Kinawa 'History of Rock and Roll' class which features ukulele playing

Teaching Music History with Ukuleles

Okemos music teacher Erika Bridge received an Okemos Education Foundation grant in fall 2016 to purchase 30 ukuleles for her “History of Rock and Roll” exploratory class at Kinawa 5/6 School. This class, which Bridge developed herself, studies the emergence of the Rock and Roll movement from the 1950’s to today. By examining the popular music of the time period, students are exposed to how music influences, and was influenced by, the political and cultural climate of the time. Lessons include watching videos of various artists performing their music and having the students play the same music on the ukuleles. Students also work on individual research projects.

Performing the music is an integral part of the class. As Ms. Bridge explains, “Music is a whole body, whole brain activity. Being able to play “Hound Dog” by Elvis and then immediately switch to “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors, using the same chord changes, makes this study of music and music history so much more relevant than if we just talked about it or listened to the music.” And, of course, playing the music is fun.

Why ukuleles? While guitars may seem to be a more logical choice for a rock and roll class, ukuleles have several notable benefits. They’re much less expensive than guitars, and their smaller size is more suited for the smaller hands of 5th and 6th grade students. Ukuleles contain only four strings, making it faster to learn in the short time available in class, and the strings are nylon which is both softer on the fingers and less prone to breakage. Plus, they come in fun colors (Bridge chose purple and lime green).

As one can imagine, this is a popular class. OEF Board Chair Martha Hentz met with four of Ms. Bridge’s students to talk about the class and the ukuleles. “The ukuleles make a calmer noise than some other instruments, and they don’t sound as bad when you make a mistake,” explains one student. All four students agreed that their study of the ukulele has enhanced their ability to play the instruments that they were already studying (piano, violin, cello), and they each plan to continue with the ukulele after the class is over. Annabelle has been writing original pieces and having Ms. Bridge record and critique her work. All are enthusiastic about the music history that they’ve learned. “It’s really interesting. The class helps to put music onto a timeline so we can understand what was happening in history when different music was popular.” And, they’re also learning important lessons about themselves: “I learned that you can learn anything you want to learn….as long as you try hard and do your best work.” An important lesson, indeed.

The OEF is grateful to teachers like Erika Bridge for bringing innovative educational experiences to Okemos students and to our donors for making OEF grant programs possible. Thank you!

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Erika Bridge, 'History of Rock and Roll' teacher with her ukulele

Erika Bridge, Kinawa teacher

4 Kinawa students who enjoyed the ukuleles in class

Uke fans: Annabelle, Ava, Quinn, and Brent


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