Castor Valley’s Ukuleles

To the CVES Council and Administration,

Tuning the ukuleles

Stephanie helping me tune the ukuleles

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for this year’s purchase of a class set of 28 ukuleles for the students of Castor Valley.  Through this major purchase, as well as other great arts support initiatives such as the Talentfest showcase taken on by dynamic parent council members and school staff, you have demonstrated not only that the performing arts and especially music are still very important in our school, but that we are also innovative and creative when faced with changes and new challenges with regard to music education and how it’s being delivered to our elementary students. The ukulele is currently enjoying a revival and is sweeping Canada as the favourite new music literacy teaching tool. (See this Toronto Star article from January 27, 2011, and note: students pictured are using the same instrument models we purchased for our school)  I’d like to share with you how our ukulele project started for me and how we’ve been able to use the instruments, so far.

Since the winter of 2010, when fellow-parent Tara Klager decided to initiate an “arts club” during that first year of change, I have discovered that the ukulele has wonderful potential for getting kids really excited about learning music. After I met ukulele master and teacher, James Hill, at a school concert, I decided to continue to learn and share my love of this giant little instrument through teaching. Now that I’ve almost completed my first year of teacher certification and have experienced the joy of teaching for myself, I will continue to do all that I can to promote and share the ukulele in any way I can with this community.

This year, I’ve had the great pleasure of assisting one of our part-time teachers, Kim MacMullin, with her single weekly music class period, as a volunteer. When Kim and I met early in the year at a parent-teacher interview, she knew that I had been the “ukulele lady” volunteer at the school. She then confessed to me that she was feeling daunted at the prospect of having a music class to teach this year, she having had no prior personal musical experience of her own, let alone music teaching experience. It still confounds me why this situation continues to exist for teachers when we have a talented, professional music teacher on staff who is also in a part-time position, but be that as it may, I felt I was in a great position to offer my help to her, while completing the practicum phase of my teaching course at the same time. Since we had some ukuleles from a donation we received from the Ottawa Folklore Centre, (in support of our arts club initiative in 2010) I offered to come to her class once per week and use these to introduce her kids to the instruments. Being that there were only 9 usable ukuleles, all with considerable wear from 2 years of “ukulele club” use, we had to split her group into 3 small groups and rotate each week between the ukulele, the harmonica and the guided listening stations during the music period. After a few weeks of this I found myself wishing I could get everyone progressing together. That’s why I was so thrilled when the Ad Hoc Finance committee approved my request for funds to buy a full class set of ukuleles. Once we received them in January, we have seen amazing changes take place in the students and having the ukuleles for the entire group has made a huge difference to their overall experience.

Once all of the students had an instrument, it immediately became a whole group activity inclusive to everyone. There was less competition between students who were more proficient and less self-consciousness on the part of the students with less experience. The instruments are of good quality and therefore the quality of the sounds they were making improved immediately, as did their ear training and listening skills; and now having 3 times as many musicians playing together at once made it easier to join in, sing louder, make mistakes without fear and most importantly, it was more fun!

 “One of the main criteria for success in positive effects of engagement with music on personal and social development only occur if it is an enjoyable and rewarding experience.” (from: The Power of Music: Its impact on the intellectual, social and personal development of children and young people. By Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education, University of London, UK published by the International Journal of Music Education August 2010 vol. 28 no. 3269-289)

The children were immediately able to play a simple repeating pattern while singing and making accompanying gestures during a simple version of “Sur le pont d’Avignon”, then we learned the Pentatonic scale notes and we’ve now progressed to reading separate parts of music and playing them together as an ensemble. We are all very excited at the prospect of a possible performance opportunity at the end of year concert to show all they’ve learned.

One of my hopes had been to engage other teachers and introduce them to the possibilities of using the instruments themselves in their music classes, which has yet to happen so far, but my hope is that when teachers see the result of what we’ve achieved after one year with this grade 5 class, that more and more will be willing to experiment with the ukuleles.  I will also continue to remain available as a resource volunteer in the future, if more and more teachers are interested in using the class set on their own or as a guided workshop.

I’ve seen many changes at this school in the past 8 years and, now that this will be my last as a parent, I feel hopeful that more parents and administrators will continue to see the essential value that music and the arts bring to a child’s complete learning experience and that you’ll continue to advocate and look for more and varied learning opportunities and performance experiences for our children which are fun and engaging for them. While the ukulele is just one small instrument, it offers so many possible uses for teaching music to children of all levels.

Uke on Castor Valley!

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