Larry Wyatt has started a ukulele revolution in Hood River, Oregon, USA. As the music teacher at Westside Elementary School Larry developed a wildly successful school ukulele program. Here’s how he did it.
1. How did you design your curriculum for your ukulele in the school program?
I made it up at first. I used high g tuning at first and looked for songs with two or three chords that kids could strum and sing. That worked for a while until I started teaching kids to pick melodies. Then I realized that if the lowest note on the uke was middle C, then there were many melodies that could not be played without some serious technical restructuring like changing keys, changing octaves, etc. Anyway, by switching my classroom ukes to low G tuning, that problem was largely solved. Then it was a matter of basically using the uke like any other band instrument and teaching every piece of music using the building blocks of music: Rhythm, Melody, Harmony, Form, and Texture. Furthermore, I realized that every piece of uke music taught to kids should be arranged with multiple parts, Melody, Harmony, Bass (kind of), and sometimes chordal accompaniment. That way each tune, or song is educationally much more than just strumming a chord and singing. That is fun and great for kids to do, but don't stop there. Get them picking melodies and harmonies. That is what is so great about the uke, you can sing and play at the same time, but you can also play melodies and harmonies, and kids get that. I've also discoveredJames Hill's Ukulele in the Classroom Book 1, and it has exercises that harmonize right out of the gate, and also each piece of music has at least two parts: a melody and an easier part often using only open strings.
2. How do you keep the children motivated to learn the instrument?
I’m lucky in that I am the only music teacher in a school of about 550 K-5 students. Therefore, I have a captive audience. By having a classroom set of 30 ukes hanging on a rack that I made out of 2 by 4s, each kid gets ukulele instruction as part of their daily/yearly music class. When little kids hear what older kids are doing, they want to do it too. I also let (force) the students play at our school music concerts. Nothing motivates a kid to play better than a gig. I also have a two-day a week after school Ukestra program that the 4th and 5th graders can attend in order to learn and play more. I have younger kids just dying to get in, but I make them wait until 4th grade in order to get into the Ukestra. Motivating them hasn’t really been a problem, finding time for all who want to learn seems to be the bigger issue. It’s like “build it and they will come.”
3. Is teaching music theory an important part of your program?
Absolutely! To me music theory is to music as physics is to the universe. It can be super complex or quite simple. Many musicians and music teachers think that music theory means memorizing what scale is played over the B minor 7 flat 5 chord. That is great to know and you should learn it. But to me, it all comes back to using the uke (or any instrument) to understand and represent the building blocks of music: What is the rhythm? What are the pitches of the melody? What pitches can harmonize that melody? What is the form of the piece? How do the sounds work together to make a sonic texture? Whether you do this by ear or by using the page doesn’t really matter. Kids will learn these things if you emphasize them with every uke class or lesson. The most important thing about uke class is to play a lot and talk a little bit. I want it to be fun for them, but if they want to sound great they have put in the time and effort: there are no shortcuts. Otherwise they can go home and watch TV and eat Cheetos. Just don’t get that yellow stuff on my uke.
Tags: 3 Questions Interview, Larry Wyatt