subtitle: Orchestrating Music Making in Ukulele Groups
After playing in various ukulele groups and starting my own, I had a burning question. “What can we do differently to get more out of our ukulele jam sessions?”
The answer lies in “The Ukestration Manual: Creating Music Making Communities with the Ukulele and Ukestra Method” by Mark Jackson and Jane Jelbart.
The 109-page book is an easy read. Early on, the authors define ukestra and ukestration, as follows:
The Ukestra Method is based on three interrelated essentials of music, community and sustainability.
“Ukestration involves an approach to teaching ukulele which is inclusive, features differentiated instruction, is based on repertoire, and maintains a strong awareness of the possibility of the teachable moment.
It is a way of arranging and performing songs with an ukulele orchestra, emphasising Single Chord Thumb Strums, the arrangement of ukulele and vocal parts, the incorporation of bass and a role for lead singers, and the importance of the conductor/leader to hold it together.”
They define a “community musician” as someone “who builds communities of players using a teaching approach which is as much social as it is musical.” Leadership is required of the community musician as is planning for financial sustainability to avoid burn out.
Based in Australia, the authors put their proprietary method mid-way between the two extremes of ukulele groups: jam sessions by the book and classroom teaching. Indeed, most ukulele groups either start as amateur music making by ukulele enthusiasts and remain a social group for regular jam sessions or one that’s classroom-based. Their ukestra does far more. Instead of teaching, they prefer to have the participants experience what they intend to teach and still get the feel of a jam session.
There lies the key. Theirs is not a classroom but a music making session where everyone learns something new. These sessions are planned carefully, with attention paid to song selection and other important details. They address the following questions.
How do you transfer knowledge? How do you teach new musical skills? How do you get everyone to learn without making them feel like students? How do you keep it interesting for all participants regardless of skill level?
Reading Jackson and Jelbart’s book made me reflect upon my own approach to selecting songs for our weekly jam sessions. I have been selecting songs according to theme and skill level. This means we sightread each time, never repeating, never getting into the heart of a song. While this may be exciting for me, it’s challenging for many participants and frustrating for those who want to feel competent and confident. The other extreme of playing the same songs over and over again may cause boredom and resentment. Is there a different way to select songs for music making in ukulele groups?
They suggest choosing songs according to a Four Column Approach (FCA) to ensure different kinds of skills and techniques are covered.
By sharing their method and examples in their eight-year history of ukestration, the authors demonstrate that it’s possible to make a living as community musicians and create something beyond the kinds of music so predictable of ukulele group singalongs. Below is a video of their first ukulele orchestra: the Ukastle Ukestra. The second half gets interesting with an overlay of Bruno Mars’ “Count On Me.”
The Ukestration Manual is more than a book. It’s testimony for what all ukulele players can do in their groups —- more than unison singing with different kinds of strumming patterns. I recommend it to every ukulele club leader, for there will be members who want to do more than sing and strum.
Where to get this book? Visit their webpage.