The Ukulele – An incredible key to the world of music


James Oram, the author of Ukulele Quest which is published by MIA Member Faber Music, talks about how learning ukulele can open up a whole world of music for children…

When I was first asked if I could teach ukulele, I said yes. I thought it was a toy – how hard could it be? Isn’t it just for children?

I am a classically trained pianist and guitarist; I adore Bach and Chopin, and have always thought I had a ‘proper’ musical training. It was only when I began teaching ukulele that I was truly humbled by this small but powerful instrument.

The ukulele provides an exciting and accessible approach to entering the world of music. It gives children the essence of what music is all about: playing, singing and creating connections with each other. Its affordability, open-chord tuning and size make it unrivalled in accessibility, as it is small enough to be comfortable for children. The four strings help to simplify the shapes and make it possible to play chords with just one finger. Within the first few lessons children can strum to songs, sing along and enjoy playing music together. In my experience, the ukulele inspires children who wouldn’t normally pick up an instrument to engage in music-making. It is a real privilege to watch children realise they can make music!

Teaching ukulele to classrooms around Bristol has been the most enjoyable music teaching I have ever done. When fellow teacher Paul Jones and I discovered how much fun children could have learning ukulele we were inspired to write our own book, Ukulele Quest.

We learnt very early on not to patronise children by limiting the musical genres and styles explored in lessons. Children love a good beat and bassline as much as anyone, so there are no nursery rhymes to be found in the book. Through Ukulele Quest, children are not only getting an introduction to the instrument, but to a whole world of music. Divided into thematic chapters, it takes the teacher and student on an exciting musical journey together. It introduces chord charts, how to read sheet music, and numerous musical concepts such as dynamics, pitch and tempo. These are skills that can be transferred to many other instruments, should children be inspired to continue their musical journeys! The transition to guitar is particularly smooth as many of the early chord shapes on ukulele, such as G Major, move directly over to the guitar and will be useful for any guitarist in their early stages of playing.

In addition to being the perfect first instrument, I’ve discovered what a brilliant instrument the ukulele is in its own right. Far from being a ‘toy’ that is only for children, there is a wave of amazing virtuoso players, such as Jake Shimabukuro, who are changing perceptions of what the ukulele is and what it can do. Not only does the ukulele allow ‘quick’ access to music, it can be as intellectual as you want it to be. Players like Tony Mizen have brought classical music to the ukulele, including renaissance and baroque lute transcriptions. It is a wonderful challenge to transcribe classical works and even symphonies onto the four strings, and there are endless strumming and picking techniques to be explored, such as the flamenco guitar tradition. New techniques are being developed all the time for the ukulele, making it an exciting and progressive instrument.

The ukulele really is for everyone. It can enrich your life by adding music to it in a simple but profound way. If you have one, pick it up; if you don’t, go and get one!

Ukulele Quest by Paul Jones and James Oram is an ideal first ukulele book that teaches many musical styles, including rock, reggae and the blues. This colourful tutor provides a great introduction to chord charts, how to read music and musical concepts such as dynamics, pitch and tempo. Accompanying audio at every stage brings the music to life.