8 Useful Tips for Starting a Ukulele Program In Your School

  1. Identify your goals
    Just like planning a lesson, or a unit, or a year, it’s good to begin with the end in mind. What do you envision, and for which students, as a result of having the ukulele in your program? Are there larger, district goals you can help meet with a ukulele program? You can teach the ukulele to students of almost any age and ability, but most general education students will be able to pick it up at a good speed in fourth grade or later. Progress is generally slower the younger you go from there. You can use the ukulele in the classroom as a tool in learning music theory, ear training, improvisation, and/or composition, and it’s also great in the more casual setting of an after-school activity. Your goals should shape where, when, and how you implement the program.

  1. Become ukulele-literate
    If you’re going to pioneer a ukulele program, you may as well embrace and live up to your role as local ukulele expert. This includes learning to play well, so it's definitely in order to get yourself your own ukulele. Teach yourself the basics, take a lesson from a professional if you can, or join community groups or meetups (some are virtual now). You’ll learn the common songs people play on the ukulele and may teach some of them to your students. If inspired to delve deeper, it wouldn’t hurt to learn more about the history of the ukulele and listen to the music of its important contributors over the years.

  1. Become familiar with teaching and learning resources
    There are many ukulele method books, but not all are specifically designed for the classroom setting. Choose a method book that is age-appropriate and includes the notation, concepts, and repertoire you want. You will have to supplement this book with additional literature anyway! Participate in communities of music educators such as the UKE Can Do It! Facebook group to learn from, and share with, other teachers doing the same thing as you.

  1. Obtain instruments and accessories
    You need ukuleles, but you’ll also need cases to protect them, and maybe even electronic tuners. Several major brands sell value packages that include all of these items. Try to work with a local music store for the best deal. Aim to supply each student in your largest class with their own ukulele, plus a few extra. Go with a brand that’s established, not necessarily the least expensive you find, sold near you, recommended by a fellow teacher, and/or that you’ve already bought and tried yourself. Stay away from instruments that cannot play in tune, don’t project well, or have flimsy tuning mechanisms. If your school cannot pay for the program in full, look into offsetting the cost with fundraising or grant opportunities.

  1. Organize your space
    School-owned ukuleles must be stored so they are protected, easily accessible, and accountable. If storing in cases, any organized shelving system works fine. Storing outside of cases conserves class time and can be done using u-brackets on the wall or a freestanding rack (think: violin/viola storage), but it’s a good idea to keep a gig bag on hand somewhere for each anyway. If you assign the same ukulele to each student each week by numbering them, students take greater responsibility and you can easily account for any misuse or damage. Plan to seat students in chairs, with music stands—like any other ensemble—and arrange seating so you can get physically near each student to help with hand positions and deter any off-task behavior.

  1. Develop and teach your classroom management plan
    It’s best to start teaching ukulele at a time of year when your students are already well-versed in your basic classroom routines and expectations, because you’ll have to teach new routines for lessons with the ukulele. Carefully model and prepare students for the responsibility of their own instrument, including what the procedures will be for retrieving and putting away instruments, knowing when to play and when to stop, and taking proper care of the instrument at all times. Develop a structure to follow your lessons that includes a warm-up, skill-building time, practice of new literature, and practice of old literature. Minimize down-time and your own talking, and enforce a zero-tolerance policy with fiddling on instruments at the wrong time.

  1. Communicate with parents
    It’s good to send a letter home informing parents about the ukulele and all of its wonderful assets, or demonstrate the instrument on open school night if you can. Include information about how they can purchase one (without endorsing one particular store or brand). The more kids who own their own instruments, the better. Even if you say nothing, at least a few students will probably ask about how to get their own ukulele. Parent organizations can also help with funding the program.

  1. Plan performances when your situation allows
    Students will appreciate an opportunity to show what they’ve learned, and a culminating event of any scale can bring focus to the course of study you choose. If you’re teaching an entire grade level with one set of ukuleles, you may try to create a ukulele club, which will likely attract the most interested students and into which you can recruit standouts. If you have a small group, you may need to amplify them in a large room. A single instrument on the bass line balances out the sound of a ukulele ensemble nicely. Singing should definitely be part of the performance. Somewhere along the line, take the opportunity to highlight the novel nature of the program, any investments that were made, and support you may have received from administration or parents.