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Interview: Warren Dobson

Author of U for Ukulele, a ukulele method for children aged six to eight, Warren Dobson began teaching ukulele as a pre-guitar instrument. While he embraces the use of technology in education, he believes that there is no substitute for student participation and performance in the classroom.

Ukulele Yes!: You’re primarily a guitarist and guitar teacher; when did you start teaching ukulele and why?

"You shouldn’t let a lack of resources interfere with your ability to get on with the job." - Warren Dobson

Warren Dobson: Well, I started teaching ukulele after I moved back to Nova Scotia in 1989. I had done some guitar teaching at the high school level in Toronto and when I came to Nova Scotia to teach I was hired as an elementary school teacher. I was teaching children from kindergarten to grade eight in three different schools – 500 students in all – and I wanted very much to develop a guitar program at the schools where I taught.

I always firmly believed that you shouldn’t let a lack of resources interfere with your ability to get on with the job. So I started by approaching the parents at the schools where I taught and showing them some videos of the performing ensembles that I’d had in Toronto and was able to find some funding from them to purchase guitars. We started with a guitar ensemble as an extra-curricular activity and we made that available to children in grades three, four, five and six.

In getting that underway I started to think about how I could prepare the students who were in the lower grades to be ready to take part in guitar when they reached the proper age. The obvious solution was to use the ukuleles that we had; we happened to have ukuleles in every school I think largely as a result of Chalmers Doane’s efforts when he was in the department of education. Having those resources, I started to look at the material that was there and try to use it in the grade one/two split class. At that point I started to see that the kids needed something more than the methods that were available to us at that time and that’s when I started to develop a new method of teaching the ukulele to young children.

UY!: Can you describe how you developed your U for Ukulele method?

WD: The method came about through being frustrated with trying to get the children to read music at the outset. The problem seemed to be that they were so distracted by the ukulele or the written notation that they couldn’t focus on the music! So I started to think about where to begin and I thought that the place to begin would be with what they know. And so I started to ask myself, “what do they know?” The answer to that was, well, they know how to sing. They can mostly all sing in tune and that’s as a result of all the work that was done in kindergarten.

The problem seemed to be that [students] were so distracted by the ukulele or the written notation that they couldn’t focus on the music!

I was a firm believer in making music an enjoyable experience in the classroom and I wanted the children to have enthusiasm for music so we played a lot of games. The games would normally involved nursery rhymes so they knew these songs intimately; they’d repeated them over and over playing musical games with them. That’s what led me to think “well, we should have them play these songs on the ukulele.” When I [transcribed the nursery rhymes] I would write them out with the sol-fa notation over them. And when I looked at how to apply them to the ukulele I wanted to use the key that worked best for their singing which, coincidentally, was the key of D major.

We start out with the notes a and f# as so and mi in the key of D. Those notes happen to lie perfectly in the child’s natural singing register and lead to developing a nice unforced tonal quality. What was beautiful about it was that when you tune the instrument – we were using low-A tuning – the open-string notes became so, do, mi, and la. Everything just seemed to work together so I always stuck with the key of D. And I taught the children to play the open strings and to sing them by their sol-fa names. When we would learn a new song we would sing it first with sol-fa names and then we would find the notes on the ukulele. We started with songs that used only one fretted note and an open string or sometimes two open strings. We went through essentially the same sequence that we use when we teach children to sing with the Kodaly method.

UY!: In addition to D tuning (a, d, f#, b), the C tuning (g, c, e, a) is also very popular as you know. Would the C tuning interfere with the use of the approach you’ve just described?

WD: No, I wouldn’t think so; it should be alright as well.

UY!: So you begin by teaching single-note picking. Why don’t you start by teaching students to play chords?

WD: Well, that’s a very good question and I have strong beliefs on that based on my own personal experience and what I’ve seen happen with students I’ve taught over the years. I started playing guitar when I was probably 12 years old. It was unusual in this area of rural Nova Scotia to have a guitar teacher anywhere within traveling distance – there certainly wasn’t anyone available when I grew up – so I had a difficult time but I persevered and taught myself how to play the guitar.

