Chances are, if you’re a piano teacher, some of your piano students may have expressed interest in the ukulele. Ukuleles are super popular right now, probably because they are such an accessible way to have fun making music. They’re inexpensive, easy to carry around and pretty easy to play. There are tons of fun songs that kids love that are easy to play on the ukulele.
Kids are really in tune with the ukulele. They see other kids playing ukuleles in groups. They see YouTube videos covering almost any song you can think of. They might even get to play one in their school music class.
So, can piano teachers teach ukulele? For sure!
If you’re already a skilled pianist, learning the ukulele yourself is no big deal. And, since your students already have a bit of a musical foundation from piano, they’re great candidates to learn ukulele as well.
There are tons of ways you could incorporate some ukulele classes into your piano studio:
- Let your students earn some ukulele time as a reward for good piano practice or accomplishments. I prefer to give non-material rewards to my students and my students have been very motivated by opportunities to play with a ukulele.
- Host a Ukulele Camp in the summer. Since summer tends to be a less predictable time for piano teachers, it’s a great idea to have a variety of camps to offer to supplement the unsteady income of summer months. Ukulele camps are perfect because they give your current piano students another option in the summer. Plus, your camp might attract other students that wouldn’t normally take piano lessons. Ukulele camps can be geared towards many age groups: young kids, teens, or adults.
- Host a weekly ukulele jam class. Playing the ukulele is such a fun group activity and an ideal way to practice it is by jamming with others. Once you have a few students who know 3-4 basic ukulele chords, you could easily form a group and lead them through songs together. Hundreds of folk and popular songs can be played using the same set of chords, so you’ll have no shortage of music to learn together. Then, you can just learn new chords together as you go.
So, if you’re a piano teacher wanting to break into the world of ukulele, here’s everything you need to know to get started.
Buy A Ukulele
You don’t need anything fancy to get started. You could either stop in at your local music store and see what they have on hand or find a ukulele online.
Ukuleles come in four different sizes. Soprano is the smallest and most typical ukulele. These are inexpensive and usually under $50. They’re great for starting out since they are both a small investment and they’re small in size. The smaller size will guarantee no trouble reaching chords. (I have this Hilo soprano ukulele and this Waterman in purple.)
Concert ukuleles are a little bit bigger than soprano. A lot of people upgrade to a concert size once they learn the basics on a soprano. Tenor ukuleles are even bigger. Although they are tuned the same, they tend to have a fuller and deeper sound than a concert.
Finally, baritone ukuleles are the biggest. They are tuned differently than the other ukuleles which gives them an even deeper and bigger sound, almost like a guitar.
A soprano or concert ukulele would be the best choice for you and your students when getting started.
Many ukulele players find that it’s easy to collect ukuleles. Since they are so inexpensive and they’re all a little different, it’s easy to snatch up a ukulele whenever you see one for sale. You can find ukuleles in every color and often they have fun designs on them. So, be careful – ukulele might turn into a bit of an obsession!
As with all things, I believe you get what you pay for. I’d avoid the very bottom-of-the-line ukuleles that are usually $20-$30, but pretty much anything in the $30-$50 range will do for starting out.
Once you have your ukulele, you’ll be anxious to start playing it right away.
If you can get the hang of 4 chords, you’ll be well on your way. C, F, G and Am are the most commonly used chords on the ukulele, so learn those 4 chords and practice playing a variety of chord progressions using them.
This article over at Acoustic Bridge does a great job of explaining how to learn those 4 basic chords and it gives you a bunch of songs that you could learn with those 4 chords.
As piano teachers, we have a good grasp on chords, how to build them and how to work with them, so once you learn where your fingers go, your left hand work is pretty straight forward. However, nothing that we do on the piano is quite like strumming. It will likely take a bit more practicing and work to get the hang of strumming. The good news is that you can keep strumming patterns super simple at first.
When you’re first learning chords, don’t worry too much about strumming patterns. Here’s a good way to approach what to do with your right hand as you learn:
- When you first start out, strum a chord 1 time as a whole note. Strum on beat 1 and give yourself 3 counts to situate your hand on the next chord in your progression. It will feel slow, but it will give you a chance to master your chords and moving between chords.
- Once you feel comfortable moving from one chord to the next, strum each chord 4 times as steady quarter notes. Don’t worry about strumming up or down, just focus on keeping a steady beat with your right hand while changing chords with your left hand.
- Over time you can get fancier with more interesting strumming patterns. You might find some patterns that feel natural to you, or you could study commonly used ukulele patterns and practice them. The key to learning the patterns is to practice them consistently. Sometimes it’s helpful to stay on 1 chord and strum a pattern over and over, or to mute your strings with your left hand and work through your strumming pattern.
