- Sponsorship -

Elementary ukulelists get a feel for strings

Practice helps prepare for middle-school music choice

Watch fifth-grade ukulelists in Amber Hoffman’s class learn a new chord for ‘Sweet Caroline,’ then later practice the chords for ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’

Grandville — Music teacher Amber Hoffman pointed to a series of letters on the whiteboard as her South Elementary students raised their ukuleles to their chests: D – DU – DU – DU.

“Down…down-up…down-up…down-up,” she said rhythmically as the fifth-graders slowly strummed the pattern in time to the beat. 

“That sounds awesome,” she said as the music concluded. “Do you hear how well you’re playing together? Want to speed it up a bit?” 

She adjusted a setting on the background beat and the student musicians put their game faces on, concentrating hard on the strings of their ukuleles as they tried to keep up. At the end of the stanza, they looked around sheepishly at one another before some giggles broke out; that didn’t go so well. 

“Yeah…” Hoffman smiled in agreement. “Let’s slow it back down just a touch.” 

Fifth-graders in Grandville music classes have been learning how to play the ukulele for the past four months. In preparation for middle school, when students get the choice to be in band, orchestra or choir, the district gives all students some musical experience to better help them with that decision. In fourth grade, they learn the recorder as a “woodwind adjacent” instrument; in fifth grade, the ukulele gives them a feel for playing the strings. 

“The ukulele is a really good intro for them to experience a stringed instrument before having to make that choice,” Hoffman said. “It gets them used to playing chords, where to place their fingers, strumming patterns and the experience of playing together.”

Single Chords to Cohesive Songs

Hoffman lets her students choose the songs they’d like to learn, which keeps them excited about mastering pieces. They start by learning single chords — specifically, where their hands and fingers go on the instrument to play the note — and then learn how to switch between chords. 

Eventually, after learning how to strum both up- and down-strokes and incorporating strumming patterns, all those chords and patterns become a song. So far, they’ve mastered “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Riptide.”

“Usually, a song is going to involve at least three but anywhere up to seven different chords,” Hoffman said. “We start super slow so that they can check their fingers and make sure they’re in the right spot before going to the next chord, and it doesn’t really sound like anything, which can be hard for (the students). But as they practice it, they’re able to get faster and when we put it all together, they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that actually does kind of sound like the song.’” 

On that particular day, the class at South was learning a new chord, D-minor, so that they could incorporate it into a new song, “Sweet Caroline.” The song uses a few chords they’ve already learned in previous songs, plus some new chords to keep them on their toes. 

It sounds complicated, but learning new chords is the best part of playing the ukulele, fifth-grader Jay Kleinheksel said. 

“Some of them are difficult, but some of them are easier,” he explained. “The C chord is the easiest, I think and then D-minor and E-minor are tougher. You have to put your fingers in all different places for those, and with the C chord you just put your ring finger in one place.” 

Jay said he appreciated learning how to move his fingers between notes when he learned the recorder last year — it made it easier to figure out similar movements on the ukulele, he said. He hopes to play the trumpet in middle school, but in the meantime is enjoying showing off his newfound string skills to his family at home. 

“I like getting to learn new songs so that I can show my family members that I can play all these songs,” he said. “I think they like it.”  

Read more from Grandville: 
‘It feeds me,’ says teacher-artist
Toy for the pool & nifty math tool

- Sponsorship -
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is associate editor, reporter and copy editor. She is an award-winning journalist who got her professional start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate and proud former Chimes editor, she later returned to Calvin to help manage its national writing festival. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio


Related Articles

- Sponsorship -

Issues in Education

Making Headlines

- Sponsorship -


Maranda Where You Live WGVU