'The Nation's Ukulele Orchestra'
BBC News, Radio 4, 23rd September 2014
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Shock news item; use of ukuleles in schools has rocketed.

Over the last few days the UOGB has been asked by various newspapers, radio stations and online news organisation to comment on a news item concerning the ukulele. 

News stories that use of the ukulele has “outstripped the recorder” in schools have been around for many years, along with periodic “shock” announcements that sales of ukuleles are said to be greater than those of guitars. The current flurry of news items prompted by the recent Associated Board report says similar things. (see below)

In fact the report reveals something more interesting. It appears that not only are ukuleles increasingly used in schools for ensemble playing and teaching (as recorders have traditionally been used), but the ukulele also appears in top ten list of instruments chosen by individuals themselves, regardless of what the school provides. 

It is possible that cuts in arts funding for schools resulting in fewer dedicated music teachers has resulted in schools keeping at least some music going by means of teachers of other subjects, who have a personal enthusiasm for music, taking over the task of organising group ukulele classes. These may have taken the place of other activities with other instruments. 

The UOGB’s popularising of the concept of an ensemble of ukuleles since the 1980s is suggested by many as the reason for the popularity of all-ukulele groups with children, seniors and music enthusiasts. In the 1980s there were no known all-ukulele ensembles. 

The UOGB on its ongoing “world tour with only hand luggage” now encounters thousands of ukulele groups worldwide including ones the performers have met in the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Czech Republic, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, China, Japan, Poland, and even Svalbard. 

The Orchestra has arranged special concerts for school and other groups, illustrated lectures on its methods, workshops and play-alongs in theatres, schools and indeed stadiums full of children, all over the world, in addition to its regular concerts. 

Large scale ukulele manufacturers as well as individual ukulele builders in various countries have said that the UOGB’s concerts and online presence has been a major influence on the popularity of the instrument, a direct increase in trade sales of the instrument, and has had a significant effect on music retail worldwide, leading to the expansion of new income streams for many music shops because of the increased demand for ukuleles. 

The ukulele can be an affordable option for music makers and schools. The UOGB has purchased and donated to schools ukuleles in quantity in order to facilitate group music making and teaching. Of course this requires there to be teachers in the school able to offer ukulele tuition. 

All kinds of music can of course be played on the ukulele. The interesting thing about ensemble playing is that an arrangement or orchestration in which each individual instrument plays something different, rather than all the instruments playing the same thing, enables more complicated music to be made in combination, sometimes using only individual components which are in themselves simple to play. This enables popular and classical music with different parts to be re-created but with an all-ukulele ensemble. 

This sort of activity can be traced back through a social history which might include the early days of rock and roll, via skiffle, spasm bands, jug bands and “house music” ensembles, Gebrauchsmusik, Toy Symphonies, the social popularity of chests of viols, plucked instruments in barber’s shops and Thomas Morley’s “Consort Lessons”. 

Whether we call it a ukulele, a ngoni, a liuqin, a setar or a citole, a plucked chordophone with four strings has been in use all over the world for a long time. 

One cannot however forget the appeal of the “group thrash” at George Formby Society meetings where massed ranks of ukulele-banjo players, all simultaneously using the time-honoured split-stroke technique, demonstrate the effectiveness of all the instruments in unison playing the same thing at the same time. As an effect it can be stirring, but in a concert such an effect would perhaps only be used as one part of the light and shade of varied volumes and textures. 

The debate about whether the guitar is better than the ukulele tends to evaporate when one recalls that the renaissance guitar was effectively a ukulele under a different name, and that the addition of extra strings led to the use of the guitar with five strings for a long period of time, the Russian guitar with seven strings and the more familiar guitar with six strings of either nylon or metal which we find in classical and popular music. 

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music has a new report out on use of instruments and on music teaching. It found that the use of ukulele in classrooms has risen to 15%, that the instrument is often used for whole class ensemble teaching, and that the instrument is one of the 10 most chosen individual instruments by adults and children, boys and girls (as opposed to instruments offered in schools for ensemble teaching). 

The report is available to download here

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has been playing “one plucking thing after another” since 1985 and has had sold out gigs from Laramie to Hiroshima, from Berlin to Shanghai, from the Glastonbury festival to Carnegie Hall, from Filthy McNasty’s crowded bar to Buckingham Palace, from Sydney Opera House to The Royal Albert Hall and St Martin in the Fields. 

It has organised play-alongs with up to more than 1,000 participants at a time, at workshops for children in the UK, USA and New Zealand. 

Reducing arts provision in schools is thought by many educationalists to be a false economy in that whether a student goes on to work in business, science or theatre for example, the experience of making music with others is good training for listening, working with others and being sensitive at all levels. All work is creative, all work requires delicacy and interaction; and the neural pathways which music making opens up enable the skills and benefits which are needed in all areas of work and life to flourish. 

Claude Bernard, the French physiologist, said that “Art is I; science is we”, but one might go further and say that an ensemble of ukuleles (like some other activities) is a social activity, a group effort, a meeting of technique, group dynamics, art, diplomacy and democracy. These are good things for students and music makers to experience and become habituated to.

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