Supporting All Ukulele Beginners in the Least Restrictive Way

When teaching ukulele to beginning students who do not have the opportunity to practice often—whether from not having an instrument at home or from infrequent music instruction in school—student retention can be a significant issue. With little or no reinforcement happening outside class, providing accommodations or modifications to support successful performance can be an attractive option for teachers. In some cases, such as when it is part of an effort to follow a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP)—a product of rigorous input and evaluation processes—these kinds of supports are perfectly appropriate (and required by law). But outside cases where there is an IEP and heavily prescribed curriculum/assessments, it is effectively at the discretion of the teacher whether to accommodate or modify for students. As such, it is important for the teacher to be judicious in the use of supports so as to help students flourish and not inadvertently hinder their growth. This article will explore several types of common supports and their appropriate use.

Accommodation vs. Modification

It is important to first clarify the difference between accommodation and modification, as they are sometimes confused.

Accommodation occurs when a teacher provides support(s) related to a specific condition to help student(s) reach the same learning goals as their peers. Common accommodations include translation, extended time, and alternative methods of presentation.

Modification occurs when a teacher gives a student different learning goals than his or her peers in accordance with his or her ability. Modifications include narrowing content and reducing the amount or level of work required to satisfactorily complete assignments and assessments.

Both accommodations and modifications may be a part of differentiated instruction, which occurs anytime a teacher provides different ways for different students in the same class to engage in learning (and not necessarily with the same learning goals).

Accommodations, though sometimes designed for specific needs, are generally helpful to all students. In classroom ukulele these would include:

  • Pre-teaching vocabulary, including the instrument part names and terms related to the basic technique (provides for clearer communication in giving and following directions)

  • Any aural supports, such as play-along tracks or beats (makes it easier to follow the beat whether performing by ear or reading)

  • Visual supports that can resize, animate, highlight, or otherwise illustrate content in a way that helps communicate the desired learning more clearly (limits the distraction of extraneous content when focusing on small chunks)

Certain types of accommodations may be temporarily appropriate in the learning process, but if allowed to persist can alter the learning outcome and therefore represent a modification. These would include:

  • Using dots to mark finger positions on the fretboard (if not removed, student does not learn how to play an unmarked ukulele)

  • Labeling note names in sheet music (if not removed, student does not learn how to decode music notation)

  • Using colored strings and corresponding color-coded sheet music (if not removed, student does not learn how to play a standard ukulele reading standard notation)

  • Idiosyncratic, non-standard forms of notation (if not removed, student does not learn how to read music)

These kinds of supports can indeed make it easier for students to perform in the short-term, and it can be as difficult for teachers as it is for students to let go of them over time. But if otherwise able students end up unable to work with a standard ukulele and standard sheet music—both free of special modifications—then those students are effectively learning modified content. This kind of blanket class-wide modification is almost never appropriate, as it is likely to shortchange at least some students of the opportunity to become more independent. An unbreakable dependence on these kinds of supports may be more indicative of an issue in the curriculum or teaching method than an issue with student abilities. In a situation where the pacing and content are age-appropriate and the sequence maintains a gentle learning curve, there should be no need to modify for students who do not present with special needs.

Other Modifications

Supports in performance technique, such as the use of a pick, are also particularly consequential for beginners. The ukulele, with its original gut strings, was created to be played by hand. This is not only one of the main features distinguishing it from one of its metal-stringed predecessors, the cavaquinho, but is also a key factor in its historic and celebrated accessibility: You don’t need any accessories to play it. Soft felt picks, which give a similar tone quality as using fingers, are sometimes used for performing more intricate or virtuosic work, but are not needed for beginner strumming and picking. Again, if a student presents with a special need that makes the use of a pick the only way s/he can play the ukulele, then (and only then) it is appropriate to teach the use of a pick from the beginning.

Similarly, teachers should very carefully consider whether to allow left-handed beginners to hold the ukulele “backwards” or use a “reverse” stringing. It has become an accepted practice (mainly in popular guitar and bass guitar performance) for left-handed performers to reverse the position of the instrument, often while reversing the order of the strings as well. Tiny Tim played the ukulele left-handed (50 years ago), and so does Paul McCartney (not his main instrument), but it is hard to find examples of modern ukulele players diverging from the standard technique. Ukulele chord diagrams have always reflected the positions used to fret with the left hand while strumming or picking with the right, and sheet music with left-handed diagrams is scarce. At an intermediate or advanced level, it may be appropriate for the student to begin experimenting with different positions or stringings, but students learning “lefty” from the beginning will, at best, have to learn the extra step of translating standard chord diagrams to their reversed hand positions, and at worst will always need a specially strung instrument in order to play the ukulele at all. Again, this type of modification is only appropriate if there is a true special need that makes it impossible for the student to succeed using the regular technique.

Ukulele for All Students

When any supports need to be applied in beginner ukulele, the same concern for the “least restrictive environment” standard should apply to all students just as it does for students in special education. For this standard refers not only to the physical location of learning but to any kind of accommodation or modification, out of a belief that superfluous supports can actually “restrict” students from learning. The ukulele is a valuable tool for learning the skills we teach in classroom music as much as it is an accessible instrument for young people to play. There are plenty of ways students can experience early success in performance while also maintaining a gentle learning curve and avoiding over-reliance on supports. It may involve moving slower, providing more opportunities to practice simpler content, and following a learning sequence that prioritizes technique over music theory (working with open string notes before fretted notes, working with fretted notes and one-finger chords before learning two- or three-finger chords, etc.), but it is both possible and worth it.