Ever wanted to learn ukulele? UKE BOX is the perfect resource for youBy Stephanie Eslake, TSO News, 2022
“If everyone enjoys what they are playing, the result will be so much better.”
It’s tough to argue with that logic, isn’t it? It’s with this approach that composer Eleanor Tucker has helped craft the new Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra offering, UKE BOX.
UKE BOX takes ukulele music to the next level for kids in the classroom or at home (and their teachers and parents, too). It’s designed for anyone who is starting out and wants to have a bit of fun with an instrument small enough to fit in a backpack.
Eleanor Tucker, composer
You’ll find the full suite of UKE BOX resources on the TSO website, where you can “select a song and strum along”.
There are eight video performances, each of which features an ensemble made of expert TSO musicians, along with a special guest – including vocalists Gina Rose and Finlay Underwood, and ukulele soloist Mark Schmalfuss. They take you through Eleanor’s original songs; chord and tab charts appear in the video so you can play in time with their music.
Each video wraps up with a demonstration of ukulele techniques. And if you’d like to jump straight into the action, you can also download PDF versions of lead and lyric sheets, classroom arrangements, and notes for teachers.
As Eleanor sat down with TSO Learning and Engagement Executive Jennifer Compton to brainstorm and design the brief for this resource, she uncovered two major goals for the project: “One was to spark interest and curiosity of orchestral instruments, the other was to create a suite of works that would appeal and be accessible to beginner ukulele players – both children and adults.”
“I immediately went home and picked up my uke, and started to think/focus on what was instantly tangible with the instrument: How do we increase our chances of getting students – no matter what age – to feel an intrinsic motivation?” Eleanor says.
As a teacher at a small local school, Eleanor understood exactly what music students need to get started.
“I often write specifically for these students, and try to show them that playing good music doesn’t have to be complicated, and can be made with whatever resources are within reach.”
Eleanor approached UKE BOX the way one might “solve a musical problem”: pitch, rhythm, texture, and story were just some of the elements she combined into an exciting suite of songs. She also met the challenge of catering to various skill levels of the players who would pick up the instrument. And she had plenty of fun along the way, too.
“The whole process is hugely satisfying – and entertaining,” Eleanor says.
“When a line like ‘with a beach to lie on, and a towel to dry on’ lands in your lap, it’s just a great feeling, and I often find myself giggling alone at my own silly jokes.”
Composing fun new songs for ukulele
The line “with a beach to lie on, and a towel to dry on” is from her song I Dream of an Island, inspired by Flinders Island. It includes a simple rhythmic pattern that also appears in the song Sometimes, allowing students to pick up a new skill and practice it through a different song.
“As I was writing the arrangements, I kept thinking of how I might use these resources if I were coming across them for the first time – either as a student or a teacher,” Eleanor says.
“A few chords or a simple scale is within nearly everyone’s grasp within minutes on the ukulele. Students feel a sense of achievement, and can play as part of a group within a very short time.”
Many UKE BOX songs include one- or two-finger chords. Players can jump between plucking, playing open notes, simple scales, or rhythmic variations throughout the piece – as in Some Days I Wish I Could Fly.
Each piece contains something new through technique or story. Steam Train indulges “train fanatics” as the recording features TSO winds and voice that signify a train whistle, and brass sounding like a horn.
A broad range of instruments are showcased in each song; Have You Ever Tried to Draw a Tuba was born from Eleanor’s admiration of TSO tuba player Tim Jones, while The Dog Song explores the lesser-heard contrabassoon.
“Some of the songs might be useful just to teach a certain element or technique,” Eleanor says.
“The play-along videos are a great way of casually getting students involved in playing while also absorbing all the other musicianship coming from the orchestral instruments.”
Working with professional instrumentalists was something new for Eleanor, too.
“I also learnt that orchestral musicians are accustomed to a more subtle manner of conducting than primary school students,” she admits.
“In the rehearsal, I found myself waving my arms around at one point as if I were herding cattle before it occurred to me that it was entirely unnecessary and inappropriate.
“Nevertheless, everyone was very patient and understanding with me and I felt it was a huge honour to be working with such virtuosic players.”
A practical resource beyond the classroom
UKE BOX is the fourth offering in JOIN IN, the orchestra’s series of online resources. In fact, Jennifer Compton says the demand for a new resource stemmed directly from the success of Recorder Lift Off.
“As soon as people heard we were creating a resource around beginner recorder, I was being asked when we would be doing something for beginner ukulele,” Jennifer says.
And there are plenty of reasons it’s such a popular instrument. As Jennifer explains, the size of the instrument is comfortable for the smaller hands of a child; it’s also an affordable instrument for classrooms. It’s a medium that can teach melody, harmony, rhythm, and music reading skills at once.
Even beyond the classroom, Jennifer notes, “community ukulele groups have exploded across the globe”.
“What’s not to love? People make music together in a shared activity where they sing and play. Ukulele groups are inclusive, and there is a place for people of any level, even a total beginner.
“Playing and singing – on your own or in a group – makes people feel happy, and this greatly contributes to a person’s overall mental health and wellbeing.”
And the social connection isn’t just for kids.
“Ukulele is popular with seniors because of the many benefits that a gentle activity like playing the ukulele provides for body and brain, and people with limited mobility can still take part.”
Bringing the community together
Jennifer had consulted with classroom music teachers and community ukulele players to come up with an idea for the song-based project she produced with Eleanor. Some familiar faces got involved behind the scenes; Jane Edwards recommended the soloists, while UTAS Conservatorium student Kenneth King professionally typeset the lead sheets for each song.
“Orchestras exist because communities support them,” Jenny says.
“Join In resources have been an opportunity for everyone involved in creating them to learn as well, not just community members using the products.
“People are happiest when they are learning.”