... a Classroom Method for Young Children

In this article, I invite my fellow music teachers to consider the application of Kodaly vocal pedagogy to instrumental teaching, in particular, instruction for the classroom ukulele. Since 1990, I have been teaching the ukulele to children in the second grade (seven and eight year-olds) in preparation for the study of classical guitar. I direct a guitar ensemble for older students and I wanted a way of introducing younger children to playing guitar. The ukulele was a natural choice. Initially I experimented with a couple of different method books, but was dissatisfied with the results I obtained with young children. It was only after I started writing out familiar songs in Sol-fa that the students really started to learn. Here was something they could relate to and build their knowledge on! I wrote out dozens of nursery rhymes and musical games, illustrating each sheet with a small sketch, and photocopying them for my students. It wasn't long before people started to notice my young students performing in concerts and music festivals. Some of my colleagues inquired about what I was doing to get such young children to play so well.

Soon I was sharing my Sol-fa ukulele method with other teachers and they were getting results too. In October, 2001, I was invited to attend the Nova Scotia Learning Interchange Design Studio where I did the preliminary work for publishing this method on the Internet as a free resource to public educators. In May 2003, I completed the work as my Masters Degree in Education (Learning and Technology) project at Acadia University.

This method evolved as a natural extension of my Kodaly training in vocal music education at the University of Western Ontario, and my experience as a teacher of classical guitar. My influences in developing it have been my mentor and classical guitar teacher, the late Tibor Puskas and, although I have never met them, J. Chalmers Doane, the dean of ukulele teachers, and John Barron, author of "Ride With Me - A Journey from Unison to Part-Singing". [1] Doane's slim volume "The Teacher's Guide to Classroom Ukulele" has impressed me greatly with its wealth of suggestions on everything from classroom setup to practical psychology.[2]

The Kodaly Method

The Hungarian composer, Zoltan Kodaly (1882-1967) believed that training the voice using relative Sol-fa was the best way to obtain a secure musical footing. He cherished the folk songs and styles of his culture and developed his ideas for early childhood education around them. In particular, the emphasis on pentatonic scales was thought to make in-tune singing easier to achieve. He believed in using only music of the highest quality in providing musical experiences for all students. According to Kodaly, singing, dancing and playing musical games in early childhood develops a sense of inner hearing that must be established before any work with notation commences. He helped to create a child-centered learning sequence that develops musical independence through literacy. Today, inspired by the prodigious accomplishments of educators in Hungary, Kodaly's philosophy of music education has been embraced in many countries around the world.[3]

Applying the Kodaly Method to Ukulele Instruction

In her article "Kodaly Strategies for Instrumental Teachers", Priscilla Howard says the incorporating of Kodaly vocal pedagogy into instrumental teaching, especially string teaching, can have numerous benefits. For students, it promises sound musicianship; for teachers, creativity and flexibility. [4] It is important to remember that the children should first learn to SING the songs accurately. This is generally part of their early music education and by the age of seven or eight, most children are familiar with 'The Counting Song', 'Lucy Locket', 'Rain, Rain Go Away', and many other nursery rhymes. Students should also be familiar with the hand signs, Sol-fa syllable names, and the rhythm names (ta, ti-ti, etc.).[5]

In the beginning, we teach the children to play single notes - not chords! (see guitar pedagogy below) We teach them to play and sing the open strings first, and then melodies that the children have already learned to sing in their first two years of general music. As the students play and sing they will improve their tone and phrasing and develop inner hearing. Bruce Dalby, in describing Edwin E. Gordon's music learning theory, says,"Instrumentalists must learn to sing through their instruments in order to play musically." [6]

The melodies progress from two notes (so - mi) to three notes (so - mi - la) to eventually encompass the entire range of the instrument in first position. Although the method is based on a "movable Do" system, [7] we must not confuse the students at the outset. To establish the technique and to get them playing comfortably and confidently, for the first twenty-four lessons, we sing and play songs that use the notes of the D major scale. These notes were chosen for two reasons:

1. The key of D provides a comfortable register for the child's developing singing voice.

2. The key of D is the "natural" key of the instrument based on its tuning (A D F# B). This makes the notes of the D major scale lie more comfortably under the fingers and takes maximum advantage of the open strings.

Conventional notation is used, wherein the letters (d r m f s l t) refer to the Sol-fa syllables (do re mi fa so la ti). A note lower than do is indicated by an uppercase letter and subscript 1 (examples: S1 L1 T1) and a note higher than ti is shown by a superscript 1 (examples: d1 r1 m1). This allows us to notate the correct register using only seven letters. The open strings of the soprano ukulele are tuned to the standard "low A" tuning: A D F# B and the children are taught to sing them as: So1 do mi la. Figure 1 shows the range of notes found in first position of the ukulele as they appear on the staff.


Figure 2 shows the range of notes found in first position of the ukulele as they appear on the fretboard. Open strings are shown as white circles and fretted notes as black circles.


Applying Principles of Classical Guitar Pedagogy to Ukulele Instruction

First teach the children how to hold the ukulele with both hands for safety - the sound of a ukulele bouncing off the floor is not a pretty thing. Next teach them how to play the open strings using the thumb of the right hand. The RH thumb should rest on the string with RH fingers gently curled as if gripping an imaginary bicycle handlebar. Always sing what you play, and insist that the students do so as well. Play 'follow-the leader' or 'echo-play' until they can imitate you perfectly and instantly as you play and sing the open strings. Do this for a few minutes at the start of every lesson, making your open string melodies progressively longer and more difficult. Let the kids take turns being the leader - they love to show what they can do.

