Well, got distracted by the summer, and will hopefully be following up with some of my foibles & triumphs from last year, but I'm excited to be receiving a group of Mainland Ukuleles that will allow me to check out some of the old classroom instruments to students in the class! It's also allowing me to get rid of the first couple instruments I purchased that did not turn out to be very good instruments, so these instruments will be re-purposed as Cigar Box instruments or decorations.
If you're a teacher, you know that the room cleanup at the end of the year can make you a bit...silly. This is just a bit of my silliness that my daughter decided to catch on camera:
The main point of this website is to provide other teachers with the opportunity to learn from my experiences delving into the world of ukulele, and specifically using ukulele as a method of music instruction in the classroom. That, and this provides me a way to help me organize my thoughts and leave myself a time capsule of where I was in my educational journey...
I didn't realize just how much I really did with ukulele this year until I stopped and looked back...it's been a busy year! Thinking back, I gave 5-6 different clinics for teachers, attended several myself, created a new ukulele ensemble (DeKalb Homeschool Ukulele Orchestra), built a cigar box ukulele, and continued to refine my book and instructional materials. In addition, I got to meet Jason Segel (also a ukulele player) and have him sign my polkalele, and my fretted orchestra got to play for and with Craig Robinson, who of course also signed the polkalele!
One of my continuing frustrations this year is that it seems that most of what I see out there for classroom teachers is still primarily focused on strumming chords only, and how "easy" it is. If you know me, you know that I find "easy" to be one of the most damaging pedagogical words in the English language.
I've been lucky enough to add to my fleet of instruments within my classroom, and start down the road to being able to check out instruments to students to take home to practice. This has allowed me to experience some new brands and types of ukes that I hadn't gotten the chance to check out before, bringing in some of the hits and misses... It's this time of year that we as classroom teachers are already in planning stages for next year's classes. We find out what classes we will be teaching, or what latest pedagogical methods our school has decided to employ for next year, and take a look back at what has been successful in the past year to figure out how to approach next year. So take a look at my flops, foibles, and successes in the next few blog entries. Perhaps they will be of use to you.
On Facebook every day, I have colleagues posting articles about how music is essential, as we continually battle in our school programs to try to prove our relevancy in a world that is so focused on test scores. I've yet to see an article that I disagree with, but also feel that we miss one of the most important aspects of music that is becoming more and more essential in education today.
In the past 8 years, I can recall at least 5 seminars given to the staff of the schools I had worked for that emphasized the need to prepare students to be flexible in their learning for the world ahead. The point is made over and over that with the constant change in technology, that students need to not only learn the material we are teaching them now, but learn how become independent learners, in order to adapt.
I agree with this wholeheartedly. I feel that one of the ways we have traditionally failed our students in every discipline is by treating them as memory storage devices that store information and spit it back out, rather than teach them how to learn and think.
And I believe strongly that this is where the need for music education in our schools has become more important today than perhaps any other time.
Yes, music fires the brain in ways nothing else does. Yes, music ties all of the core subjects together. Yes, music connects us in a spiritual way that few other things can. The problem with these statements, however, is that they miss what I think we are losing in our school systems, but we have always had in the music classroom: We teach how to learn a skill.
What subject does this anymore? Here's the ones that do: The Arts (including Industrial Arts, if you can find them), and Physical Education. For most of the others, the focus has become how to FIND the information you're looking for. In fact, at another one of those inservices in another district, we were told that students of tomorrow no longer need to memorize equations, facts, and theories because they are easily available on their phones and devices.
There's no shortcut to learning how to do music. Sure, there's tools to make music in different ways. There are videos you can look up how to play a certain song. There's apps to help you practice your skills. But YOU still have to do the work; the repetitive, often boring & frustrating, work that with a bit of resiliency, eventually pays off.
Many years ago, I had a revelation. I was telling my students to go home and practice, then becoming frustrated when they were coming back to class, and it was obvious that they had not in fact practiced. So I decided to take time in class to MAKE them practice in small groups while I observed and moved around to assist, and I fully realized my failure: They didn't know how! I had failed to prepare them with the basic skills of HOW to practice!
Soon after, I took a job that was primarily teaching Middle School General Music, but I was given full latitude on what I wanted to teach. There was no textbooks, no expectation of a traditional general music curriculum, but there WERE 32 guitars in the room. Students were placed into the class at random (there were no elective classes), with some having guitar experience, and others having none. With that class, and the Ukulele Class that I started soon after, I created my three goals for the class:
1. To teach them that they already loved music 2. To teach them how to practice a skill - ANY skill 3. To teach them that they COULD do music
These students were stuck in my class for 9 weeks, whether they liked or not. I told them: You're stuck in here; might as well learn something! When parents showed up on Curriculum night expecting to hear about a music class, they were told that my class wasn't really about music. It was about how to learn a skill. I know that the vast majority of the students in my room will not be professional musicians. Most of them may not even be amateur musicians. But every single one of them will need to learn how to learn a new skill at some time in their lives, and understand that they CAN learn something that's completely foreign to them, provided they take the necessary steps to learn them. Suddenly, a roomful of parents who knew for a fact that my class was going to be irrelevant to their child because they already knew in 7th grade that they were going to be an engineer, sat up and took notice and started to pay closer attention.
Every year, I have some students return to show me what they've continued to do with the skills I taught them, and those are the best moments in my teaching career.
So in all of our passion for the spiritual aspects of our craft, the full belief that music can be of benefit to the community and every student, don't forget one of the more mundane aspects of our art. We teach them how to work, and how to learn. Never discount the importance of that.
A student asked me a question in my ukulele club yesterday. She asked, "Which do you enjoy teaching more, ukulele or guitar?" I told her it was a tough question, but I think I'd have to choose ukulele. She asked if it was because it was easier. I responded that no - it's not easier, but students aren't as intimidated by it as guitar, and it's not because it only has four strings. (Violin has four strings, too, but no one seems to think that makes it easy to play!)
I have found that the biggest hurdle in teaching music is the notion that some people are "talented" and others are not, which of course is hogwash. Getting students past the self-consciousness of singing & playing an instrument is often the first step towards making real progress. Too many try to sing, or play, get frustrated that they don't sound the way that they think they should sound, and give up.
You see, when we pick up guitar for the first time, most of us already have in mind all of the great guitar players that we have heard, and are immediately comparing ourselves to them. This doesn't exist with ukulele...yet. There's many of us who know of the great modern ukulele players, but these players are not household names (at least in mainland USA), so I think students are more open to trying it out and not immediately convincing themselves that they have no talent than they are for guitar.
So is it easier than guitar? Sometimes...but then guitar is sometimes easier. (Try playing an E Major Chord on each!) Can it be a lot more accessible for students in the classroom than guitar? I believe so, especially at the Middle School level when the students are SO self-conscious and often afraid to try something new and fail.
I think it's time that we stop spreading the notion that the ukulele is an easy instrument. It's not. It is, however, more accessible to a lot of instruments, giving you as the classroom teacher a real chance to hook them before it's too late, and they've given up on music entirely.
Paul Marchese is a middle-school vocal & general music teacher at Hadley Jr. High in Glen Ellyn, IL. He became a ukulele enthusiast several years back, and has been working to help other music teachers find the best way to utilize this instrument in their own classrooms.