The ukulele is one of the instruments selected by designers of the Prodigies Music curriculum as being ideal for early learners. This string instrument is a cousin of the guitar; it is regarded as being an important part of traditional Hawaiian music, but it should be noted that it is not ancient. Portuguese sailors who disembarked in the Hawaiian islands in the mid-18th century brought small string instruments such as the cavaquinho, which is a precursor to the ukulele, and woodworkers among the crew gifted the islanders with creations that approximated the instruments they brought along.
Members of Hawaiian royalty within the court of King Kalakaua were very interested in the impromptu nightly concerts played by sailors from Madeira. Natives were quick to learn to play the approximate instruments made by the Portuguese, which they named ukulele, a word that means “jumping flea” because of the sharp and acute sounds that resulted from plucking the strings. It should be noted that the name of the instrument stuck, but the plucking not so much; musicians of Hawaii were clearly more interested in establishing a rhythm through strumming, and the melodies of traditional Hawaiian music can be played on ukulele without straying too far from the strumming chords.
Prodigies Music recommends the ukulele for the following reasons:
- The four strings make it uncomplicated to learn.
- Playing the fret board along with strumming patterns stimulates musical coordination.
- It is generally inexpensive.
- Its traditionally small size is ideal for children.
We should also mention that the traditional music of Hawaii sounds friendly and often proves irresistible to children because they tend to respond positively to learning how a few chords can make a full song. When shopping for a new ukulele for your home schooling student, try to look for a soprano version that includes a tuner you can clip onto the instrument. Children who are learning music theory and start off with basic instruments such as desk bells, music apps, and toy keyboards will find the ukulele to be moderately challenging. It is a good idea to start off with the ukulele if the student shows an interest in guitar sounds.
Getting Started With the Ukulele
While it is true that some musicians incorporate the ukulele into music that is not necessarily Hawaiian, the best way to learn this instrument is by strumming traditional songs from the islands. You can play quite a few pop songs with the four strings of the ukulele; in fact, this instrument sounds pretty sweet with many punk, reggae, and ska standards, but to skip over Hawaiian songs would be a cultural disservice. With this in mind, you could also take this opportunity to tell your homeschooling student about Hawaii and its place in American history; this would make for a nice geography, culture, and music introduction to the 50th state.
Before putting fingers to strings, the ukulele should be tuned. Assuming that your student is learning music theory with Prodigies Music, tuning should not be an issue with the clip-on device that is usually included with the purchase of every ukulele. If your instrument is a hand-me down, or if for some reason it did not come with a clip-on tuner, you should know that this is not an expensive item. If you have Prodigies desk bells or the desk bells app, you can tune the ukulele by ear, but this may be a bit difficult for younger learners. Keep in mind that we are not necessarily born tone-deaf, but we all need to learn a bit of music theory to deduce the ukulele strings, which correspond to the following notes:
- A – the bottom string.
- E – right above the bottom string.
- C – right below the top string.
- G – the top string.
The numbering of the strings starts at the bottom, so the the top one is always number four, thus being followed down by three, two, and one. When tuning by ear, you are looking for sharp sounds that are a bit higher than the note you are referencing; moreover, there should not be a warble coming form the strings. When your student learns strumming, he or she should be encouraged to tune the ukulele twice each lesson.
Time Signature for Hawaiian Music Strumming
Prior to the arrival of the Portuguese in Hawaii, ancient Hawaiian music was played with percussion and wind instruments; songs were more rhythmic than melodic. The Madeira sailors who came ashore and serenaded islanders probably introduced the 4/4 time signature, and this is is something that Hawaiian musicians quickly latched onto. Since the 4/4 is used across rock, pop, folk, country, and many other genres, it is a good one for your student to learn. When performing the strumming patterns below, counting to four will let you know that you are strumming in time with the song.
You do not play ukulele with picks, at least not Hawaiian songs. The strumming technique is pretty easy: You strum down with the nail of the right index finger, and you strum up with the fleshy tip. This is not the sole technique; guitar players who are used to picks will instinctively hold an invisible pick between their thumbs and index fingers, thus strumming with their nails but never with their fingertips. Your student can choose either or both techniques; it is more important to remind them that they strum with their wrists and not with their entire hands.
The strings of a sharply tuned ukulele will ring after a pattern, and students can stop this sound by placing their palms right on the strings. The best way for beginners to learn strumming is to plug into the C chord, which makes up about half of the entire Hawaiian folk music catalog. Counting three frets from the bottom string on the board, have your student press down firmly in order to add a C note to the strum. Beginners can start strumming openly without fretwork, but it may not sound Hawaiian enough. It is more fun to play C chords from the jump.
Women of the South Pacific sway their hips to the rhythm created by these two strumming patterns, which are pretty basic but sound great. Students will naturally count the 4/4 time signature with these patterns, which are played as follow:
- Down, skip beat, down–up, skip beat, up-down.
- Down, skip beat, down–up, skip beat, up-down-up.
The key with these strumming patterns is to play them at different tempos. A fun exercise would be to play the first pattern slowly once, stopping the strings, then playing again at a faster tempo. The second pattern simply adds one more strum at the end, but it sounds different enough to remind you about songs written by the Beach Boys. Switching between these two patterns will give you a nice calypso beat and a guitar-like sound.
Although most students will learn the hula strums without difficulty, a few may need to warm up with an even more basic strum pattern such as down, skip beat, up, skip beat, down, skip beat, up, skip beat at a 4/4 time signature. They can start to play with an open fret board without muting the strings; it is more important for students to count in their minds while strumming in time; the rhythm will take care of the rest, and then they can move onto silencing the strings, playing C chords, and tackling the aforementioned hula patterns.
Strumming With a Metronome
In Hawaiian culture, a mele is a rhythmic poem that features vocals punctuated by strumming that is more complicated than hula dance music. The tempo can vary, but the strum of many meles goes as follows:
This strumming pattern can be played as a power chord, and it can sound like a rumba for Spanish guitar if played fast enough. It should not be very difficult for students to learn the mele strumming pattern; it takes a bit of coordination even if played without any fretwork, but it is not impossible to master, at least not until you add a metronome to the exercise. In the beginning, this pattern can be limited to down-up-up-down without skipping beats and with the metronome set at a slow tempo. You can later append the down-up-up-down with a pause between the patterns, but the goal is to have the student start racing against the metronome.