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  • Writer's pictureJames Oram

The Ukulele – An incredible key to the world of music

When I was first asked if I could teach ukulele, I said yes. I thought it was a toy…how hard could it be? Isn’t it just for children?

Firstly, I am a classically trained pianist and guitarist that adores Bach and Chopin. I thought I had a ‘proper’ musical training. It was only when teaching ukulele that I was truly humbled by the small but powerful instrument. It provides an exciting and accessible approach to entering the world of music. It gives children the essence of what music is all about: playing, singing and connection to each other. Its affordability, open chord tuning and size make it unrivalled in accessibility.

The ukulele is small enough to be comfortable for children. The four strings really help to simplify the shapes and make it possible to play chords with just one finger. In the first few lessons children can strum to songs, sing along and feel great playing music together. In my experience, the ukulele has inspired children who wouldn’t normally pick up an instrument to engage in music making. It is a real privilege to watch children realise they are musicians and can make music!

Teaching ukulele to classrooms around Bristol has been the most enjoyable music teaching I have ever done. When my fellow teacher Paul and I discovered how much fun children could have learning ukulele we were inspired to write our own book, ‘Ukulele Quest.’ We learnt early on not to patronise children with music choices. Children love a good beat and bassline just as much as anyone, so there are no typical nursery rhymes to be found in ‘Ukulele Quest’.

Through Ukulele Quest’ children are not just getting an introduction to the ukulele, but to a whole world of music. The book is divided into thematic chapters taking the reader on an exciting musical journey. It teaches children chord charts, how to read sheet music, and numerous musical concepts such as dynamics, pitch and tempo. These are skills that can be transferred to numerous other instruments, should children be inspired to continue their musical journeys! The transition to guitar is particularly smooth as many of the early chord shapes on ukulele, such as G Major, move directly over to the guitar and will be useful for any guitarist in their early stages of playing.

That being said, while ukulele is a brilliant first instrument, I’ve discovered what a brilliant instrument the ukulele is in its own right. Far from being a ‘toy’ which is only for children, there is a wave of amazing virtuoso players such as Jake Shimabukuro, who are changing perceptions of what the ukulele is and what can be done on it.

Not only does the ukulele allow ‘quick’ access to music it can be as intellectual as you want it to be. Players like Tony Mizen have bought classical music to the ukulele, including renaissance and baroque lute transcriptions. It is a wonderful challenge to transcribe classical works and even symphonies onto the four strings. Not only this, there are endless strumming and picking techniques just like the flamenco guitar tradition. New techniques are being developed all the time for the ukulele making it an exciting and progressive instrument.

The ukulele really is for everyone. It can enrich anyone’s life by adding music to it in a simple but profound way. I say if you have one pick it up, if you don’t go and get one!

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