Open tuning on the ukulele to work with younger kids is an approach to the instrument that has gained tremendous popularity in recent years. This approach is a way to get young kids to play familiar songs on the instrument in the first lesson. This method has a natural driving force because it supports quick access to music making for young students rather than several lessons of drills and skill building in order to play Hot Cross Buns. Students can be jamming along to the Hokey Pokey in the first lesson.
Tune the Ukulele to a G chord (G,B,D,G). This tuning allows kids to strum and have a major chord play without placing fingers on the frets. You can play Row, Row, Row Your Boat with just one chord. Get them to strum down the strings with a steady beat and BAM, the kids are playing and singing a song on the first lesson.
When you tune the Ukulele to a G chord it also sets up several more bar chords along the frets. The G chord is open strings. Students can learn to press their complete finger across the fret number five to make a C chord, fret seven to make a D chord and fret ten to make an F chord. Viola, you have your I, IV, V chords to play an endless number of songs both folk and popular. The illustration to the right is one way to color code your instrument. Feel free to color the chords in a way that makes sense to you and your students.
I look at color-coded lyrics as a very simple form of a lead sheet. We are combing the chord markings and lyrics into a color-coded system and removing the notation of the melody. We use familiar tunes or ones easily taught by rote as we begin this chord reading journey. If students can read the different color words and press the corresponding color bar chord, then they can play countless songs by reading this style of iconic notation.
As a former Early Childhood educator for eight years, this reading of the lyrics will support young students not only in their journey to begin to decode more challenging notation styles in music, but will also build and support their literacy reading skills. It supports their tracking of print in both literacy and music. Get the students reading the lyrics and associating the color code to have meaning on a musical instrument. Keep them engaged with this process by playing fun songs.
Don’t worry about tab reading or jazz chord lead sheets, that will come with time if it’s the avenue you go down with your students. The different colors being associated with specific chords begin to give a simple context and structure to students. This structure can eventually be shifted into more sophisticated music notation. The next year you begin with these students could start with a colored chord letter above the lyrics. Eventually, the students can move to reading a traditional lead sheet. Just think, it all begin with a few colors and a familiar tune.