Strik­ing a chord with chil­dren

Ukule­les are easy to use and, cru­cially, easy on the ear, says Char­lotte Phillips

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Family & Education -

‘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.

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