Striking a chord with children
Ukuleles are easy to use and, crucially, easy on the ear, says Charlotte Phillips
‘They’re guitars.” “No, banjos.” “Violins?” The children filing into the classroom are confused, and no wonder. It’s late on a Thursday morning, normally the time I’d be going two rounds with my recorder classes, hoping to emerge at lunchtime with both hearing and sanity intact.
This week, though, I’ve persuaded the headteacher to try a musical experiment. Ukuleles are being touted as the hot favourite to replace recorders as the easyto-learn instruments used to teach beginners in schools. Armed with the optimistically-titled tuition book, You Can Teach Yourself Uke (by William Bay), I put the theory to the test.
It’s not that I dislike recorders. On a good day, they’re as easy on the ear as any other well-played instrument. It’s just that they’re also shrill enough to crack a coffee cup at 20 paces and, like golden retrievers, have a tendency to drool, which can make my lessons look and feel like a re-staged version of Noah’s Ark, complete with light drizzle.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” says the head, who has spent the past week muttering allusions to George Formby and window-cleaning. When the ukuleles arrive, however, they’re hard not to like. For a start, you pluck them, guaranteeing a spit-free environment. They’re also pleasantly quirky. Size isn’t linked to the age of the player but the range of notes on offer. Ours are soprano ukuleles, small in size and big on child appeal.
Compact enough to fit little hands perfectly, they’re painted vibrant reds, purples and blues and look like guitars that have been attacked by a shrinking machine with a spray-gun attachment.
Instead of the guitar’s six strings, they have four, which makes them easier to tune, although the idiosyncratic and initially logic-defying arrangement of high and low strings does take some getting used to. And to top it all, you can sing as you go — something that no wind instrument, with the notable exception of the nose flute, is able to offer.
It’s time to attempt the first chord: C major. Requiring the addition of just the middle finger to the top string, it’s not difficult to play. Using plectrums to guard against finger attrition from the unforgiving nylon strings, the children get strumming and a pleasantly mellow sound fills the air.
Ten minutes later, they are well on the way to mastering the second chord — F this time — and while their wrist action may well be causing George Formby to spin in his grave, their steady rhythm means that at least he can do it on the beat.
Although the ukulele became briefly fashionable in Britain during the 1920s and ’50s and again, bizarrely, after the deaths of enthusiasts George Harrison and Tiny Tim, its popularity has always been sporadic.
It’s possible that there’s an element of musical snobbery at work. Crack the recorder and there’s a classical repertoire out there for the taking. Master a beguiling rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles on the ukulele and, er, that’s it.
Today, though, ukes are on the up once more. No one is quite sure why, though the virtuoso talents of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain may have something to do with it. They’re so popular in Japan that when they tour there, they’re often mobbed by fans who flock on to the stage to play along with the experts.
There are now an estimated 3,000 players in Britain and music shops are reporting brisk trade. Purple Turtle Music, an online store, has sold more than 1,000 ukuleles in the past four months alone, while The Duke of Uke, an east London ukulele emporium, has never been busier.
And it’s not just an instrument for the middle-aged, mid-life crisis brigade. Ubercool teens are opting for it, too, some even showcasing their skills on websites such as YouTube.
So will it work for us? The children are instant converts. “I like the way you can just put it in your backpack,” says six-year-old Charlotte. “They’re fun because you don’t have to blow,” adds Nick, seven. “And the strumming feels nice as you go along.”
Just as important, they’re a winner with teachers, too. Recorder lessons are invariably punctuated by the firm closing of every door between the staff room and me. Today, for the first time ever, not only do the doors stay open, but several teachers rush in and ask for an encore. The children, needless to say, are happy to oblige.
As a crowning achievement, we even get our first booking. Admittedly, the gig, a one-off performance of He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands for an end-of-term assembly, may not be up there with weddings, christenings and bar mitzvahs.
But I’m convinced that, at this rate, all the children have to do is master just a few more chords for their first professional engagement to be only a matter of time.