Tag Archives: Ukulele

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.

Music From The Depression Era: Featuring the music of Woody Guthrie and Aaron Copland


Credits: Dorothea Lange; The Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

Time for something a little different.  

This Land Is Your Land and God Bless America are pretty typical songs in most music classrooms.  Fanfare for The Common Man is likely to make an appearance, too.  But this unit puts them (and a few more songs) into the context of the 1930’s, Great Depression, and Dust Bowl.

Admittedly, this is probably the result of my latent dream of also teaching history – but it’s a great way to do an interdisciplinary unit with your Social Studies teachers AND hits that hard-to-incorporate standard of creating ties to other arts.

I do this unit with 8th grade.  Because of some of the higher-level thinking involved, I probably wouldn’t do it with a much lower grade level, but it would certainly work with a higher one.  You could however, use the outline of music and create your own supplementary materials for lower grades.

Just like my Blues Unit, this set of lessons has a rich historical background with many opportunities for creating the music the students hear.

The unit outline and accompanying materials are at the end of this post for download.  Be sure to share your experiences!

Music & Art of the Depression Era Unit

Student Objectives:

  1. I can perform different genres of music with expression and technical accuracy. 8.1PR
  2. I can conduct a two beat pattern. 8.4 PR
  3. I can write, read, and perform specific rhythms. 8.5 PR
  4. I can compare and contrast and describe how the elements create meaning and expression. 8.2 RE, 8.3 RE
  5. I can describe the similarities in elements across different art forms. 8.6 RE

Ohio Music Standards

Day 1

Depression Era Background

  • Journal – What type of music do you listen to when you’re depressed? When times are bad? Does it match your mood? Does it uplift you?
  • Now listen to Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi – Complete question C while listening, then question D
    • Perform this using ukuleles  – DO RE MI Chords (Start today, continue on a uke playing day. I try to build in 15 minutes or so from day to day to give practice time as a class and individually. This also gets the students making music and away from paper/pencil.)

Day 2

History of the Dustbowl – “Surviving The Dust Bowl” (Optional to supplement social studies background)

Day 3


Day 4


  • Journal: God Bless America, Kate Smith
    • Journal question: Does this song and performance seem to express the same despair of the Dust Bowl? Why or why not?
      • (The Dust Bowl video from day 2 explains that God Bless America was especially popular among those on the east coast who were not directly effected by the Dust Bowl.   While they were sympathetic, they did not feel the despair and hopelessness felt by those in the middle of the country.)
    • Compare/Contrast God Bless America and This Land Is Your Land (Worksheet)
      • Be sure to address issues of:
        • Audience
        • Style of music
        • Performance setting
        • Topic
        • Message
      • Play on Ukes (or tonechimes, other) – notes

Day 5


  • Aaron Copland
    • Journal: Play Fanfare for the common man, Aaron Copland
      • What do you think this music would be used for?
    • Fanfare examples for discussion questions
      • http://youtu.be/j7ujvOWWfpY
      • http://youtu.be/nxpp_OkRU_M
      • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6sPbGm4sP8
        • Discussion questions/Questions to answer while listening
          • Who/what are fanfares usually written for?
          • What characteristics do they usually have? (Brass/trumpets, loud, attention-getting, announce the arrival/start of someone/thing important)
        • The Common Man (Powerpoint)
          • What characteristics of a fanfare does this music have?
          • What’s a “common man”?
            • Would he be someone who traditionally has a fanfare?
            • Who was a common man in the 1930’s? View pictures of workers and buildings they built
          • Why would Aaron Copland write a fanfare for a common man?
        • Notate Intro for cymbal and drums
          • Fanfare for the Common Man Intro Dictation worksheet provided represents one measure per box.
          • Below is the rhythm I have students dictate. It’s not the exact rhythm of the intro, but it works well for students to notate and play. Feel free to do the exact notation with your students.

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 2.20.59 PM

  • After notating, have students take turns performing (if not gong and bass drum, a suspended cymbal and lowest sounding drum)
  • Conduct – 2 beat pattern with cues (Practice first as class, then take turns leading student performers)

Day 6

Review (Based on Assessment)

Uke Practice on Do Re Mi

Day 7

Depression Era Assessment

Unit Materials for Download

Depression Era Unit Outline

Depression Era Introduction

Video Questions

DO RE MI Chords



Dust Bowl Blues/This Land Compare

The Common Man

Fanfare for the Common Man Intro Dictation

Depression Era Assessment

The Blues … and Ukes!


