Build a Better Workshop: Practical Tips for a Fruitful and Fun Experience


The ukulele workshop is the heart and soul of nearly every ukulele festival. The reason: 99.98% of the people attending ukulele festivals play the instrument or want to learn more. You don’t see everyone bringing their electric guitars to a rock festival. Most folks that play the ukulele want to get better on the instrument. A great way to accomplish that is to attend some workshops. Most ukulele festivals offer a smorgasbord of workshop options, from strumming to picking, beginner to advanced. The icing on the musical cake is that usually the workshops offered by professional players provide not only instruction, but also motivation.

In my nearly 20 years on the ukulele teaching circuit, I’ve discovered one thing a lot of ukulele players have in common is their desire to give back by sharing what they have learned. But more than sheer passion is needed to effectively convert your ukulele knowledge into a format that delivers the information in a fun and informative way. To that end, I offer some of my tips on building a better ukulele workshop.

The first aspect of your workshop to consider is what student skill level you want to address. You may advertise your workshop for intermediate players, only to be met by a room full of beginners. No matter what the subject matter, try to fill your presentation with exercises that can appeal to a wide range of skill levels. You can also tier the material to include both beginning and intermediate exercises that can be performed together as a group. Be very clear when stating the skill level in your workshop descriptions by adding a caveat such as “must know C-F-G7 chord shapes in the first position.” Regardless of your preparation, some students will over- or underestimate their skill level. Remember, workshops are not private lessons. It’s your job to estimate the overall skill of the group and proceed from there. 

Never fly by the seat of your pants. Be prepared by creating a bullet-point outline of the material you plan to present. Don’t, I repeat, don’t type out a word-for-word speech. The typical ukulele festival workshop will be 60 or 90 minutes in length. Create outlines for both time constraints. Here is an excerpt from the outline of my “3 Chord Magic” workshop: 

#1: I-HOME IV-SUNSHINE V7-TENSION (Ascending w/7th) 
#2: I-IV-V-I BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND (Ascending w/Major) 
#3: I-V-IV-I BAD MOON RISING  (Descending w/Major) 
#4: I-IV-V7-I KING OF THE ROAD (Ascending w/7th)
#5: A/I B/V7-IV-I IT’S ALL OVER NOW  (One Chord Verse/Descending w/7th) 


You see, I don’t include anything I’m going to say about the examples in the outline; that part of the workshop presentation I know by heart through rehearsal. I want to be able to glance at the outline to know what topic or song to present next. There is no worse feeling than being in front of 75 anxious and enthusiastic ukulele players and not knowing what to say next. 

I don’t give handouts. The ukulele is a musical instrument. The purpose is to make musical sounds while at the same time hearing the sounds you are making. In my opinion, looking at a piece of paper does not aid the endeavor. Try to develop your presentation without handouts. If you must create a handout, distribute it at the end of the workshop. I’ve seen many a ukulele workshop go south when a handout is given first to the players. Fingerpicking workshops are notoriously bad in this respect because as soon as the handout is distributed, everyone starts noodling, and the horse is out of the barn. 

Speaking of noodling—don’t let it start. Issue a gentle warning at the beginning of your presentation that there will be no noodling while the workshop is in session. I’ve had many students come up and thank me at the end of a workshop for enforcing this rule.

The last person you want to sound like when presenting your ukulele workshop is Charlie Brown’s teacher—“wah, wah, wah, wah, wah.” The folks sitting in front of you came to learn some aspect of ukulele playing, not hear you drone on and on and on. Ukulele students, especially adults, need to be kept occupied. Organize your workshop so the students are kept busy playing the examples you set forth. Below is an excerpt from the outline of my “Fiddle Tunes for Ukulele” workshop. Each bullet point is meant to be played by the class. 

*Three-finger Picking: T-I-M & Single-String Picking T-I 
*C Major Scale/Using Solfege Syllables
*Listen to the Song/Get The Melody in Your Head 
*The Sol-La-Ti Triplet/High Position 
(Sol-La Outside Strings 5-0-7-0) 
*Gary Owen C Major 6/8 
*Triplet Strum 
*A: I-V7-I-V7-I 
*B: I-IV-I-V7-I 2X 
*Melody: Descending Major Scale 

Check out the workshop schedule for any significant ukulele festival. You’ll see that most of the popular topics have already been taken: “Introduction to Strumming,” “Beginning Fingerpicking,” “Creative Songwriting,” and so on. This is where you need to get creative! Maybe you want to teach a strumming class. Think of packaging it into something more interactive and fun than just basic strumming. I teach a workshop based on the Circle of 5ths. When offered a teaching job at a ukulele retreat at the beach, I came up with my “Circle of 5ths In the Sand” workshop. I drew a colossal Circle of 5ths on the beach and had students playing the roles of each different key on the circle. Every time I was invited back to that retreat, they wanted me to offer that workshop. 

The student question can send your ukulele workshop presentation down a sidetrack from which you may not recover. With your limited time, you need to convey your information basically without interruption. Ask for questions at the end of the workshop. Nothing can derail a ukulele workshop faster than an out-of-the-blue question concerning the Greek modes. If you get one of those questions during your workshop, offer to answer it after class. 

Once you have a fully developed workshop presentation, get out there and teach it! Start with your local ukulele club. Present it for free several times until the presentation is polished and you are entirely comfortable conveying the information. People expect a lot more when they are paying for instruction. Another great venue is the local library. Many libraries are now offering ukulele lending programs. The library would be a suitable place to hone your workshop presentation skills. Once you’ve created a robust workshop offering and are confident in presenting it, contact the organizer of a nearby ukulele festival and offer your services. There is nothing more satisfying to me than sharing what I’ve learned on the ukulele with others. Give it a shot, and I think you’ll find the same is true for you!