ at weekly sessions.

Someone said to me ‘it’s easy to play, but difficult to play well’. Many instruments are more difficult to play, and difficult to play well, so what seems to set the uke apart is that people really can start playing in a group with a brief introduction and with some basic training.

Perhaps some of the success of the ukulele revolution comes down to the fact that if you’re learning to strum a few chords and everybody is playing those chords, even someone without vast training in the instrument can show you those chords. That’s not to take anything away from those who play and teach the instrument very well; the Canadian James Hill is an exemplar of this and gave a brilliant presentation to the TALAUG forum on ukulele teaching. The point is, it’s very easy to get started and the instrument is quite well suited to group learning.

For schools, the ukulele offers a few things that other instruments, and choirs, don’t. I’m definitely a supporter of school students learning band instruments, string instruments, and so on; I spend a reasonably part of my life teaching kids to play percussion in some fantastic school bands. However, the uke seems to offer something different. The instrument is very affordable, very easy to get started on, very portable, and fun. Singing and playing ukulele together require different skills to just playing an instrument or just singing, it involves some coordination and easily introduces the relationship between melodies and chords for those that may be new to it. A guitar teacher colleague of mine recently started using the ukulele with very young students, as an easier-to-handle precursor to the guitar, still based on guitar teaching methodology.

Now, the really interesting thing I picked up at this ukulele forum was the ease in which school ukulele groups and community ukulele groups can interact. We know about community groups, such as Campbelltown’s band The Daytones or the Ku-ring-gai Philharmonic Orchestra initiative, performing for school students. We also know about musicians and bands who visit schools, as Margaret River Primary School actively encourages, to work with the students in a semi-formal mentor/teacher role. And we know that community orchestras such as the Coffs Harbour City Orchestra have found creative ways to collaborate with a school orchestra, with a combination of kids’ pieces and the regular repertoire played by the adult orchestra. All of these things are fantastic, of course.

With ukulele groups the teaching method and approach to group playing, even the songs, need not be very different between a primary school and (adult) community group. What’s more, there is something unifying about the instrument itself which brings players of all ages together.

This year we are moving forward with the school-community links project, investigating ways in which schools can interact with their community through music. Here’s the story that got me started:

A teacher in Coffs Harbour started playing ukulele with her primary school class, they each own a uke which sits on their desks. In between a maths and reading lesson they might stop for three or four minutes to play a song. The teacher has noticed an increase in cohesion and focus within the class, they have a bit of fun, and they are now performing outside the school. When this teacher looked to her community for support and playing opportunities she came across the Marian Grove Ukulele Group, a finalist in the 2012 Music in Communities Awards. The Marian Grove group started with a handful of beginners in the retirement village and is now well established, introducing more and more people to group music making and performing regularly for the community. Suddenly the school students and the older people from the Marian Grove group were performing together, in a simple but effective partnership.

This is just one possibility for musical collaboration using the common ground of the instrument, repertoire, and group learning. The way in which schools and the community can collaborate through particular instrumental groups, including the ukulele, will be the subject of an upcoming case study.

This is part of the Music Council’s School-Community Links initiative, a collaboration between the Music in Communities Network and Music: Count Us In. The first phase of the project was launched recently; see to read eight case studies.

Alex Masso is the Manager of the Music in Communities Network. 

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