This is one of my favorite units because it’s such a great mix of history, theory, and performing – and the kids love it!  I do this unit with 8th graders but it would work down to upper elementary.  The combo of learning to play the blues as you learn about the blues makes it all come together.  Of course, you could also do this unit without the ukes and just stick to to blues styles.

I use this unit to introduce ukulele playing.  You’ll see that by the end of the first day with the ukes they are playing the ukesblues (well…most of it.)  My approach is to teach them what they need as we go.  This gets them playing and making music immediately – which is what they (and we!) really want to do!  It also makes it easier to introduce new concepts.  “You want to play your favorite song? Great – you just need to learn one more chord.”  “Oh ok, show me.”  Voila!  As my mentor, Dr. Timothy Gerber, likes to say, “Create a need to know.”

One more thought on using ukuleles in the classroom:  I like for my students to use their ukuleles as a tool for learning.  Of course, I have to teach them to play.  But we’re always learning something else in the process – like the blues.  This allows me to embed all kinds of other musical knowledge while they work on their playing skills.

I’ve included everything that I use for this unit for download except the extra choice songs.  These really depend on what your students like – try to find songs they love so they will be motivated to learn them!  Some tried and true songs my kids always love are The Sponge Bob Fun Song and Lean On Me.  Look for anything with three chords (C, F, G).  For students who are ready to do a little more you can add Am and you’ll have many more options.

As always, take what you need and add what makes it work for you!  And please share any thoughts, additional ideas, and experiences!

Blues Unit

Student Objectives

  • I can explain and aurally identify the 12 bar blues chord progression and lyric form in written and musical examples.
  • I can aurally identify various blues styles (country, classic, city) and explain the identifying characteristics
    • 7.1CE, 7.2CE, 7.3CE, 8.1CE, 8.2CE, 8.3CE
  • I can finger the C, F, and G, chords to play the 12 bar blues chord progression on the ukulele (4/4 time, quarter note strum pattern) using correct posture and technique. 8.1PR, 8.2PR
  • I can compose my own blues lyrics using the AAB lyric form. 8.3PR, 7.1CE
  • I can play at least one song of another style that uses the 12 bar blues progression. 8.1CE, 8.2CE

Link to Ohio Music Standards

Day 1

  • Start with class discussion on music that expresses emotions. Brainstorm songs that express a particular emotion. Lead into Blues songs lyrics – for the first hearing of Buddy Guy, identify the emotion it seems to express. What happens in the music that helps express this?
  • Listen to Buddy Guy’s “There is Something on your mind”
  • Dictate lyrics, ID pattern (AAB) – Blues Lyrics Worksheet
  • Create own blues lyrics following AAB pattern (once this is completed, save it for later!)

Day 2

  • Using the same Buddy Guy song…
    • Play root on keyboard or tone chimes
    • ID chord roots
      • Lead students in singing the roots on do, fa, and sol then transfer to C, F, G/I, IV, V
    • Map 12 bar blues progression – Blues Grid

Day 3

  • UKES! – Uke Playing Intro
    • Playing position, frets
    • C chord – Practice strumming 4 beat patterns and other variations
    • Play 12 bar blues recording and play C chord at appropriate times
    • Assessment: C exit chord

The following days are split between learning the history of the blues and practicing Ukes.

Day 4

  • Blues History
    • Blues Styles Powerpoint
      • Country Blues
      • Ukes
        • Review C
        • Add F – explain how to read a chord chart
        • Play 12 bar blues adding F
        • Isolate shift
        • F exit, shift exit

Day 5

  • Blues History
    • Classic Blues (Powerpoint)
      • Analyze examples: AAB pattern? 12 bar blues?
  • Ukes
    • Review C, F, add G7
    • Isolate shifts
    • Play 12 bar blues; Divide chords among students or shift when ready

Day 6

  • Blues History
    • City Blues
      • Analyze examples: AAB pattern? 12 bar blues?
  • Ukes
    • Individual practice playing 12 bar blues patterns
      • Master smooth shifting between chords

Day 7

  • Blues History
    • Review styles key identifying characteristics
    • Compare/contrast styles
  • Ukes
    • Individual/pairs practice

Day 8-10

Day 11

Day 12-14

  • Practice choice songs
  • Optional: Accompany blues lyrics composition from day 1
  • Teacher assessment of choice songs (uke assessment)
  • Make-up/Completion of 12 bar blues playing assessment, brochure, and/or styles assessment

Materials For Download

Blues Unit Outline

Blues Lyrics Worksheet

Blues Grid

Uke Playing Intro

Blues Styles Powerpoint

Blues Styles Pamphlet

Blues Styles Pamphlet grading

12 bar blues assess

uke assessmentblues styles quiz