Since you’ve already put in the long hours practicing the piano, you’ll likely find that practicing the ukulele is a fairly relaxing hobby. Instead of worrying about what 10 different fingers are doing on a tiny fraction of a second, you just have to master a handful of chords and make sure your right hand can move to a steady beat.
One effective way to practice is to play along with YouTube videos. You can find tons of videos created for this exact purpose. It feels kind of like karaoke, except for ukulele playing. On YouTube, type in the the name a of a song you want to play along with “ukulele play along”. You’ll probably find several videos for most songs. Usually it’s a musician playing the ukulele and singing the song and you’ll be able to see both the lyrics and chords on the screen as they play.
My favorite ukulele play along channel on YouTube is Munson Covers. He has a huge variety of songs to learn and I find his format and approach very easy to follow.
Keep in mind that you don’t have to master all components of the video at once. As pianists, we don’t necessarily have to sing along with our own playing very often. If singing and playing is something that feels difficult to you, focus on one thing at a time.
Start out by just following along with the words and singing the song a few times to get it in your head.
Then, you might choose to only work through the chord progression along with the video. Start out by strumming each chord 1 time at each chord change. Then, restart the video and try to play along with a consistent strumming pattern. This might take several tries to get all the chord changes at the correct time with consistent strumming, but luckily the video will hold everything together for you if you have trouble keeping up.
Eventually, you’ll feel comfortable singing and strumming at the same time.
YouTube is a great practicing tool because it has such a vast collection of songs and of course it’s at your fingertips any time of the day. I find that ukulele practice is a nice unwinding activity at the end of each day.
However, as handy as it is to have YouTube at our disposal, an even better way to practice the ukulele is with real live people. Ukulele clubs and jam sessions are very popular right now. Search online to see if there is group or club in your area.
As you know, having other musicians to learn from and to learn with invaluable. Ukulele players are a laid-back and friendly group of people. They are used to playing with people of all levels, so do be shy about jumping in early in your ukulele career. I always leave my ukulele club gatherings with more confidence playing new chords, ideas for new songs to practice and stronger strumming technique.
There are tons of great ukulele books to play from. You can find collections of music from most current artists, movies and shows. Plus there are many wonderful collections of music give a variety of songs to learn.
I first started learning from The First 50 Songs You Should Play On Ukulele and The First 50 Christmas Songs You Should Play On The Ukulele. This is a great series of books. The song selection is just right with a mix of old and new songs.
My local ukulele club plays from Daily Ukulele and Daily Ukulele Leap Year Edition. The songs in these books are a little more traditional, but they also include a lot of more popular songs as well. I really enjoy the format of these books because all of the songs show which chords are used at the beginning of each song. This makes it easy to make sure you know all of the chords before you start playing. Then, only the chord symbol appears in the music (rather than the chord chart).
I find this format helpful for 2 reasons. It forces me to actually learn the chord instead of relying on the chord chart. And, secondly, it saves a lot of space. All of the songs in Daily Ukulele fit onto 1 or 2 pages, so you never have to worry about a page turn. This is really helpful on the ukulele, since both hands stay busy all the time. I highly recommend these books!
If you’re ready to start helping students learn the ukulele, you’ll probably want some good materials to guide you.
At the piano, we used to having carefully laid out method books to ease the process of learning the piano.
On the ukulele, it’s nice to have something to work from, but it’s also possible to do more “freestyle” teaching where you teach chords then learn songs with those chords.
If you’re looking for some material to get started with, here’s what I’ve tried:
Rainbow Ukulele is a full curriculum designed for kids. It assumes you’re teaching in a classroom setting so it’s very thorough and includes a lot of informational and historical facts, in addition to teaching kids to play. I don’t find all of that information necessary in my studio setting, but you can certainly pick and choose what you use.
It’s available on Teacher’s Pay Teachers and it includes the Teacher’s Guide, Power Point presentations for you to teach from, printable material for students and audio files to accompany the students.
Ukulele In the Classroom by James Hill is another great curriculum. He starts this book saying “You walk before you run, you pick before you strum.” Rather than learning chords first, students learn how to read music and pick individual notes on the ukulele. Most of his songs include two different lines of notes to form an ensemble and they also have the chords on the music as a 3rd part. I enjoy teaching from this approach because it’s gives students a solid music foundation using the ukulele. I find that most students are eager to learn chords though, so I often supplement with a chord approach simultaneously.
James Hill has another fantastic book called Booster Uke. This book is great for beginners because it teachers chords as “twin” pairs. It features a lot of unconventional harmonies and each song uses 2 chords that play really easily together. Some of the songs in this book are my favorites to return to. The book includes a CD and it’s very helpful and satisfying to play along with it.