It wasn’t until I was in university that I had the good fortune to get some professional instruction from a good teacher whose name was Tibor Puskas. He was a Hungarian guitarist who emigrated to Canada as a refugee. Even though I had been a professional musician and a performer and had earned my living from my ability to play the guitar – and sing, I guess – he immediately told me that I had to re-learn how to play the guitar. I had to abandon everything that I had learned and start from scratch! I had enough faith in the man that I was willing to do that work. And it was hard work.

UY!: Why did he tell you this? Why did you have to start over?

WD: It was because of dysfunctional tension. I had it in both hands but it was particularly bad in my left hand. His analysis of that was that I had started to play guitar by learning chords and that I had developed a bad habit of using too much pressure in the left hand. My hand was very tight and constrained. I wasn’t aware of that tension so it was very much a learning experience for me to find where the tension was, to be mindful of when it was there and when it wasn’t, and to release that tension. It was a great learning experience for me to do that but I wouldn’t wish it on my students. So I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to allow any of my students to develop dysfunctional tension if I could help it. So, in designing my approach to teaching ukulele I decided that I would develop the fingers one at a time and develop the independence of the fingers first.

I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to allow any of my students to develop dysfunctional tension if I could help it.

It’s very easy to play a song that has just two notes – so and mi – on the ukulele. It was easy for the children to do that and they could to it almost instantly once they understood what they were expected to do. We worked from there and developed the fingers in sequence and developed the ability to play the full range of the instrument in the first position. And that seemed to be effective; I wasn’t seeing kids having difficulties doing anything I asked them to do. They seemed to have a natural, flexible and relaxed technique and so I thought, “this is working, I’m going to stick with it.”

Yehudi Menhuin, the great virtuoso violinist, once made the comment that the violinist’s enemy was “any tightness of hold” on the instrument. I try to make the students aware of what the tension feels like and what the free and relaxed approach feels like. It’s something that takes time; it’s a mindfulness that they need to develop.

UY!: And the great benefit of all this is what? Greater freedom of expression?

Absolutely. It’s technical freedom in the first place; the hands move freely on the instrument. And beyond that it goes to the place where your mind is free to think about expression.

UY!: Do you find students getting frustrated by a melody-first approach because they don’t play chords right away?

WD: No, not in my experience. Students were THRILLED to be able to play these melodies they knew and they were eager to learn new melodies each week. I never had any difficulty with that. And, you know, we did learn chords as soon as they were able to play comfortably with two or three fingers.

UY!: Regarding discipline in the classroom, you stress in U for Ukulele that “the classroom atmosphere must be carefully controlled” yet you want to leave enough freedom for each student “to discover and develop his/her own special abilities.” What advice can you give to teachers on maintaining such a delicate balance between discipline and expressive freedom?

Participation is they key to developing skills and if the students don’t feel free to participate then they will be inhibited in their development of skills.

WD: Well, participation is they key to developing skills and if the students don’t feel free to participate then they will be inhibited in their development of skills. I realized quite early on that I had to control the tendency for some children to make disparaging remarks about others and so I established rules right from kindergarten up and in all my elementary classrooms. There was a list of rules. Probably the most important one was “no put-downs.” I was very consistent about enforcing this and through that I was able to develop a supportive atmosphere in the classroom. I found it made the children feel free to participate. They knew that no one would laugh at them and they knew that their best efforts would be appreciated by everyone in the classroom. I think that’s a key factor.

UY!: In U for Ukulele you stress the importance of student performance. Why?

WD: Student performance is the pathway to developing skills. In many classrooms students are hesitant to perform, especially in front of others. But I started – through the vehicle of musical games – to develop the habit of having everyone take part. Typically in these games there would be things for everyone to do and then there would be a moment in the game where any individual student would respond in some way. And so everyone got a turn to do that. These games were fun and I had a whole bag full of them that I had collected over the years so there was great variety and I was able to keep things fresh.

Now, what happens when you do that is that the students develop the habit of performing, the habit of taking their turn. When we would perform in the classroom I would just continue that; if we were playing a song there would be a part in the song where everyone would perform in unison and then there would be parts for a solo player and we would take turns doing that. And by doing that we developed the performance skills in the students.

