Using the Ukulele for Music Therapy

Music has the power to bring people together. One organization is using the ukulele as proof, offering free classes in shelters across America for children to make music together.

Children in Grazzini’s class might not speak out during lessons, but with each strummed note and lyric sung their spirits quickly grow.

The Ukulele as a Therapeutic Tool

The ukulele has quickly earned itself a place as one of the go-to instruments for its unique sound, its infectious tunefulness and ability to bring smiles across faces. Furthermore, music therapists using it as therapy have found it especially effective with clients facing emotional, social or physical difficulties.

As a versatile and portable musical instrument, the ukulele can be utilized for many clinical applications for children and adults alike. Due to its small size, playing this instrument is easy enough that many may be able to enjoy it comfortably; providing access for individuals who may otherwise struggle to handle more strenuous instruments like guitar or piano.

Research demonstrates the power of playing musical instruments to stimulate and improve cognitive functioning. Furthermore, developing coordination to hold and manipulate an instrument strengthens fine and gross motor skills while encouraging socialization with others, raising self-esteem, and inspiring creative behaviors.

Ukulele playing is also an effective way to step back from everyday stresses and focus on one thing at a time, providing much-needed stress relief for both individuals and groups alike. NPR recently featured Michael, an individual living with posttraumatic stress disorder who used the instrument as a form of therapy to combat his anxiety levels – showing its potency for healing purposes.

Recent research by the Journal of Music Therapy demonstrated how playing musical instruments such as the ukulele can help reduce cortisol levels – which is associated with stress and anxiety – by playing music. Other studies have also demonstrated this benefit as it can also help decrease depression and anxiety levels.

Ukuleles have quickly gained in popularity as therapeutic tools; we saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic when many seniors embraced this instrument as a means to stay connected to peers, reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness, learn something new and develop social and emotional wellbeing. Community Grant recipient The Elliott Community collaborated with Wellington Music Therapy on creating their ‘In Tune Ukulele – Music for Seniors program to assist seniors connect with their communities while building self-esteem and confidence through music education while strengthening social & emotional wellbeing and developing social & emotional wellbeing through new musical skill acquisition as part of developing social and emotional wellbeing and emotional wellbeing development.

The Ukulele as a Vehicle for Communication

Research continues to demonstrate the therapeutic powers of music on mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing. One organization is harnessing this potential by employing ukuleles in hospitals worldwide as part of their strategy for transformation.

The ukulele is a small four-stringed instrument with big sound that’s easy to play – perfect for music therapy sessions with children and adults alike! Its melodies create a cheerful soundscape. Perfectly suitable for shaking hands too! This course will explore the ukulele as an expressive musical tool with unique benefits; learning techniques for using it clinical settings; participants will build confidence playing this instrument alongside its easier cousin guitar for enjoyable music therapy sessions.

Kanijah Willingham finds comfort in playing his bright purple ukulele when it isn’t his turn to speak in class, playing songs he wrote himself and singing along to it with pride as his voice fills the room.

Ukulele players rely heavily on strumming to produce sound, with proper positioning of their index finger in relation to where the neck of their instrument meets their body being crucial to finding that ideal strumming pattern and sound. Experiment with different strumming patterns until you find one that best matches you and sounds best!

Ukuleles are an easy instrument for children to pick up quickly. Most students can grasp the basics within minutes of instruction and start strumming melodies within days. Furthermore, this shared activity gives parents and their children a way to bond through musical play together as well as inspire more music in the home.

Greg Huntington, a recently retired Procter & Gamble employee, began partnering with Berklee Center for Music Therapy to offer ukuleles and music therapy instruction to critically ill children at Children’s Hospital Boston. Now in its second year, this initiative brings together CMT department at Berklee and Ukulele Kids Club as partners.

The Ukulele as a Vehicle for Socialization

Music therapists frequently utilize the ukulele to facilitate meaningful social interactions between clients. They may incorporate songwriting activities or sentence completion games into sessions and encourage clients to express their creative efforts through both verbal and nonverbal means. Music therapists may also utilize visual imagery during sessions as an aid to deepening the impact of music therapy in clients’ lives.

The ukulele is an easy instrument to learn and can be enjoyed by players of all ages and abilities, making music therapy fun for medically fragile children. Music therapists use UKC Ukuleles designed especially for kids as an engaging learning experience for medically fragile kids – with meaningful design features and color coded strings making music therapy accessible even to newcomers – making music therapy sessions enjoyable experiences within the comfort of one’s own home environment!

Research has demonstrated that children with autism who participate in music-based learning programs exhibit more prosocial behavior. Utilizing the ukulele as a vehicle for socialization may provide them with a sense of connection and belonging among their peers.

Corey Stovall, a board-certified music therapist and founder of Ukulele Kids Club (UKC), is making a difference in the lives of children with serious illness by giving them access to making and receiving music in hospital rooms. UKC is a national non-profit organization which teaches patients and their families how to play ukulele via an online virtual music therapy program.

As Kelly started to recover from COVID-19 treatment, she used the ukulele as a musical and emotional outlet. Through learning songs she could remember what had happened and show her affection towards those around her; Kelly found humor again, her smile becoming a beacon in an otherwise cloudy mind fog.

Whether you are new to playing the ukulele in clinical practice or looking to expand your repertoire, check out this tutorial by Robert Krout of UKC for some expert instruction in its fundamentals, chord progressions and repertoire.

The Ukulele as a Vehicle for Emotional Healing

Ukulele music’s soothing four-stringed timbre and simple chord shapes have long been proven to transport listeners away from pain and isolation towards feelings of happiness, connection and inclusion – that’s why music therapy has become such a crucial component of many comprehensive treatment plans, with children both at home and hospitals around the world using this instrument as part of their therapy plans.

Elias Wendland is no stranger to playing the ukulele, having come from a family of young musicians himself. However, when his music therapist plays it for him it brings out the happiness in him: “She’s wonderful,” he proclaims proudly, “she makes my life better!”

Learning to play the ukulele can be easier for some than for others. Deb Guarneiri, a music therapist at Children’s Hospital, has created an easy ukulele support system with arm cradle-like arm splints to make strumming easier for short upper arms; for those without elbows or only one finger on each hand she has created pick splints which slip onto one or two fingers, with felt picks attached for effortless strumming action.

Tori Steeley of UC Davis Children’s Hospital music therapy also utilizes the ukulele in sessions with children who are experiencing symptoms, stress or trauma. She provides them with various musical activities ranging from songwriting and composing melodies on Garage Band software, playing piano or the ukulele.

Milo Levine, a music therapist at Grafton’s Berryville campus, takes an innovative approach. His goal is to use his ukulele to facilitate tranquility and unity with clients through group music therapy sessions that include songwriting exercises and sentence completion games.

Watching Kelly heal was immensely fulfilling, but one of his favorite parts of her recovery came from a collaborative treatment she undertook with Child Life Media Production Team: making a video featuring Kelly playing her ukulele to honor the memory of her mother and express her thanks for staff. It also showcased her resilience and sense of humor – qualities which continue to carry over as she recovers.