If you’re looking for an app to help students learn the ukulele, Yousician is the way to go. Yousician walks you through lessons, then includes interactive ways to practice the ukulele. It uses the built-in mic on your device to hear what you’re playing. This gives you instant feedback on if you’re playing the right chords and at the right time. It’s gamified learning at it’s best.
One teaching aid that really comes in handy with the ukulele is dot stickers. You can use them to show students where to place their fingers for certain chords. These are a game-changer for communicating with kids. When teaching a student where to put fingers, you have to name a string, a fret and which finger to use. This often turns into a confusing jumble of numbers that frustrates kids. Adding color-coded stickers to the students ukulele makes it much easier to help kids find chords.
Another way to make learning the ukulele easier for kids is to switch out the strings for colored strings. This isn’t necessary, but some kids have trouble keeping the ukulele strings straight, especially because they don’t go in A-B-C order. These colored strings make it easy for your to communicate with your student and for your student to work with the strings more easily.
When you’re teaching ukulele, make sure you have a sturdy music stand. I have several of these fold-up stands that do in a pinch, but I much prefer to use an actual music stand like this one. Some of the ukulele books are quite heavy and others have binding that make it hard to keep the book open so a flimsy stand will be frustrating to deal with. Plus, if you’re using an app you’ll want to have a strong stand to hold your tablet.
Helpful Tips For Teaching Ukulele
–Don’t start kids too young. A lot of young kids, like 5-6 year olds, and their parents assume the ukulele is a good instrument to start with, but my experience with this age group has been that most of them are too young. Think of all of the fine motor skills a child needs to play the piano. The motor skills used to play the ukulele are even more fine. What I mean by this is instead of using a finger to strike black keys on the piano, kids immediately have to be able to hold down a very small string, within a very small fret using their left hand and use their right hand at the same time to do something completely different. Achieving that level of coordination can be frustrating for little kids. If you do come across a young student eager to learn ukulele, just be sure to go slow, start really simple and use lots of dot stickers!
–Speaking of dot stickers, they really do make communication easier. I only recently started using dot stickers they’ve been a game changer. As a piano teacher, I hold my students to pretty high standards, so naturally, my teaching philosophies carried over into ukulele. I wanted students to speak in terms of correct strings, correct fingers, correct fret numbers, etc. However, I discovered, it simply takes some kids a lot of time to master these concepts, especially since they are so different from what they learn on the piano. Using dot stickers takes away all of that initial confusion, and you can always help students keep the facts straight once they are more comfortable playing their new instrument.
–Don’t mess with a pick or a strap. Some kids will come with a strap and a bunch of picks, but I’ve never found these extra things necessary. I always have students sit down to play, so holding a ukulele isn’t an issue. Any time a student has tried to use a pick, it has fallen through the sound hole of the uke and the student causes a big scene trying to get it out. It’s much easier to not bother with it. Plus, I strongly prefer the more muted sound of strumming with fingers rather than a pick. It will really keep your noise levels down in larger groups, too.
-Play along with your students as much as you can. They will really learn the most by absorbing everything that you’re doing – watching your fingers change chords, matching up with your strum patterns and imitating your sound. Even if your students have trouble keeping up, encourage them try to stick with you as much as they can and to keep going if they miss some chord changes.
-Bring the ukulele into piano lessons. When my students are playing simple songs with ukulele-friendly chord progressions, I love to pull out my uke to accompany them. Students think it’s so fun and special to play along with a ukulele. It gives them a taste of what it’s like to make music in an ensemble and it opens doors for new discussions about musicianship, ensemble playing and more.
-Use ukulele to teach general music, preschool classes or young piano students. My ukulele makes a weekly appearance in my preschool music classes. It’s a great accompanying instrument for preschool songs and the kids love seeing and hear it. I usually give kids the chance to have a hands-on experience with the ukulele by holding a chord and letting each student strum the strings. Once you feel comfortable playing the ukulele, you’ll probably find many opportunities to teach with it and share it with others.
If you’re curious about all the ukulele hype, I encourage you to get a ukulele and get started! The informal approach of the ukulele is a welcomed change of pace for piano teachers and it will add a new dimension to your piano teaching.
Do you play the ukulele? Have you ever taught it? Leave a comment below and tell us your favorite resources for learning the ukulele.
Other Articles You May Enjoy:
- 9 Apps For Learning and Practicing The Piano
- Practice Repetition With A Piano Practice Counter
- 21 Must-Have Tools For Your Piano Studio
- Teach Your Students To Jam With Chords
- Motivation Medicine (My favorite way to get kids in a consistent practice routine!)