Category Archives: ukulele

Improvising & Composing in Music+STEM


As I mentioned in my last post, teaching kids to compose and improvise FullSizeRendercan be two of the hardest standards to address.  In it, I explained how my classes composed the blues by laying down the 12 bar blues chord progression and adding a melody based on the blues scale. When the kids finished this, they moved on to creating a background track they could improvise over.

When we start learning to play the blues on ukuleles I use a background track to beef up our sound and fill in the holes we’re not ready to play yet.  (You can read about how I introduce the blues on ukuleles in this post – just scroll down to Day 3.)  Because of this the kids have an idea of what a background track is and what it’s used for.

We again used Noteflight to create the background track – starting with the 12 bar blues chord progression and adding a drum part. Students were encouraged to create a rhythmically interesting chord progression and drum line.  They loved working on this because DRUMS!

There are several percussion instruments that can be added to a Noteflight score.  I had my students stick to “Unpitched percussion/Percussion 1 Line”.  The variation you see in the percussion “pitch” indicates low to high drum sounds and cymbals.

Here are a couple of examples of student work:

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 7.33.01 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 7.34.25 PM

The final piece of the students’ “Blues Portfolio” was a performance to improvise with the background track they composed.  When I was a young trumpet student I was terrified to improvise.  I’m sure it was because my teacher just said something like, “Ok, your turn, improvise!”  I had no idea what to do, because as we know, while improvising means you make it up as you go, you still need some rules and structure to follow.

The approach I’ve arrived at over the years is to provide a beginning structure with the fewest decisions possible.  That mean improvising a rhythm on one note.  When kids are comfortable with this, we move on and add another note.  In the key of C, this usually means we start on C and add E flat when they are ready.  As students progress they can add the rest of the notes in the Blues scale.  We used ukuleles to improvise but you could also you keyboards or even Orff instruments.  The Orff instruments are great because you can provide only the notes you want students to play.

The blues scale on the ukulele follows a simple pattern.  I learned how to do this from “Ukulele Mike” on youTube.

Mike teaches you how to improvise in the key of D.  To use the key of C you just shift everything down 2 frets.  So instead of playing frets 5-3 on the A string, you play 3-1 on the A string, then 3-1 on E string, and 3-0 on the C string.  I use this picture to help students remember the pattern.

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 7.56.15 PM

Finally, students performed their improvisation for me as their background track played.  Some students even performed for the class.

Improvising is a great way to individualize instruction for students.  As I said above, students can add notes as they are ready.  Some will stick to one or two pitches but many will challenge themselves to use all the notes of the blues scale.

I’ve learned that students need LOTS of modeling to learn to improvise.  They also need time to experiment and figure out what they can do – often without an audience.  This was the first time my students improvised.  It’s definitely something that we will spend more time on to develop their skills.


By the way, I was able to take a few of my students to demonstrate their learning for our district’s senior citizen luncheon.  They played the 12 bar blues and improvised!


Teaching Ukulele Like A Pirate


Kids love ukuleles.

Honestly, as far as I can tell, everyone loves ukuleles.

So when the time comes around to introduce our Blues and Ukes unit, I’m usually pretty confident things are going to go well.  But I decided to throw in something new this year to kick things off.

I decided to teach the ukulele like a pirate. 

And how does a pirate teach? Well, if you’re not familiar with Dave Burgess’s book, Teach Like A Pirate, you should be.  It will change the way you teach.  It has the potential to change your whole school.  So check it out.

If you know the book you’ll remember that “hooks” are an important part of creating engaging lessons. Now let’s face it, it doesn’t take a lot of work to make playing the ukulele engaging.  If you check out the unit I posted previously you’ll find lots of ways to keep students engaged.  I also have some upcoming posts on how to incorporate technology into the unit.

But I wanted to grab the students attention this year with something new.  So about two days before we were scheduled to start with the ukes, I put up this sign …


I also posted the question on our daily agenda/goals board.  It raised some questions, which led me to ask the question – what could provide hours of fun and creativity?

The next day at the end of class I gave each student a coupon on their way out –


The kids were confused at first. What is this? What do I do with it?

Read it and bring it back tomorrow was all I said.

Now remember, I teach middle school.  They often don’t even bring a pencil to class.  But guess what – almost EVERY student brought that coupon back the next day.  They gave me their coupon, I gave them a ukulele, and we got started.  By the end of class they were playing along (well, one chord) to the 12 Bar Blues.  But THEY WERE PLAYING AND MAKING MUSIC!

I drew two coupons at the end of class for candy bars.  And yes, the few students who didn’t bring theirs back got to play – they just had to wait until last to get their ukuleles and didn’t get in the drawing.

A few days into our ukulele playing and the kids are practicing and learning on their own.

A few days into our ukulele playing and the kids are practicing and learning on their own.