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Choose Your Uke and Teach it, Too: A Guide to the Ukulele in

the General Music Classroom Cathy Fox

Picture a sixth grade general music class where students are engaged in small groups, learning songs together and accompanying themselves on instruments. Students in the class seek extra practice time at recess and argue (even the boys) over who gets to be the singer on the verses of their song. These students ask their parents for instruments as holiday gifts and form “bands” on the weekends with their friends. This could be your class if you choose to teach ukulele.

Why Choose Ukulele?

In most cases, music teachers have the freedom to choose how to implement the curriculum. “General Music” implies that teachers use a variety of means to achieve curricular goals. The decisions a teacher makes might be based on his or her personal musical experience, the school community’s musical interests, or the instruments and materials available to them. More importantly, general music teachers must consider what they want students to know and be able to do in the future. It is important that students have the skills and knowledge to go on to participate in school performing ensembles and to become life-long music makers. I be- lieve teaching ukulele is a decision that enables students to achieve all of these goals.

Ukulele Fits our Current School Configuration

Recent economic hardships for Michigan’s public schools have resulted in the reconfigura- tion of school buildings within districts. Some school buildings have been closed and others consolidated, resulting in different configura- tions of grade levels within buildings. Some districts, like mine, have chosen to move sixth grade into the elementary school. Others have created a K-4 elementary building and a 5-6 intermediate school. This means that many former elementary general music teachers are


teaching sixth grade general music and former middle school choir teachers are teaching fifth grade general music. Music teachers may be left wondering what to do with these chal- lenging-to-engage populations. What can we do to make general music class special in the way that playing recorder is to fourth graders and joining band and choir is to middle school students? Teaching ukulele is the answer.

Ukulele is an American instrument The ukulele was created in Hawaii by Portug- ese immigrants during the 1880’s by combin- ing the qualities of several existing string instruments. It gained popularity in the United States as performers entertained the public at World’s Fairs in cities across the country. By 1915 ukulele was very popular on the west coast.1

For two decades, the ukulele was popu- lar and used in a variety of genres.

The ukulele’s popularity faded but regained in the 1950’s after World War II as servicemen returned from Pearl Harbor having heard the ukulele and Hawaiian music. The main reason for the ukulele’s second wave of favor was Arthur Godfrey, who hosted a hit television show titled “Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele,” Godfrey performed on his ukulele and en- dorsed a special plastic ukulele, called the “TV Pal,” that you could buy for a few dollars and use to strum along with the show. Millions of these ukuleles were sold, as well as the original wooden type.2

The 1960’s brought rock music, and the guitar edged out the ukulele as the favorite string instrument. However, the 1990s started a third rise in the popularity of the ukulele, in part due to the performer Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, whose 2003 version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World helped bring the ukulele back into the public eye in televi- sion commercials.3

General Music

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