This past January, I introduced myself in Joel Katz‘s intermediate ʻukulele class by announcing that I was downsizing from the nine foot grand piano to the less than two foot ʻukulele. People laughed.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t giving up the piano by any means. Rather, I was embracing the ʻukulele. It has my namesake after all: KU in ʻukulele.
In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A few of my music students had shared their love of the instrument. One even gave me a hand-built ʻukulele stand as a parting gift. Eventually I succumbed to my usual thirst for novelty and variety.
When Daniel Ho gave his guest lectures to my music theory and world music classes, I saw how effortlessly he switched between the guitar and the ʻukulele. Later he persuaded me to get his Tiny Tenor, an instrument he co-designed with the luthier Pepe Romero, Jr. The six-time Grammy winner and composer personally assembled this special ʻukulele with my wish list of tuner, strap, extra set of strings, and a Romero Creations gig bag. He threw in a couple of ʻuke instruction books he co-authored with Herb Ohta, Jr and sent the box by courier from Los Angeles, arriving in Maui just before Christmas.
Over the winter break, Robert Bekkers, with his strong right-hand technique from playing classical guitar and impeccable improvisation skills, jammed with me. We managed to do a few duos on baritone and tenor ʻukes and accompany our family sing along sessions on a variety of instruments, including the guitar.
On the first day of uke class at UH Maui College, my top string snapped. It was loud enough to interrupt the class of a dozen students. Was that an omen or just an accident to bring attention to myself? The inner knot wasn’t big enough and went through the hole. As a typical pianist, I felt helpless. Did I now need to learn how to string an instrument as well as tune it?
Luckily, I’m told that ʻukulele strings don’t need changing as often as guitar strings. And it’s much easier to tune four strings than 88 piano keys (with several strings each!)
Although we learned a lot of songs — an average of two new songs each time we met — I couldn’t play and sing any song from memory, with the best strumming or picking techniques. The teacher’s choice to cover breadth, of genres and chords, was deliberate to cater to the contrasting wishes of the class. One pensioner only wanted to play Hawaiian songs. Others wanted oldies. I wanted to learn top 40 hits that my piano students wanted to play. In addition to filing the song charts (lyrics and chords), I took an extra step of downloading and printing original sheet music for each song. My binder quickly got filled with lead sheets, transcriptions, and piano arrangements.
I decided to write about the ʻukulele so I could consolidate my learning. For my History of Hawaiian Music essay, I researched and compared different ways to teach oneself how to play this instrument. The Web is loaded with free tips and tutorials. There’s a multitude of smart apps for the iPhone and iPad. There are also method books in the library. If you aren’t able take a class to learn to play this light, portable instrument, try teaching yourself.
In my research, I scanned a variety of sources. Watching Jake Shimabukuro’s PBS documentary “Life on Four Strings” convinced me to take this instrument seriously. It’s not used solely to accompany hula or Hawaiian songs. Shimabukuro is doing what Segovia did for the classical guitar.
Recently I joined other ʻuke enthusiasts in Thursday evening jam sessions in North Kihei, about a 10 to 15 minute drive from my home. Today I brought my mother to her first hula lesson in back of the church while I joined Kumu Keoloha and others in repeatedly strumming the famous Hawaiian vamp of II7-V7-I. It was excellent practice in rapid left-hand chord changes and rhythmic right-hand strumming. I wonder how many hula classes have the luxury of live music accompaniment.
Playing the same Hawaiian songs many times with others on the ʻuke reminds me of a jam session of Irish dance music in Western Massachusetts last summer. My childhood friend Alice, who hosted the fun session in her home, said playing such repetitive music in unison on the violins gives the fiddlers plenty of practice. Indeed, it gives its own momentum when you are among them.
Sadly, my beginning piano students struggle to find time to practice and keep up with their playing, because they practice alone. It’s monotonous to play the same thing over and over again — alone. Perhaps I should launch regular piano jam sessions, akin to that of Hawaiian ʻukulele and Irish fiddle jams. Minimalist music on several pianos would be a great way to start.
Note: you can pick up an ʻuke at a pawn shop in Wailuku, a Maui-made instrument at either of Mele Ukulele‘s two shops — on the way to Wailuku or in Wailea. Their prices range from $60 to $5,000. The two music shops on Maui (Bounty Music in Kahului and Lahaina Music) carry a variety of ʻukuleles. Don’t forget you can also visit Maui Craigslist or order directly from the luthier, such as Romero Creations.