‘Anyone Can Play The Ukulele’: How J. Chalmers Doane Promoted Ukulele as Canada’s Primary Musical Education Tool


Using the fish-to-pond ratio as a measure of notoriety, outside of the ukulele universe, the name J. Chalmers Doane will not conjure up instant celebrity recognition. But to ukulele devotees, especially those living north of the 49th parallel, J. Chalmers Doane is a ukulele deity. He obtained his legendary four-string status not by his virtuosity on the instrument, but with his tenacious determination in promoting the ukulele as the primary instrument for musical education for the whole of Canada. So, how did one man convince an entire country to adopt his uke-centric approach to music pedagogy?

John Chalmers Doane was born in Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1938. Four years later, his mother gifted him with a plastic ukulele. He never put it down. “By the time I was in grade six, I had a little group with three other kids that played the ukulele, plus one on violin, and another on drums. So I played my first gig in grade six,” he recalls. In 1961, after high school, Doane earned his teaching certificate from the Nova Scotia Teachers College. He began honing his education skills in a Nova Scotia country school, teaching general music to students from primary (kindergarten) to tenth grade.

Regardless of the instrument Doane was using to teach, it was the creativity he brought to his lessons that garnered the attention of music educators in the Nova Scotia capital of Halifax. He presented a lesson on the trumpet, which started with a ram’s horn (shofar) and evolved into Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto. His presentation was so well received at one Halifax school that Doane spent the next two weeks teaching the same lesson to schools throughout the city. Over the next three years, he continued to sharpen his teaching skills in schools in the Nova Scotia countryside. 

Doane continued his formal music education by earning a bachelor’s degree in music education from Boston University in 1967—his instrument of study was the trombone. “I took a great many courses because I intended to start a full symphony orchestra when I returned to Nova Scotia, and I would be the only music teacher,” he says. Doane also studied violin, viola, cello, bass, oboe, bassoon, French horn, clarinet, and functional piano. “At one point they said, ‘You can’t take that many instruments.’ I told them that was their problem to solve. I had 15 choices of universities. I chose theirs because of their pedagogy in all those instruments, ‘so that’s what I have to do.’ They cooperated very well with me.”

Later, the educators back in Halifax were eager to lure Doane back to Nova Scotia’s largest school district. His first position was to head the Instrumental Development Program. Just a month later, the head of the music department announced her retirement, and Doane went for her job: “I gave the board a five-year plan of what I would do with instrumental music, choral music, the elementary program, the listening program, and instrumental development in every aspect. Well, they decided to hire me and appointed me Director of Music Education for the city of Halifax.” 

Doane (second row, far right) and Halifax ukulele ensemble, 1982.
Doane (second row, far right) and Halifax ukulele ensemble, 1982.

Building the music program was no easy feat. The initial budget was a scant $500. “I was meeting with my supervisor,” he remembers, “and when he told me what the budget was, I said, ‘you had a music budget. I spent that yesterday on two tape recorders for my listening program.’” The unwavering Doane was able to secure a $40,000-per-year budget and began to hire teachers, starting with four. When he retired from the Halifax School District 17 years later, there were 56 full-time and ten part-time teachers in the music department.

Although his main goal was to create a full symphonic orchestra program in Nova Scotia schools, the thought of using the ukulele as a teaching tool had been percolating in Doane’s mind for a while mind. “As I got going, I realized there was no way that some kids from certain parts of the city were going to succeed in playing a wind instrument, such as oboe or bassoon,” he says. “We would help them purchase an instrument and, all of a sudden, they would show up on Monday without it. We’d ask where the instrument was, and they’d say their father had hocked it at a pawn shop to get money for the weekend.” Doane visited all the local pawn shops, striking deals in which the school could buy back the pawned instruments. “One of the solutions to that problem,” he adds, “was to get a large number of kids learning music through the ukulele. Who would hock a ukulele? It’s not worth it. Once I started doing that, I decided I had to write a book on the subject.”

The result was 1971’s The Teacher’s Guide to Classroom Ukulele, written with Catherine Allison; the first serious approach to music education using the ukulele. “We taught scales, intervals, rhythm and subdivisions, melody, and harmony. As things came together, I realized we had a real winner.” Doane became a tireless advocate of ukulele education, visiting all ten Canadian provinces, planting the seeds of his ukulele program. “Using the ukulele workshop as my medium, I carried all that ukulele music in boxes from Victoria, British Columbia, to Corner Brook, Newfoundland. I trained teachers in each of the places I visited, who, in turn, would come to a national teaching conference I held once a year.” For years, Doane also produced a monthly newsletter to keep his new army of ukulele instructors informed. The newsletter later developed into a magazine called Ukulele Yes! 

