I am currently creating a series of free ebooks for my pupils (and anyone who's interested!) that I will be giving away over the coming weeks and months. Click here to grab the first - The 3 Free Apps Every Music Student Needs!
I'm going to be recommending a different app every week which I've found helpful in my life as an instrumental teacher, producer and/or musician in general.
I'd like to start with the very obvious choice of GarageBand. GarageBand comes preloaded for free with a newly shipped iPad, although you must pay the fee of £3.99 to have access to most of the features.
Essentially, GarageBand is a portable recording studio, enabling the user to record via the inbuilt microphone and sequence together their own music using a variety of "smart instruments" such as piano, drums, guitars, basses and strings, as well as pre-existing "apple loops" of various styles. You can even plug a guitar directly into your iPad via a USB camera connection kit and use virtual guitar amplifiers to emulate the experience of a genuine recording session.
Although it could never be an alternative for real instrument performance, it is a useful way of jotting down musical ideas, encouraging creative composition for a beginner, and getting young people enthused about and engaged with music-making.
Download GarageBand here
A question I get asked on a regular basis by brand new pupils and parents is which instruments, accessories and books to buy for an absolute beginner. I'm going to try to answer all those questions here on the blog in a series of articles.
The popularity of the ukulele has risen massively in recent years due to it's price and portability and is quickly replacing the recorder as the primary school instrument of choice. While I teach children of all ages the ukulele, I find it useful for bridging the gap for 5-7 year olds who are eager to start guitar. It has a very wide appeal - I have enjoyed teaching the instrument to people from the ages 5 - 80!
The first, and possibly confusing thing to note about this instrument is that there are 4 different sizes - from smallest to largest: Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone. The most common size is the Soprano, and these are generally the cheapest too. The Concert is exactly the same but slightly bigger in size, likewise with the Tenor. The Baritone is the biggest and is actually tuned like the top 4 strings of a guitar unlike the other 3 ukuleles.
Many people start with a fairly cheap Soprano ukulele. Often this is sufficient for a beginner getting to grips with the instrument, although some find the width of the frets frustratingly small for forming chords and quickly move to a Concert size. Tenor is increasingly in popularity too. A lot of this can depend on budget of course, but if you take only one thing away from this article let it be this - do not spend less than £20 on a ukulele!
Cheaper ukuleles tend to suffer from poor intonation*. They are often made from cheap woods and have poor quality tuning pegs. This causes fret buzz, string rattle and an inability for the instrument to remain in tune. Ukuleles are generally not known for fantastically precise intonation anyway, but investing a little more can make a big difference in this department. There's nothing more frustrating than putting the time and effort in to practice your ukulele, only for it to always sound out of tune. Also make sure that the ukulele you purchase has "geared" tuning keys, these are the ones that stick out of each side of the headstock like ears. The inclusion of these is usually proof that the instrument in question is not simply a toy!
Good budget manufacturers of Soprano ukuleles include Mahalo, Makala, Pure Tone, Stagg, Tanglewood, Redwood.
As with any other stringed instrument you're going to need a decent quality padded case or "gigbag"; these start at around £10. Make sure the case is padded as it will offer enough protection when the ukulele is inevitably dropped or bashed. If you are going to be doing plenty of travelling with your ukulele, it may be worthwhile investing in a hard case for ultimate protection.
More so than with practically any other instrument, a tuner is an essential! Ukuleles tend to stray out of tune pretty easily, especially when you've had a long strumming session or they've been in an extreme hot or cold environment. A clip-on tuner upwards of £5 would suffice or if you have a tablet computer or iPad there are plenty of free or low-cost tuner Apps available. Make sure that you are in a quiet environment when using these as they rely on the inbuilt microphone on your device.
There are many other accessories available that are less essential, such as a strap for hands-free use, spare strings and plectrums. Many people are content to use their index finger or thumb for strumming but if you choose to use a plectrum make sure it is a specific felt plectrum for ukulele rather than a plastic guitar one.
The market is saturated with ukulele books of wildly varying quality. In my private lessons I tend to mainly use my own self-written handouts but I can recommend two good quality books, one for adults and one for children.
1. Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1 by Lil Rev
This book is a good quality Adult beginners primer to the ukulele, including an introduction to traditional music notation, TAB, strumming, chords and scales. A good companion book to this is Hal Leonard Easy Songs for Ukulele which is a songbook of a similar standard.
2. Ukulele Basics by Lorraine Bow and Alex David
Similar to the excellent "Guitar Basics" series, this is a beginners primer to ukulele playing aimed squarely at children. It works well in a one-to-one or group context and slowly introduces the learner to chords, tunes and rhythms and comes with a backing CD to play along with.
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*Intonation is the pitch accuracy of an instrument. With stringed instruments, the perfect scenario would be that the open strings and fretted notes would be precisely in tune all across the neck. More info here.