UY!: Parental support is key to the success of any music program. How do you establish and maintain a dialogue with parents?

WD: Well, I like to get to know the parents. Although I taught a large number of students I always tried to meet the parents and have them come to the schools when we had parent visitation days. Certainly whenever we had concerts in the school I would make a special point of trying to speak with as many parents as possible. I tried to make a special point of remembering their names so that I could say hello to them if I saw them on the street somewhere. So I think it’s key for teachers to try to get to know their students’ parents.

Part of the reason I developed the U for Ukulele method was that I wanted to offer something to the parents and to the children that they could access at home to support the children’s practising. That’s essentially all it was at that time. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s it was unusual for teachers to offer anything online to support their teaching in the classroom but it tied in neatly with the Master’s program that I was doing in technology and so that was one of the ways I tried to communicate with the parents and to offer support to them with their children’s musical development.

I’m really actually quite flabbergasted by the interest that people have shown in my method. I had no intention of doing anything with it beyond completing the requirements for my Master’s degree and providing something for my own students to support their learning at home. And it’s gratifying to me to receive emails from teachers all over the world, I still get them from time to time and respond to them whenever I do.

UY!: Just one more question about the role of parents in music education. If you made a short list of things that parents need to be responsible for providing, what would you include on that list?

It only takes about three weeks to form the habit of practising on a daily basis if it’s consistently supervised by the parents. Once the habit is formed parents usually don’t have much difficulty after that.

WD: Another good question. There are a number of things that I could suggest to parents. One would be to be supportive of their child and to realize that even though their beginning efforts may not seem remarkable they need to be supported; they need to be appreciated for what they’re doing. Another thing that parents need to be aware of is that students need to be – in some cases – forced to practise. They need to establish a practise a routine. It needs to be, “this is your practise time and regardless of whether you actually practise or not, this is what you will NOT be doing at that time: you won’t be watching TV, you won’t be talking on the phone with your friends or anything like that. This time is set aside for practise.” Generally, most children respond very well to that. It only takes about three weeks to form the habit of practising on a daily basis if it’s consistently supervised by the parents. So if they can do that it might be three weeks of... you know, contention but after that the student will settle down. Once the habit is formed parents usually don’t have much difficulty after that.

Of course, the parents need to show the child, especially a young child, how to care for the instrument. A child should have their own instrument so if the parents are financially able to provide that for them that’s a wonderful benefit. They need to be shown where to keep it so it’ll be safe, where no one will step on it, the dog won’t chew on it and so on. And all this has happened; I’ve had ukuleles come to me in the form of plastic bags full of splinters! I said, “what happened to that?” They said, “well, it got run over by a truck!” And that’s no word of a lie!

UY!: When you play music for your own enjoyment, what instrument(s) and repertoire do you play?

WD: Well, I play guitar. I do play piano rather poorly but I do that sometimes for enjoyment. I have two favourite guitars that I play; one is a classical guitar and the other is an electric jazz guitar. My training as a musician was in classical guitar so I enjoy getting out my old repertoire and seeing what I can still manage! I enjoy that very much. I also perform with a small quartet and we play in some of the local clubs around here. We play mostly jazz standards.

UY!: Being a public school music teacher isn’t easy. What keeps you motivated to teach music day-in and day-out?

WD: That’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t teach as much music now as I used to. I found that after I’d invested close to 30 years [in music education] that I was looking for new challenges. So, for me the key was broadening my horizons. I have since that time taken two Master’s of Education degrees – a couple of years ago I completed another one in special education – so I’m finding challenges in being an educator by looking at different fields of education. I enjoy the challenges of working with technology and all the possibilities that are there for education, both today and in the future. And with the special education work that I do I also enjoy the challenges of working with students who are either developmentally handicapped or have other special challenges that we try to overcome.

Warren Dobson lives and teaches in Mill Village, Nova Scotia, Canada. His U for Ukulele method, which combines Doane ukulele methodology with Kodaly principles, is available online at http://ssdsbstaff.ednet.ns.ca/wdobson.

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