The only instrument that did not suffer a downturn in sales in London during the recent recession was the ukulele. The person who told me this has been researching ukulele clubs in the U.K. for her doctorate thesis. I have a hunch that it’s like chocolates during difficult times. People still want to reward themselves and feel good. The ukulele is that instrument. Am I right?
I drew a cognitive map to see the big picture and trace the causes and effects.
Could it be that pop stars like Taylor Swift and Train use the ukulele in their hit songs? The list of famous people who play the ukulele may surprise you. You either want to be like them or you feel validated that they approve or both. In any case, famous people (musicians or not) playing the ukulele surely helps to raise the popularity of the instrument.
Could it be its portability? Have Uke, Will travel. It’s small and light-weight, not a constraint on budget flights. You can fit a soprano ukulele into your backpack. You can get a foldable ukulele. You can get a plastic waterproof one to take to the beach. You don’t have to fork out 50 quid to RyanAir and check it in as a musical instrument.
Could it be that the “price is right” ? People are willing to pay because they can afford it. If they make the wrong decision, there’s not a huge amount of regret, if any. So you give up lunch and buy a cheap ukulele that doesn’t stay in tune. You give up dinner and buy a cheap ukulele that you don’t feel like playing after a few attempts. Treat it as sunk cost and write it off. Give it to someone else. Or sell it on Craigslist. It’s not like investing in a grand piano where the market for second-hand pianos is not so liquid.
This no-regret pricing is very important, considering the ease of shopping online and returning the product when you’re dissatisfied. Yes, you can even buy a ukulele online!
Could it be that the ukulele is really an easy-to-learn and easy-to-play instrument for accompanying yourself singing? Compared to the guitar and piano, ukulele is dead easy. It keeps you in tune and in sync. You are multi-tasking when you play and sing, a physical activity that singer songwriters do for a living.
Could it be that ukulele clubs seem to have so much fun that you feel the urge to join them? Their members tell you to get yourself a uke and learn a few chords and strokes. You decide to visit your local library to borrow books to teach yourself. You decide you really need your own copy, so you visit Amazon and order books with tempting titles like “How to Play Ukulele“. What you can’t get in books, you try to find in free Youtube tutorials. Finally you hear about a crash course that promises to get you set up and ready for a jam session.
Why would you want to join a ukulele club? It’s one of the few instruments you can practice in a group and get better at it. You don’t need to force yourself to practice at home. Just visit a club and play together.
I thought that was why I joined the Hanwell Ukulele Group (HUG) in London over a year ago — to practice and improve my ukulele skills. Little did I realise that I had another reason for joining, one that I was not aware of back then. It’s called community. There’s a need in every one of us to belong, to connect with others that we can relate to. I lost that feeling of community each time I uprooted. While I may still stay in touch with a few friends and neighbours, each time I leave and relocate, I am no longer part of a community.
When I started going to HUG’s weekly Tuesday evening jam sessions in February 2017, I didn’t know anyone at all. My Tiny Tenor ukulele attracted some attention, the way strangers walking their dogs stop and have polite conversation. Before long, I was chatting to everyone. I have to admit, it feels good to stand next to someone I know and play and sing together. During a jam session, I’d meander through the pub like a cat, stopping to chat or play next to someone. Some people play so loudly that I can’t hear myself. Some people sing very well. I like to stand next to good singers and harmonise with them.
Like consuming luxury chocolates during the recession, playing the ukulele in a group makes you feel good. When everything else is going wrong in your life, you have your ukulele. With it, you can accompany yourself to sing songs that remind you of better days in your past. Songs trigger memories, which bring back the emotions associated with them. While doing so, you get better at singing and playing.
Could that be it? Ukulele sales are booming because ukulele jams are free to join and ukulele clubs are popping up everywhere. If you’re a traveller, like me, you’ll find a home in every ukulele club. It’s no wonder that the ukulele is nicknamed the “friendly instrument” or “social instrument” !
Coincidentally, I started a group in Boston that meets every week in the common room of the famous Walter Baker Building, which once housed the administrative offices of the oldest chocolate factory in the country — Baker Chocolates. One of the members of my group suggested calling ourselves the Baker Chocoleles. I didn’t see the connection between ukuleles and chocolates until writing this blog post.
Note @ 25th July 2018
If you have read this entire blog post, you are very likely a candidate for my 50-question survey to help me understand how leaders of ukulele groups select songs and/or create song sheets for their members to use in jam sessions, workshops, or gigs. Without a doubt, song sheets are a necessary ingredient of ukulele jam sessions (group play and sing alongs). The current atmosphere of freely sharing and distributing song sheets on the Web helps foster the spirit of amateur music making. For most, it’s a labour of love, for you do it without expecting any remuneration.
What will you get out of completing the Google Form survey? It’s entirely voluntary. However, the more responses I get, the more reliable my results will be. You will be the first to learn the results of my research and new song sheets that I produce or critique.