Ukulele hockets – a fun and inclusive way to teach music

Written by: Michael Davidson

29 September, 2016
Taking part in a ukulele hockets workshop

Hockets are where each person plays one note and combines with others to play riffs and tunes.

Hockets through history

Hockets are where each person plays one note and combines with others to play riffs and tunes. They are found in medieval music, in the English Folk handbell tradition, in, prog rock and also in African Music.

Ethnomusicologist John Blacking famously once compared how the Venda of the North Transvaal taught music inclusively using hockets, with the competitive and marginalised way he himself learnt music in UK. The Venda allocated young people different one-note reed pipes at puberty to demonstrate how cooperation is important, both to make music by each person playing one different note, and for inclusive citizenship. The ‘one person/one note’ hockets approach demonstrates a musical embodiment of the native South African concept of Ubuntu, that ‘a person is a person through other people’. Indexing the specific time and place Blacking described risks romanticising and generalising from a culture, but world music traditions and concepts that have travelled more easily through community music traditions than through formal music education may have much to offer music education in the UK in 2016. Rather than requiring the purchase of new and exotic instruments, some of these principles may be applied to the teaching of instruments such as the ukulele. Ukuleles are cheap, accessible, and offer a great way to teach First Access music, but like community music approaches, their value is sometimes not clear to services measuring success by grade exam passes or through progression into orchestras.

A way to support pupil wellbeing, attainment and inclusion

Taking part in a ukulele hockets workshop

Music can offer a sustainable way to support the inclusion, wellbeing and attainment of pupils, especially those at risk of exclusion

Whilst both classroom and instrumental music teaching are increasingly under pressure by schools’ prioritisation of other subjects, schools are also looking for sustainable ways to support the inclusion, wellbeing and attainment of pupils, especially those at risk of exclusion. Community music has often been commissioned to support these outcomes in out-of-school settings, but has yet to develop as a major part of instrumental teaching in schools. A partnership of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Essex Music Education Hubs and charity Youth Music is exploring the benefits of developing teaching for personal and social outcomes within the instrumental teaching workforce. Funded by the Youth Music Fund C strategic strand, Musicnet East seeks to develop and disseminate new models of instrumental teaching, that combine the skills-based and performance-focussed approaches typically associated with instrumental teaching, with community musicians’ focus on participation, process and personal and social outcomes. Running from 2015-2018, the project team includes managers whose main experience is within formal approaches, and community musicians, so the team’s diversity offers opportunity for dialogue between different approaches. As often the best way to understand the benefit of music making is to participate in it, the project team has developed a workshop based on this hybrid approach.

Trained by Community Music East in Norwich, Mark Howe uses junk percussion as a ‘level playing field’ to demonstrate that ‘anyone can make music out of anything’, regardless of ability. When first taking part in his workshop, I was intrigued by how Mark’s improvisatory approach helped produce states of absorption, and how turn-taking helped everyone feel included. Working some of this into my own guitar and ukulele First Access practice has offered a playful way to introduce a right hand ‘rest stroke’ technique on open strings, and to practice this by sending it around and across the circle of learners in turn. Asking the children to play the rhythm of their names offers a good way to learn these (and to manage behaviour) and also suggests material for rhythmic call and response warm ups.

Quick wins

Following Blacking, allocating different left hand notes to pairs or trios of pupils allows us to play scales and tunes across the whole class that the children would struggle to play on their own at the start of the year. Allocating open strings to less confident children helps both to include everyone, and to manage behaviour. The children enjoy guessing the simple tunes we play as hockets across the group, and taking a turn shadowing the conductor, then conducting on their own is always popular, and helps keep people focussed. The more confident pupils try using all the notes to work out the tunes on their own.

Twinkle, twinkle little star notated as a hocket

Community music makes much of the power of the circle, which can help participants achieve more than they can on their own, by offering fun, support and energy, and also a chance to learn from watching others playing their note before it comes to your turn. With the introduction of left hand notes, returning to passing notes around or across the circle now offers a way to improvise simple tunes and riffs from social interaction. Pupils of all levels of ability and confidence can also enjoy conducting improvised tunes and riffs by bringing in and dropping out groups of notes in turn. Simple accompanying ostinati played by tutor can help anchor the rhythm, and provide additional musical interest. Breaking the circle into groups offers a way for pupils to develop and refine collective hocket riffs that can be recombined sequentially or as layers of a larger group piece. When more notes are mastered, breaking pupils into pairs can help them develop a sense of phrasing for composition by improvising musical conversations.


Personal and social, as well as musical, outcomes

Taking part in a ukulele hockets workshop

Hockets allow us to play scales and tunes across the whole class that the children would struggle to play on their own at the start of the year.

So what else are the children learning? Certainly, classical guitar technique that supports their continuation in subsequent years. But we hope also social connection through shared rhythm and taking turns, and agency through learning to improvise and compose. Pupils continuing in year 5 have gone on to compose material for subsequent First Access year 4 cohorts. They’re also learning how to use music to help people feel included (of much relevance to schools tasked with promoting Prevent and British Values agendas), and how to take a lead. Music leadership is valued as highly in participatory music cultures, (such as Ghanaian Ewe drumming) as development of instrumental technique measured by grades in ‘presentational ‘ music cultures. Many of these outcomes have value to schools’ wider agendas beyond music. Schools value pupil leadership as a way to both consolidate learning and to mentor others. Musicnet East is further developing young music leadership through the extension of First Access into Family Music projects, where pupils teach their parents what they have learnt in First Access. Schools particularly value how this helps them engage families informally, especially hard to reach parents, who may have intergenerational disengagement from school, and whose children sometimes struggle with formal learning. Similarly, teaching improvisation in groups from an early age can help children develop both creative and collaborative skills and also resilience to help manage the fear of making mistakes that test-based cultures can engender.

Beyond promoting personal and social outcomes, we hope the workshop development is helping demonstrate how musical inclusion pedagogy can offer effective ways to teach music musically. Could a hockets-based approach be adopted by tutors of other instruments and to other genres? Why not? Playing individual notes across a group could offer a way to teach tone row serial composition from an early age. Learning music skills in informal group music making can help pupils experience and internalise musical concepts, as well as raising enthusiasm for playing. Early responses have also suggested that the personal and social outcomes community music approaches engender can also help schools value music more highly.

This is a longer version of an article which appeared in the October 2016 edition of Reingold Publishing’s Music Teacher magazine. A copy of the magazine can be bought on their website.

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