Year 4 – Ukuleles – Second Lesson of the Year

We start the lesson in a lively fashion. Last week I taught the class a simple song called Bala Pata Zum (by all accounts a song from Ghana, though I cannot give you a translation and I’m sure what we are singing here is a simplified version). It is simple, but combined with a different action for each word it becomes more of a whole-body challenge. I encourage everyone to face their Music Partner so that we can all help each other to get it right. Once we’ve run through it a few times I ask how we can make the song more challenging.

One boy says “We could increase the tempo.” Of course, as a music teacher I am delighted that he has used this vocabulary. We run through the song again at a quicker tempo. Next I introduce the arm-crossing actions. It’s the same song but now it is more complex. I have heard that any actions that involve moving our hands to the opposite sides of our bodies are good for the brain. I tell them teachers are always making things more difficult!

Next the class sit down and I sing ‘Hello Everyone’ (so – mi – do). This causes some confusion but once I have sung it several times the class recognise the pitches. In fact, most of the class do, there are still 4 or 5 children for whom this is too much of a challenge. I don’t spend too long on this ‘ear-training’ pitch-recognition activity so I don’t think it matters if there are some for whom this is not easily accessible. Soon the class are warmed up and responding every time to the simple variations of the four pitches that they are familiar with.

I switch to some melody cards (i.e. simple 4-beat melodies, using the four known pitches, written on the stave). These are in F major rather than C major, and this causes some confusion at first. It’s interesting to note that this sort of confusion in a lesson is something that teachers like to avoid when being observed because it feels out of control and chaotic, as if the children are confused. And of course, the children are confused because it is something new. There is even some audible consternation. However, they soon work out what is going on. It is ironic that teachers often deliberately leave out these critical learning moments (when being observed) because of the high value that is placed on quiet, orderly classrooms.Music Room 21.09.23

Next, we look at G – C – E – A written out on a treble clef. I ask them what the five lines are called (stave: this is vocabulary recall from last week). The class are still very much engaged at this point, partly because it is the first lesson of the day, partly because it happens to be quite an alert group of children, partly because I know how to pace the lessons so that things move along and partly because they know they will be playing ukuleles again today and they are looking forward to that. We name the four notes (again, recall from last week) and I ask if anyone can hum a G. One girl puts her hand up and hums a G. Possibly this is because I had been singing the ‘la/so/mi/do’ exercise in C major. Anyway, we all sing through the four notes. There is a good reason for this: these are the four notes of the ukulele strings. It’s a neat coincidence that the four strings match the solfa pitches that they know.

I ask the class to pick up their imaginary ukuleles and put them into the ‘Rest Position’ (on their laps) and then I ask them to show me ‘Ready-to-Play’ position. This is a crucial bit of drilling. If we don’t have these positions automatically then it will be a noisy and chaotic series of lessons! Finally, I hand out the ukuleles. Of course, no one wants to be given an instrument and told that they can’t immediately play it but that’s what we do.

I demonstrate, slowly, how I hold the instrument to my chest, balance the neck in my left hand and gently pluck G – C – A – E with my right-hand thumb. I then ask them to show me ‘Ready-to-Play’ position and I sing these four notes for them to play back to me. Whenever I ask a group to do something there are always children who cannot or do not join in. There are a lot of reasons why: misunderstanding what is expected; not knowing what is expected because of a language barrier or a cognitive barrier or simply because of not paying attention; distracted by another child or by a negative state of mind (related to a ‘bigger picture’ involving home life or a recent incident within school); a refusal to take part because of a belief that it is forbidden to do so in their religion; lacking the fine or gross motor skills to perform the task. Of course, these issues cannot all be addressed in the moment of the lesson. The Music Pairs is a good way to address this because children can help each other.

Some individuals demonstrate. This is an excellent way to focus attention. When your peer is playing it is different to the teacher doing it. We play it a few times together. Next, I sing Tinker Tailor. Everyone knows this song well and loves the game. It is a song with three pitches (so/mi/do). We sing it with pitch-names and I point to these pitches on the vertical pitch-ladder. I point over to the 4 ukulele notes on the stave. When we sing it again I point to the G, E and C notes on this stave. It is clear from this that I am jumping over the C string to play the first three bars (G G E E). I urge everyone to look closely at my right hand thumb and I play the tune on the ukulele. I then give the whole class time to practise this on their own. It is a bit noisy but I only have to shake the tambourine to bring everyone back together again a minute or two later. I ask for a volunteer to demonstrate. The boy I ask struggles beyond the first bar. I decide to write out the tune on the stave to illustrate the fact that the first bar (G G E E) is repeated three times. He takes a few tries to get it right and there is a genuine round of applause when he does so. It’s hard to know how much to push a child who is finding it difficult. Sometimes I have upset children, when urging them to persevere. We all play the tune together a few times. The beauty of using a well-known song is that all the children know exactly how it should sound. It gives a feeling of excitement and satisfaction when they are able to play it on their instrument. There are a few cries of “I can do it!” or “I did it!”

I add a C chord on the beat as the class play the tune. I ask ‘What was I doing?” This allows us to go over some vocabulary like ‘chord’, ‘pluck’ and ‘strum’. There isn’t time to get into how to play the C chord but we spend a short time naming our ukulele-fingers “1-2-3-4” touching each finger of our left hands to the thumb. This sets us up for next time.

The class have a Music Challenge to do in their classrooms during the week. They should sing Bala Pata Zum and do the actions. It was last week’s challenge but neither class did it so I will give them another chance!