James Hill & J. Chalmers Doane, Ukulele in the
Classroom: Book 1
(Crystal Lake Media, 2008)

It says on the back of the Student Edition that this educational text (and accompanying CD) will "bring the world of music to life. . . ." and it promises that "It's fun. It works. It's musical literacy, the ukulele way." Hmmm. The ukulele way. Well, we love the ukulele here at GMR. And we've reviewed all of James Hill's CDs, including some he made as a student with the Langley Ukulele Ensemble which you can read here, here, and over here. Oh, and here too!

So let's see what it's all about.

We have here the first volume of a set of three which seek to open the door to the music world, by teaching students of all ages how to play that little dancing flea, that is the ukulele. Everybody loves the "uke" these days. George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and a host of other more contemporary rockers are finding uses for them. They're small, portable, easy to play, and quiet. Sure, you can plunk away on them but people like James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro have taken the uke to a whole new level. OK, you're not going to be able to compete with the guys, James or Jake, but if you pick up a nice little Fluke, or a Flea, and a copy of Hill's (and J. Chalmers Doanes') book[s] you can be well on your way to creating some beautiful music yourself.

There's a Student Book, which provides you with lessons to work on, starting with an introduction to the instrument, the strings, the available notes, melodies you can play without fretting at all, and the pentatonic scale. That's where most people start to get worried. Scales! Yikes! But Hill and Doanes have laid everything out very clearly, in an easy to read (and understand) format. They've even provided a CD with Hill playing the songs for you. So you can get a sense of strumming patterns and tempos. Melanie Doane and Kathryn Rose sing the songs over Hill's sensitive playing and the CD is actually quite charming to listen to without trying to play along. But its real value is as a template to accompany the exercises.

The other book is a Teacher's Edition which provides techniques for teaching all this stuff in a classroom situation. It shows you how to set up the chairs, and gives the authors' philosophy of ukulele instruction as an introduction to music. For Doanes and Hill it's not just about plunking away to "Oh! Susanna" (although you'll be able to do that as well, by the time you work through the book). The list of consultants who worked on this project is impressive. Warren Dobson, John King, Peter Luongo, Lorna MacPhee, Byron Yasui, et al are educators and performers for whom the ukulele is much more than a toy.

I'm currently working my way through the exercises and I've learned quite a bit about strumming and finger placement. I'm looking forward to Books 2 & 3 but I'm still enjoying playing Gustav Holst on my Flea! Nice job James Hill and J. Chalmers Doane! Oh, did I mention that there are bonus items available on-line to enhance the printed and recorded material? Check it out here.

[David Kidney]