Blogger Chelsey Roos

Ukulele Storytime for Beginners from a Beginner

Have you ever wanted to play the ukulele in storytime, but felt like you couldn’t possibly be good enough? There are many fantastic librarians who are expert ukulele players, but I often find learning from great players intimidating. If you’re overwhelmed, I (definitely a beginner) can help. A few years ago, I decided I was going to start playing the ukulele in storytime, despite the fact that I did not know how to play the ukulele and am generally unmusical. It has always been a little baffling to me that I am paid to sing to children, given that I was once told by a choir teacher to “maybe just mouth the words at the performance.” Despite all these obstacles, I actually do play the ukulele at storytime, and no one has ever complained. Let me reassure you that if I can do it, anyone can do it. Here are some ideas on how to get started.

You Can Play Songs With Just Two Chords

Two great chords to learn are C and G7. C is very simple – just one finger – and G7 is a bit harder, but with them you can play a few classic songs like The Wheels on the Bus and Shake My Sillies Out. When I learn new chords, I find it helpful to watch a tutorial on how to switch from one chord to another, and then practice that switch over and over to build the memory.

Strumming is the other half of playing a ukulele, and it’s the part that I find very challenging. Youtube tutorials are great for learning different strums – I really liked this tutorial for beginners by Cynthia Lin.

A ukulele chord chard showing chords C, G7, and F.
The top of the chart is the top of your ukulele. For the C chord, you are using your ring finger (represented by the three) to hold down the bottom string on the third fret), and then strumming all four strings.

Great Ukulele Resources

I find it easiest to learn from Youtube tutorials, where I can play along and pause to figure out where the musician’s fingers are going. There are many great ukulele teachers on Youtube – I started with Cynthia Lin. I also found the Youtube channel Ukulele Storytime to be very helpful – that’s where I learned songs like If You’re Happy and You Know It.

To find the chords for a big variety of storytime songs, try Storytime Ukulele and Miss Emily Library. The Ontarian Librarian has a great overall guide to getting started with ukulele, with more on good songs and chords for beginners.

Practicing Alone Is Not the Same as Practicing for Performance

Seasoned performers probably know this, but I wish someone had told me. Sitting down and playing your instrument alone, with no audience or distractions, does not prepare you for a performance. In a storytime, I am not just playing the ukulele. I’m also:

  • walking around while I play 
  • singing, projecting, forgetting what words come next
  • making eye contact with families
  • trying to remember to make my face look pleasant instead of my normal grumpy face
  • trying not to trip over any stray children
  • including actions like stomping my feet or doing a little dance

And all this is while a baby starts to cry and three toddlers wrestle behind me over my sheep puppet. Performing your instrument in this chaos is complicated and it needs practice, too. I often feel like I can play a song perfectly – until I debut it at storytime and it all falls apart. It takes me a substantial amount of storytime performances of each individual song before I can do well publicly, and that is still okay.

You Are Going to Mess Up. This Is Good.

Most of the time, kids are the ones we think of as learners, as the ones who make mistakes. The grown-ups are the experts, the all-knowing ones, the ones who already do things perfectly. How absolutely demoralizing that must be for children. By letting children know that we are learners too, they get to see us make mistakes. We can model that making a mistake is nothing to be ashamed of. I will often tell storytime audiences that I am a beginner. When I’m trying a new song, I announce it: “Miss Chelsey has not played this song very often. Is it okay if I make a mistake?” The caregivers (and the kiddos if they’re old enough) are happy to shout back at me that it is. If I do make a mistake in my song, I can narrate positive thinking aloud: “Whoops! I didn’t play the right chords in my song. Let’s try again, I think I can do it.” I hope that this scripting helps my storytime kiddos learn how to talk to themselves positively when they too make mistakes.

Do you play an instrument in storytime? I want to be bad at something else, give me suggestions!

Blogger Chelsey Roos, a white librarian with short hair and glasses.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a Children’s Librarian for Santa Clara County Library. All images in this post were taken or created by the author.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of III. Programming Skills

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