By the early ’70s, Doane’s ukulele education program was in full swing throughout the width and breadth of the vast country. He had also formed a performing group of around 30 students in Halifax. “The first record we made was just a teaser for the parents,” he notes. “I had about a hundred pressed and just planned on giving each kid a half dozen copies. Well, one of the local radio stations got hold of a copy, and one guy went nuts over it. He played it every single morning.” The next pressing was one thousand records, and those sold in the time it takes to strum the Minute Waltz. “That’s when I started to get serious about the recordings.” For the years that followed, 95 percent of the funding for Doane’s ukulele groups came from the sale of their recorded music.

The Triangle Ukulele

Doane’s source for inexpensive ukuleles was the Harmony Musical Instrument Company in Chicago, but a 1968 fire destroyed the factory, leaving Doane without a reliable source for his school instruments. So, working with his father, Doane set out to make a cheap ukulele that played in tune. “The breakthrough came when we heard of a guy in a neighboring town who made ax handles,” he says. “Ax handles require quite a bit of woodworking, and I thought he might be able to make necks for us.” As he and his father were driving to meet the ax handle man, a thought came to Chalmers about how to make a ukulele without having to bend any wood.

j. chalmers doane's triangle ukulele

The body would be a triangle shape built with all straight pieces of wood. And to avoid a slanted headstock, small string holes could be drilled between the nut and the tuners. “I turned the car around, and we headed home. We built the first two ukuleles in the basement that afternoon. Later, it took five or six tries to find a company that could make them the way I wanted them made. They had to be relatively inexpensive, sound good, look good, and be tough.” Doane finally struck a deal with the Northern company in Ontario to mass-produce his now-classic triangle ukulele.


Anyone Can Play Music

Chalmers Doane’s passion for music education has led him to the belief that anyone who wants to can learn to play music in some form. “Anyone can play the ukulele, and I can teach it. I have even gone so far as to say I could teach a dog how to play the trumpet if his lips were the right shape.” The one requirement Doane demands from his students is commitment. To that end, he developed what he calls an Interest Test: “I didn’t check to see if anyone was musical, I tested to see if they had any interest.” One way he tested the interest of both parents and students was by scheduling lessons at less than convenient times.

“I taught pre-school violin for three-year-olds, and I used to have that class at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings,” he says. “No one is going to bring their three-year-old to a music lesson at that time on a Saturday morning unless they are really interested.”

If you had to condense Doane’s philosophy of music education down to one premise, it would be his passion for teaching people about their innate musical abilities as human beings. “Learning to play by ear is the same as learning to talk. You learn how to talk by repeating what you hear. Nobody gives up learning how to talk. Therefore, everybody learns how to talk.” And according to Doane, learning to talk can logically lead to learning to sing. “Speaking is singing. You are actually changing pitch on every word you say.”

When it comes to the three most significant elements of music—melody, harmony, and rhythm, Doane minces no words in choosing which is most important to him. “A lot of people who play the piano, and a lot of singers, think that melody is the most important. I do not agree with that. I put melody as three and harmony as two. But that’s just me being a radical. If you start to develop rhythm and do it properly, you’re in business. That why I teach rhythm and subdivisions right from the beginning.”

Another musical element Doane teaches his current students from day one is the chromatic scale. “I’ve changed one thing in my pedagogy, and that is the importance of the chromatic scale,” he says. (At this point in our phone interview, he switches to speakerphone and proceeds to give me an impromptu lesson in both the diatonic (major) and chromatic scales.) “The first test you have to pass in my ukulele program is to play the major scale up and down at a reasonable tempo ten times without a mistake. Then you have to play the chromatic scale up and down. You can play it four beats to the bar—you have divisions of three and of four—triplets and quadruplets.” All of which he plays for me. But the real magic comes when Doane begins singing “You Are My Sunshine” while at the same time running up and down the chromatic scale on the piano. And it works! “No matter what the song is, the chromatic scale harmonizes it,” he says. “Chromaticism is the secret to improvisation. I know the jazz people won’t tell you that. They’ll tell you the whole secret to improvisation is the modes. I disagree with that.”

