How Ukulele Teachers are Cultivating a New Generation of Players

From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY HEIDI SWEDBERG

To solve the question of whether ukulele has a future, let’s begin with a mathematical word problem. If ten teachers graduate from James Hill’s Certification Program and each teacher introduces the ukulele to ten students a year for ten years, how many ukulele players do we now have?

If you are a ukulele player for whom math was never a favorite subject, you might correctly answer, “A lot more than there used to be!” If you made it through algebra, you will recognize this as an exponential growth pattern. What makes this explosion different from a pyramid scheme is that no one loses.


If teachers are at the top of the pyramid, J. Chalmers Doane is arguably the apex. (It is notably ironic that the ukulele found importance as a classroom instrument in Halifax, Nova Scotia.) Doane saw the ukulele as an affordable, fun instrument suitable for all kinds of music, and the perfect tool for teaching musical literacy. In 1971, he published the Guide to Ukulele in the Classroom, the cornerstone of the Canadian school program. Across the continent, the Langley School District in British Columbia built a healthy program, which is still in existence. Jamie Thomas, a pupil of Doane’s was (and still is) teaching at Belmont Elementary School, and Peter Luongo helmed the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, when in walked a lucky 4th-grade boy, James Hill. Critical mass attained.

Hill and Doane have similar passions: they are musicians, teachers, and teachers’ teachers. Besides co-authoring the new Ukulele in the Classroom series, a “fun from day one” approach to teaching ukulele built on the foundations of Doane’s earlier work, James has also created a teacher training program that offers certificate programs in four countries (and counting), and “teacher support and training that is connected to a hands-on, systematic performance-based curriculum.”

ukulele in school ukes school future teachers small
A dedicated teacher and involved parents help to make the Armstrong Elementary School ukulele club popular.


Jessica Baron is on a mission to get instruments into children’s hands. “Kids benefit profoundly from music in the classroom. It’s the best thing to happen to education in a long time,” says Baron, who founded Guitars in the Classroom in 1998. However, the Guitars (and ukes) in the Classroom (GITC) program does not want to see the ukulele limited only to music class, but also integrated into any, and every, subject. “The idea of music integration is to get instruments and training to teachers so they can use music to meet the educational needs of the students—from math to literacy.” The program helps to train a school’s music teachers, who in turn train the school’s other teachers to become song leaders, changing familiar folk and traditional song lyrics to push academic content in all fields of study.

The method, formulated on open “taro patch” tuning, greatly simplifies the physical demands of fretting the instrument. With the first and fourth string both tuned to G, the open strings of the instrument ring a C major chord. New players can immediately strum an accompaniment to simple songs. As skills grow, they learn more chords and eventually the instruments are re-tuned to the more standard G C E A.

This stripped-down approach makes playing accessible for non-music teachers and kids by addressing the common ergonomic and fine-motor skill issues of a small child and an adult picking up an instrument for the first time. When a teacher is learning in front of, or alongside students, it enables the most effective and honest form of teaching: modeling behavior. Besides educating teachers, GITC helps them obtain subsidized instruments for themselves and their students.

As their name implies, GITC first employed this strategy with guitars, but the ukulele is asserting itself. Simpler to learn, the ukulele’s diminutive size makes it a natural fit for children, and they are easier to store in overcrowded classrooms. Affordability is also an obvious plus. Generous sponsorships support the program, especially the ongoing support of the NAMM Foundation and Kala Brand Music, who, Jessica says, “donates 1,000 ukuleles every December,” helping make classroom dreams come true. Currently, there are GITC programs in schools from Washington State to New York.

The Dupree Family
The Dupree family


When you homeschool, the world is your classroom. Math can be learned in the kitchen, science in the garage, and music… at a strip mall? The homeschooling Dupree family discovered that the ukulele fulfilled their musical education needs. Matriarch Gabriella Dupree says, “The instrument provides the ability to learn at your own pace and it’s easy to sound good, which builds confidence as you grow more knowledgeable. It’s not as easy to sound good on a violin or trumpet when you are learning the instrument. “

Eleven-year old Dylan, the charismatic youngest child of the “Dupree 6-Pack” (four kids, mom and dad) speaks for the clan, detailing their introduction to the instrument. “It started with a cup of coffee! A music cafe opened in the strip mall where I was taking taekwondo classes. My dad saw that they had a free ukulele class right after my martial arts class. At first, he thought a ukulele was going to be too expensive, especially for two. But the owner convinced him that ukuleles were not. The next thing I know, my dad said, ‘We have a new father-son activity,’ handed me my first uke, and we ran over to our first free play-along class! We had no idea what we were doing and did not know a single chord. But, we stuck with it and today I am so grateful we have music to keep us together.”


The equation at the beginning of this article may be incorrect. An exponential model predicts a dramatic future of ukulele players barricading against ukulele players in a struggle for survival, a horrific scenario imaginable to anyone who has been to a large-scale ukulele event.

