BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2020 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Canadian ukulele master James Hill has spent the last year building a community called Uketropolis. You won’t find it in a gazetteer, maybe tucked in before Uruguay and Uzbekistan. No, Uketropolis exists in cyberspace. And the concept of Uketropolis began with a 15-year-old Hill writing a guitar method book in New Zealand.
“My family moved to New Zealand for a year [in 1995],” he remembers. “Because of my ukulele background, I made friends right away through music. I could also pick up a guitar and play a few things. And, lo and behold, within a few weeks, I even had students!” The unfortunate drawback for Hill was he had no idea how to teach. “There were no books, and there were no computers or internet,” he says. “So what’s a 15-year-old kid to do?” If you’re Hill, you write your own guitar method book. “Whenever I get into something, I want to write a book about it. I want to know the system, and I want to pass it on to other people,” he says.
This book-writing compulsion led in 2006 to Hill’s collaboration with Canadian ukulele patriarch J. Chalmers Doane on their Ukulele in the Classroom method books, first published in 2008. Growing up in British Columbia, Hill had received solid ukulele instruction beginning in fourth grade, based on Doane’s original method—as outlined his 1971 book Guide to Classroom Ukulele, the first of its kind—and was even taught by one of Doane’s former pupils, Jamie Thomas. Over time, Doane’s method was adopted throughout Canada in public schools, spawning generations of uke players and teachers. (See the Fall 2020 issue of Ukulele for lots more on Doane’s career.) When Hill, who calls himself a “third-generation” Doane disciple, decided he wanted to write a method series himself, he enlisted the father of the movement (Doane) to help him.
Over two years, the two conducted a trans-Canada writing alliance—Hill in British Columbia, and Doane in Nova Scotia. “Early on, I would visit Chalmers at his farmhouse, and he would go over my drafts. I remember once I was sitting across from him while he was reading my manuscript on how to play the C scale. I had typed out, ‘First, you lift up your middle finger and put it on the second fret of the C string then,’ comma, ‘you play the E string without putting any fingers down and then,’ comma . . . He was very patient and read the whole thing. Then he looked up at me and said, ‘Y’know, nobody is going to read your book.’ From that moment on, the book wasn’t about words; it was about music.”
The Ukulele in the Classroom project was the first comprehensive attempt to revise Doanes’ methodology. The direction for this new approach to ukulele pedagogy was established in a phone call between Doane and Hill early on. “He said one thing that stuck with me forever,” Hill says, “and that was, ‘I’m old enough now to admit to you what we did wrong.’ That’s all he had to say. He was over it enough that he had extracted his ego from his methodology. If I had approached him 20 or 30 years earlier, he still would have been attached to some of those pedagogical recommendations. It was his method. His letting go of that allowed me to create a way of teaching that even I have to grow into. It’s infused with so much wisdom—not just from Chalmers, but also Jamie Thomas, Peter Luongo, and Bonnie Smith [all students of Doane’s method and noted educators].”
After The Ukulele in the Classroom came out to rave reviews and widespread adoption by both schools and students, Hill says his father, Barry, a retired educator, gave him a great piece of advice: “He told me that anyone could write a book, stuff it in an envelope, and take it to the post office. What’s hard to do is find a community of people who believe in your method and really know how to use it.” This realization led to the creation of the James Hill Ukulele Initiative (JHUI) teacher certification program in 2010. These live, in-person teacher training sessions took Hill to Europe, Asia, Australia, and other far-flung locales.
Fast forward to 2019. Hill had three separate programs—Ukulele in the Classroom, JHUI live teacher training, and the Ukulele Way (which teaches solo ukulele). But he believed there had to be a way to fuse these three different programs. Thus, the idea of Uketropolis was born. “This is the future for me,” Hill says. “I was having a discussion a year ago with the team. I told them, ‘We’re shutting down the JHUI in-person institutes and bringing it all online. We’re going to take all three websites and meld them into one super-site called Uketropolis!’ They looked at me like I was nuts.”
One year later, Uketropolis.com is a reality—a one-stop shop of ukulele pedagogy built for the future. And within this new platform, all three levels of Ukulele in the Classroom are now offered free of charge. An exciting add-on is the Teacher Toolkit, which Hill describes as a teacher’s assistant and a house band rolled into one. It contains 50 pieces of music from all over the world, video tips from Hill, backing tracks, and a ton of other cool features. Now that the global pandemic has virtually eliminated in-person music instruction, teachers are scrambling to find online resources. “Normally, let alone during a pandemic, a lot falls on the teacher’s shoulders,” Hill says. “Right now, they’re in limbo. They don’t know if they are going back or staying home. The only thing they do know is that they don’t have time to prepare for every possibility. What the Teacher Toolkit offers them is this amazing online resource they can use for either in-person or virtual lessons.”
Hill is now doing precisely what his father had advised him to do a decade ago—building a community of people who believe in his method. Not only is he providing a clear path of ukulele pedagogy for the future, he’s also building a worldwide community spreading joy through music.