Perfect Practice 

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi famously said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.” Perfecting perfect practice techniques is something Chalmers Doane has been pursuing for over six decades. “Piano students think if they sit on the piano bench for 30 minutes that they’ve done 30 minutes of practice,” he offers. “And, of course, that’s ridiculous. Practice is when you are actually doing something. With my uke students, I’ll have them strum at a quick tempo through a three-chord progression. Then I’ll stop them and ask them how much practice that was. They’ll say they don’t know, and I tell them that it was about 20 seconds worth of practice. ‘Let’s see if you can do a whole minute.’ Now, a minute seems like a long time to play continually. Then I tell them, ‘That’s what a minute’s practice feels like.’” 

A Lifetime of Influence

Doane’s lifelong love affair with music has positively influenced the lives of countless people worldwide, including his three children, all of whom are musicians. Canadian recording artist and Juno award winner Melanie Doane remembers what it was like growing up in the Doane household: “It was a constant stream of music—kids and adults coming and playing music, rehearsing. There were times I would wonder if I could get to sleep, with a full Dixieland band rehearsing in the living room. I remember sitting in auditoriums with hundreds and hundreds of kids coming down the aisles getting ready for performances and thinking it was pretty normal. We had houseguests from all over the world visit to discuss music education. It seemed that music and kids were the most important things in the world.” Melanie’s upbringing set the course of her musical path. She currently uses her father’s ukulele method to teach 750 children each week at Uschool in Toronto.

Bill Wallace was 12 years old when he began his music studies with Doane in the early 1960s. After high school, Doane convinced him to enter the field of music education. After graduating, Wallace worked for three years under Doane in the Halifax school district before moving on to other teaching jobs. “When Chalmers gets an idea he believes in, he’ll follow that idea through no matter what,” Wallace says.

John Hiltz also studied music with Doane as a child in grade seven. He, too, went on to pursue a career in music education. “Chalmers had the big picture in mind,” he says. “He wasn’t teaching for that one performance or important Christmas concert. It was about music education and turning kids into musicians. And, his positive encouragement had an immense influence on all the kids.”

Jim D'Ville and J. Chalmers Doane
Jim D’Ville and Doane

The Langley School of Ukulele

One school district that fully embraced the Doane system of ukulele education was in Langley, British Columbia, just south of Vancouver. Peter Luongo taught for decades in the Langley School District and was also the director of the world-renowned Langely Ukulele Ensemble for 33 years.


He notes, “Chalmers’ ability to connect with every generation of learners is incredible. He is a member of the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honor you can receive in this country, and it’s well-earned and well-deserved.”

The Doane-Langley connection also includes Jamie Thomas, who grew up in the Halifax ukulele system, and went on to become a music educator in the Langley School District. “When I was 12, I decided I wanted to be a music teacher,” Thomas says. “I made an appointment with Chalmers, who was the head of the citywide music department. He told me I had to learn to play the piano, and he set me up to take lessons with his wife, Jean. The first six months with her were the most valuable lessons I’ve ever had.” The influence the Doanes had on Thomas’ music education directly benefited a young Langley student of Thomas’—one James Hill, who today is one of the best-known figures in the ukulele world and an outstanding teacher in his own right.

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble, part of Doane’s legacy

“By the time I was learning ukulele in school,” Hill says, “Chalmers had been retired for a few years. The program in Halifax had kind of disappeared, and things were being kept alive by the torchbearers on the west coast where I grew up. The echo effect of Chalmers’ heyday was still very strong. The ukuleles were Doane-branded instruments, and we were learning from Chalmers’ ‘Blue Book.’ His name was everywhere, so I didn’t associate his name with a person. Could one person do all of that? It was like you were talking about the government of a small country because he had such an enormous impact on so many people. I think of Chalmers as my musical grandfather. He taught the teacher who taught me.”

According to Doane, teaching music is being a problem-solver. “It’s like giving an orange to a two-year-old. They don’t know what to do with it. They can throw it and roll it, but they don’t know how to eat it. If you know how to solve that problem by tearing the peel off in one place, it won’t be long before the kid catches on that there is taste in there and he can start ripping the rest of the peel off.”

At 82, Doane is still playing gigs and working on a book of original songs he and his daughter Suzanne are writing. He continues to have students nearly every day at his studio near the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. And Chalmers Doane is still handing out oranges.