Studies done with Alzheimer’s patients indicate that music has a special place in the brain. The connections that Alzheimer patients are able to make through hearing or playing music makes a powerful case for the importance of music in early education. Becoming musically literate, even competent, is an investment in the future. Knowing that sharing ukulele with children will come back to us is its own exponential reward.



Karin Puffer

KARIN PUFFER Westborough, Massachusetts

Karin Puffer is the elementary school music teacher you always dreamed of having. Follow her on Twitter to see how lucky the families within Armstrong Elementary School’s boundaries are. If her posts showing new drums and dulcimers, lined up in her vibrant, well-stocked classroom aren’t enough to make you relocate to Massachusetts, maybe Westborough’s being named one of the Best Communities for Music Education by the NAMM Foundation is. Chances are, if you are reading this magazine you are holding out for the ukuleles. Wait no longer.

Karin received a ukulele as a 30th birthday present from her husband, and made it her S.M.A.R.T goal (a teacher evaluation rubric) to learn to play. When she was hired in 2015 to teach Armstrong Elementary’s 400 K–3rd-grade students, she began the process of introducing ukuleles to her charges, applying for a grant from the generous Westborough Education Foundation to purchase a set of 25 instruments.

As a well-rounded early-childhood music-specialist, she created her own pedagogy. The children enthusiastically achieve developmentally appropriate goals, like rhythmic strumming and pitch-matching as they strum and sing favorite songs. “Students are encouraged to challenge themselves, however most students choose one chord in a given song to play as it appears in a lead sheet,” she says. “Most songs we play have a I–IV–V chord progression and are usually in C Major.”

To compliment the classroom experience, Karin started a popular monthly evening ukulele club, inviting students and their families to the music room to sing and play. Parents, grandparents, and students crowd together, strumming songs requested at the previous month’s meeting. “At some meetings, I prepare a packet of lead sheets that they are welcome to take home and practice, other months I use the app Ukeoke and my short-throw projector.”

Inspired by her success, colleagues at three other Westborough elementary schools began writing grant proposals. With the additional windfall of 50 Waterman ukuleles donated by Kala, a town-wide ukulele explosion has begun. Since experiencing ukulele at school, many students and families have taken it upon themselves to purchase an instrument for use in their own home. 

Committed to expanding her student’s musical horizons, Ms. Puffer enlists the Education Foundation’s support, bringing visiting performers and teachers into the classroom. In 2016, Faith Ako brought hula, Hawaiian song, and instruments to every student in the school during a three-day residency.

Glen Kamida Ukulele
Glen Kamida

GLEN KAMIDA Torrance, California

Every week, Glen Kamida tunes 888 ukuleles. At least once. He says it’s, “a dream come true, but not the way I expected. Having one thousand kids [in music class] is the dream—I just never thought it would be this way!”

The Torrance Unified School district serves an integrated mix of students from Asian, Caucasian, black, Latino, and Middle Eastern backgrounds. As a general music teacher, Glen visits five schools, giving all their students the opportunity to learn concepts of music. “Crossing cultures is part of the job.” When a school parent asked Glen to add a little ukulele to his band program, his reply was, “Order me some.” Right away, 60 Ohana SK-10 sopranos showed up at Arlington Elementary School.

Although his parents were from Hawaii, Glen says he didn’t know any more about the ukulele than “My Dog Has Fleas.” Two weeks before introducing kids to the ukes, he taught himself in a cram session. Soon, his four other schools wanted a ukulele component added to their curriculum. This past year, Glen taught about 1,100, 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade kids for 30 to 45 minutes each week, 50 to 100 at a time.


Through a mutual friend, Glen met musician and clinician Daniel Ho, who came to observe him teaching. “Afterwards, he said to me, ‘You need a lot of help. You need a book!’” Ho, working alongside Stanford University music professor Steve Sano, penned two Ukulele at School method books, designed to instill a strong foundation and love of music. “It’s been a tremendous help,” he says. Paying it back, Glen contributed ten weeks of lesson plans to the program, which are available free online.

When he arrives at school, his first job is tuning up to 108 instruments and laying them out on the floor in rows. Each kid is armed with an instrument and a book. Kids sit facing each other, sharing their knowledge as they sing and play together. With a herd this size, it takes a school year to make it through the first book. Glen says that although only 80 percent of them actually learn the chords, all of them are learning. “One of the best things this has done for my students is taking them outside of their comfort zone, giving them opportunities to attend uke events where they get to perform and meet inspiring uke players.”


Chalmers Triangle Uke

J. Chalmers Doane didn’t see an available, sturdy, affordable ukulele to his liking when he began his program, so he designed his own. The quirky triangular instrument is still seen in Canadian classrooms and continues to evolve in the hands of discreet luthiers.

Instrument availability is no longer a problem, and the generosity of manufacturers such as Ohana and Kala help ensure that every classroom can afford a set of instruments. In 2016, Kala went on a rampage, donating 25,000 colorful plastic Waterman ukuleles to schools, education programs, after-school programs, and music therapy programs.

If you wish to help fund set of instruments for a classroom in need, search, where teachers post their classroom needs.

One of the great joys of parenthood is singing songs with children. Download our FREE guide on playing ukulele with kids of any age.