The ukulele takes TWO hands to play. In this way it is like a piano - both right-handed and left-handed people play it. No one ever suggests we string a piano backwards for left-handed players, nor should you let your students try to hold the ukulele backwards. The more difficult work is done by the left hand - so left-handed students may actually have an advantage over their classmates. [8]

My early efforts as a self-taught guitarist and my later training under the Hungarian classical guitarist, Tibor Puskas, have made me aware of some pitfalls to avoid. In my view, the teaching of chords to beginners is a poor practice - it invariably leads to dysfunctional tension of the left hand. The coordination of the left hand must be established slowly and in a logical sequence to ensure a relaxed technique. For this reason, the ukulele teacher should begin the development of left hand technique by teaching single notes - not chords. Please note, this is the opposite of what you will find suggested in most popular methods, and is one of the keys to success with ukulele or guitar.

Instruments, Classroom Setup, Tuning and other Tips

Students must have their own ukulele, whether provided on loan from the school or purchased by the parents. It is not the time spent in class that brings the ability to play, it is the time spent practicing at home. Two thirty-minute classes per week are ideal for this age group.

Have an open seating arrangement so that you can freely walk among the players. Seat two students at each music stand. Teach them to put their cases under their chairs - there should be no clutter in the traffic aisles of the floor.

You must tune the instruments for them initially. If the instruments are adjusted properly and handled with care, they will stay in tune for days and even weeks. Choose a helper - tune the helper's ukulele first at the piano. Then have the helper walk with you, playing the open strings on his/her ukulele, as you move throughout the room, tuning each student's ukulele in turn. 10 - 15 seconds per student is all it takes.

In a half hour class of twenty students it should take no more than 5 minutes to tune up when no repair or maintenance is required. Keep spare instruments tuned and ready-to-play so that you can trade them with the students whose ukuleles need adjustments. Do all adjustments after class time - don't keep them waiting while you change somebody's string!

Try not to talk too much - 10 % instruction time and 90 % playing time is what the kids want and need.

Read J. Chalmers Doane's book ! [2]

An invitation

I have taught Grade one students (six and seven year-olds) to play the ukulele for special occasions such as Christmas concerts. I was amazed to hear them one day, skipping through the halls of the school while singing the theme to Beethoven's 9th (Choral) Symphony to Sol-fa syllables from memory - not only was it in tune, it was perfectly on pitch!! If you would like to find out more about this method, you can download the lessons from my website. [9] Don't worry if you've never played ukulele. Dust off those old ukuleles in your storage closet and give it a try. It's as easy as do - re - mi!

Sample Lesson

Lesson Nine

 Notes: s m l

 Song: Little Tommy Tiddlemouse

Little Tommy Tiddlemouse

Listen to the Lesson:

so - mi - la

1. Clap and say the time names: ti-ti ti-ti ti-ti ta...

2. Say the Sol-fa syllables in time: so-so so-la so-so mi...

3. Sing the Sol-fa names in time: so-so so-la so-so mi...

4. Sing and play the notes on the ukulele: s s s l s s m...

5. Sing the words and play the notes on the ukulele: "Little Tommy..."

 Tips on Technique:

  • This song is played on two strings - the (mi) string and the (la) string. Use the right hand thumb to play the strings.

  •  The note "so" is created by pressing the (mi) string down to contact the third fret. Learn to press just hard enough to make a clear sound.

  • Encourage the students to play the note "so" with the ring finger of the left hand. Use the tip (not the pad) of the finger and place it on the (mi) string just behind the third fret.

  • This is a favorite guessing game song. One child is chosen to be Tommy who sits with his back to the class. All the children sing and play the song while the instructor chooses one child to stand behind Tommy. At the appropriate time, the child taps on his ukulele, then plays and sings (solo) "Who am I?" Tommy gets one chance to try and guess the mystery child's identity. If he guesses correctly, he gets another turn; if he guesses wrongly, the mystery child takes a turn. Children love this game, but some will try to fool Tommy by disguising their voices. Insist that they always use their best singing voices.


  1. Barron, J. (1993) Ride With Me : a Journey from Unison to Part-singing. Teacher's book. Oakville, Ontario, Canada. The Frederick Harris Music Company.

  2. Doane, J.C. (1977). The Teacher's Guide to Classroom Ukulele. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Waterloo Music Company Limited.

  3. Sinor, J. (1997). The ideas of Kodaly in America. Music Educators Journal, 83 (5), 37-41.

  4. Howard, P. M. (1996). Kodaly strategies for instrumental teachers. Music Educators Journal, 82 (5), 27-33.

  5. Richards, M.H. (1966). Hand Singing and Other Techniques. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers.

  6. Dalby, B. (1999) "Teaching audiation in instrumental classes," Music Educators Journal, 85 (6), 22-26.

  7. Levine, A. (1997) "Movable do" and "fixed do": what they are, what they aren't, and why "movable do" should be used as the basis for musicianship training. [On-line] 32 pages Available : <http://www.artlevine.com/PDF_Files/movabledoex.pdf>

  8. Doane (1977). p 43.

  9. Dobson, W. (2001) " 'U' for Ukulele: a Classroom Method for Young Children" [On-line] Available : <http://ssdsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/wdobson>.

Note: To download the lessons, first go to the page you want to download, then right-click anywhere on the page and select Print from the pop-up menu.



© Warren Dobson 2001


updated: 12/09/04