Kyle Leonard is a 5th grade teacher at the Caledonia-Mumford elementary school in Caledonia, New York and founder of the Cal-Mum Ukulele Club. Mr. Leonard discusses the ups and downs (poor strum joke) of teaching 5th graders to play the ukulele.
1. Have you developed any teaching techniques to overcome specific challenges you’ve come up against teaching 5th graders?
I find that when teaching kids the ukulele, my biggest obstacle to overcome is time. By most standards, people would find my approach to teaching ukulele somewhat rudimentary, and I would agree; I try and hook kids with fun, simple tunes that I like to play. I’m not a music teacher; I tend to think of myself as more as a music coach. My teaching contract here at Cal-Mum Elementary School states that I’m supposed to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic—I’m just sneaking in some ukulele. Kids come to me at the start of the school year knowing very little about stringed instruments, and I am extremely empathetic; thinking back to the first time I tried to play guitar when I was ten. Knowing that they are really chomping-at-the-bit to make music with their ukes, I jump right in and teach them a C chord, stressing, in a hopefully memorable way, that it should be chorded with the ring finger. On the very first after-school meeting I scan the forty-plus kids to see how many naturally hold the uke correctly, and then to some extent, copy my strumming technique. I really like how Ralph Shaw described it as shaking water off the tips of your fingers, and I always fall back on this analogy when explaining the movement to kids. This is really the starting point. I also show students a chord diagram for C and how to read it like a map. Then I pull out the stops and show them that C chord is at the start of Be Friends by the White Stripes. I usually try to belt out my best rendition of the song and then ask the kids if they understand the chord chart and if they want to learn that song—the response is always heart-warming. This song is a very popular ukulele song here at Cal-Mum; kids really love singing and playing it.
2. How do you keep your students motivated to improve their playing?
As you can tell I’m pressed for time—meeting more than forty students once a week for forty-five minutes—so I rely heavily on kids grouping together to work on songs from our club’s song book. I’ll walk around and meet with groups and spot check technique and introduce chord progressions from other songs I feel they might like. I have to keep my attention on the students that are feeling frustrated in some area. At the start of the year I find that a few kids really struggle with the fine motor skills that it takes for strumming and chording. It is just hard work for some while others seem to pick up all the skills in no time. One song that seems to motivate kids, no matter what their skill level, is Five Foot Two. (Here’s a video link to one of my students performing it).
For me this song is difficult to slow down well enough to show kids what my right hand is doing; I guess in many respects this is where I hope that kids can begin to play by ear. I remember learning Five Foot Two from my dad when I was young. He showed me the chords on his guitar and set me free to try and play it like he did. I clearly remember watching his left hand rocking back at the end of a strum, giving that distinctive deadening of the strings sound that needs to be seen in action to be understood. I really wanted to be able to do what he was doing, and I find that kids gravitate to that sound and challenge themselves to produce that Charleston-style dance beat. The song tends to “go viral,” and soon other kids want to learn when they see their friends playing it. In the end it really comes down to sharing an undeniable desire to make music; it’s what made me want to sing and play when I was young and why I fell in love with the ukulele myself.
3. Is the use of video an integral component in your teaching model?
Video is a wonderful tool and especially in my situation with fifth graders. I’ve put some of my own videos together to explain techniques, but it’s very time consuming to do this. I am always on the lookout for good video instruction. A lot of helpful stuff is on YouTube, like the wonderful videos from MusicTeacher. It would be great to link all of that material to our club web page, but the standard for our school web pages is that we don’t link to sites that could then lead young viewers to other material that may be inappropriate. That cuts out a lot of really great instructional video, and not just ukulele, but all subject matter. All blogs are blocked at our school also, and that cuts out even the great instruction found here at Play Ukulele By Ear.
MusicTeacher has contacted me about his plans to add some of his material to SchoolTube which is set up to host kid-safe video. This would be a huge resource for in-school ukulele instruction. I’ve found that it’s much easier to do audio recordings; they’ve been helpful in a couple ways. Recordings can easily be produced during class breaks and then I can quickly upload them to our web page. I find this really motivates kids to practice songs so they can get their work published to the web. Students will sometimes ask to record a song that isn’t quite ready to be made public and with the initial recording I can get them to listen and notice areas that need more attention. They usually go back and work on it a little more until it sounds good enough to publish to the web. Having a song uploaded on the web is a huge motivational factor for almost anyone who plays music—I think. The only problem with audio recordings is that using it for instruction is difficult because playing along with just audio is not anything like seeing a video. With all that is going on with uke videos online right now, it’s quite an amazing time to be involved with teaching kids the ukulele. I keep thinking that this little instrument is on the verge of reaching some type of critical mass and becoming the instrument of choice. For the majority of fifth graders at Caledonia-Mumford over the past five years, it has.
Have you ever thought of producing a TV show entitled Can You Play Ukulele Better Than A Fifth Grader?
Great idea—I love it when my students feel they can play a song better than I can. Sadly, it does happen. LOL