Differentiated Ukulele Ensemble Arrangements

September Musings:

Differentiated Ukulele Ensemble Arrangements


If you have ever studied with me, you probably know that I am a certified teacher in the James Hill Ukulele Initiative Teacher Training Program. My participation opened new doors and changed my life course profoundly. In 2012 I had made a decision to go “all-in” with creating a teaching practice built around ukulele. I took a 2-day Ukulele Teacher Training in Dallas with Hawaiian ukulele legend Kimo Hussey. That got me started. I remember coming home and thinking “I wonder if there is a certified ukulele teacher training program?” Within 30 seconds, I Googled my way to James Hill's program. I enrolled and made my way to Vancouver that July. Upon entering the Radisson hotel in Richmond, B.C., a guy came up to me and said “ Hi, James!” Um, I'm not James, I'm Kevin. He squinted and said, right. He's a bit taller. We chatted for a minute and I checked in. The hotel receptionist said “Welcome back, Mr. Hill.” Um, I'll take that as a compliment, but, I'm not James. A few years later, I was teaching in the JHUI program and James sent a video to his mother that included a snippet of me playing. She told him that he looked too thin and needed to put on some weight. Um, “That's not me, mom. That's Kevin Carroll.” When you're own mother mistakes you for her son, there's probably some strange psychic forces at play. That last one was a big compliment to me, though, as I'm 17 years older than James. Anyway, onwards toward a point (or two) of some sort.

After filling out close to 250 hours of practice logs, learning to read music at age 47, discovering the depth and details of the Ukulele in the Classroom book series, taking 3 finals exams, submitting numerous performance recordings, I was a certified Level 3 teacher. Right near the end of these 3 years, I was running out of steam. I recall that one of the last exercises we were assigned was do make our own Big Band-style arrangement. In the notes for this assignment, James mentioned that this could be the “next step” in our development. Arranging would free us to create our own lessons, recital pieces, etc. Learning this skill would also save us from waiting for James' next arrangement to be available. I took a deep breath and thought about this. The learning curves of arranging software, counter-melodies, harmonic structure, etc. seemed very daunting. I committed, begrudgingly. I'm very glad that I did, but, I have never worked harder at anything in my life.

Peter Luongo

Let me backtrack for a minute. After my 2nd year in the program, I was asked to take part in a teaching tour with an Australian couple that was graduating from the program. Jane Jelbart and Mark Jackson had booked a series of teaching gigs from Vancouver to Sacramento and wanted an American along for the ride. I'll write about this wonderful adventure later on. Mark and Jane are highly energetic, dedicated and inspiring ukulele educators. Their “Ukestration” techniques were very mind-expanding for me. After our graduation, Mark invited me to a vegetarian restaurant with their friend “Pay-ter.” Um, ok. Why not. We had to wait in line to get into this place. Suddenly, an enthusiastic man approaches. It's “Pay-ter,” or rather, Peter Luongo, the legendary leader of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble and former teacher of James Hill. My jaw dropped. Mark and Jane had some business to discuss with him, but, I never gave them a chance. I sat next to Mr. Luongo and riddled him with questions. He gave lively, lengthy replies to each one I fired his way. Eventually, Mark and Jane gave up. They took a cab back to the hotel. We stayed at the restaurant talking while Peter's wife Sandi fell asleep at the table. Peter said he'd take me back to Richmond, but, first he could use an espresso. All told Peter and I talked for 5 hours straight about the ins and outs of ukulele ensembles. Sandi slept for a good 3 hrs of this. It was the chance of a lifetime for me and I really milked it for all I could extract from this golden opportunity. Peter was SO generous, and I can only imagine that he sensed my passion for teaching and learning. What a phenomenal gift. 

From Ukestra to Books to edUKEcation

In 2014, I began to learn the GuitarPro notation software for creating ukulele arrangements in earnest. Standard musical notation, tablature, chord diagrams, formatting possibilities galore and much more were at my fingertips. Over the last 9 years, I have published 4 books with this software. I have created 26 consecutive semesters worth of differentiated arrangements for my Ukestra. That's around 150 pieces. I've published close to 200 songs on my site dedicated to ukulele arrangements: edUKEcation.com. I've composed a dozen or so pieces, too. At last count, I've created around 400 pages of lesson materials for private and group classes. I have fallen asleep at my computer too many times to recall while using this notation software. This has been my main focus for nearly a decade. This might beg the question “What are differentiated ukulele ensemble arrangements?”

A basic arrangement for a string quartet, for instance, would typically be for 4 players at the same level. This might be 4 parts at the beginner level. A Differentiated Ukulele Arrangement includes multiple levels (and sometimes multiple tunings) so that beginners, intermediate and advanced players can play together. I divide my Ukestra into 4 sections that range from simple to advanced.  Uke 1 often plays the highest notes while Uke 4 plays the lowest. As I get to know my groups, I can dial in each part for the particular individuals in the group. This allows me to give each section a strong challenge or two as well as, a couple of tunes that they can handle with relative ease. The rest of the songs would be somewhere in-between. This has proven to be an incredibly effective method of teaching. I can zero in on the tricky bits and show some approachs to these parts. Sometimes, other students have already played that part and they can shed light on their successes with a tough part. I like to keep a nice balance of simple songs that can be played with excellent tone, time and feel, with some tunes that undeniably challenge students. 

This has allowed/forced me to study counterpoint, jazz, classical, African, Celtic, music theory, blues, ragtime, pop, Old-Time, conducting, and much more in the music realm. Being a visual learner, reading music and notating it have been solid choices for my growth. I've studied original scores by Beethoven, Schubert, the Jackson 5 and the Beatles, to name a few. It has truly connected a lifetime of synaptic musical loose-ends for me.

I could go on and on about this, but, wanted to give you a taste of this process. If you are a teacher or group leader interested in learning more, I am teaching a FREE workshop through Ukulele Instructors International FB group tomorrow (9/16 @ 4pm central). Check us out, we are easy to find. I'm also leading two Zoom workshops and the links are below and on my website. Lastly, visit edukecation.com to hear my arrangements and peruse that varied library of differentiated ukulele arrangements.

When I look back at my early arrangements I see fingering flaws, poor formatting choices and other mistakes. This helps me see how far I have come, but, I cannot resist the urge to correct those arrangements. I plan on continuing this work for the rest of my life.


Once More with Feeling,




Leave a comment