BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
So, you want to start your very own ukulele club. And, without a single further thought on the matter, you post an invitation to your new club on social media and you’re off! There are two ways your new ukulele club endeavor can go: a wildly successful, barrel-of-monkeys, flat-out fun fest; or not. To ensure your new ukulele club is a fun-filled musical adventure that people want to be part of, I interviewed the leaders of some of the most popular and well-run ukulele clubs in the world, to get their advice on building a better ukulele club.
“Build a better ukulele club, and the world will strum a path to your door.”—Unknown
Build From The Top Down
Even though most ukulele clubs we looked at had a different hierarchy, the leaders of each club stressed the importance of solid leadership at the top. A number of the clubs chose the “Board of Directors” approach. This model is imperative if your club plans to apply for nonprofit status, as the Seattle Ukulele Players Association did.
As Carel Neffenger explains, “SUPA is a registered Washington state nonprofit organization. As required by state nonprofit regulations, we are led by a four-member board, including a president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer. Board members have responsibility for all official business and take most of the responsibility for organizing and conducting the monthly song circles. The board meets quarterly to review annual and monthly meeting schedules, suggest and engage workshop presenters, monitor venue contract issues, schedule performances, and manage any other issues as they arise.”
The highly successful Tampa Bay Ukulele Society in Florida uses this same model. Tom Hood of TBUS says, “The Tampa Bay Ukulele Society was founded in 2009. From humble beginnings, meeting at private homes and coffee shops, we have grown to over 2,100 members. We filed and received our nonprofit status in 2016 as a charitable organization. Our mission statement is simple: to deliver education, entertainment, and community services to the greater Tampa Bay area.”
The remaining clubs were formed on the “Benevolent Dictator” model, or a committee consisting of two to three people. Bruce Cowan of Ukuleles Unite of Port Townsend in Washington state explains the format of their club. “We formed in fall of 2011 when Germaine Arthur, George Yount, and I organized a Ukulele Rendezvous to gauge community interest in forming a group. We were slammed! Over 70 people attended, and we knew we had our work cut out for us. We arrived quickly at our mission statement, ‘Spreading joie d’ukulele throughout Jefferson County… and beyond.'”
Creating a mission statement will go a long way towards setting the tone for your new club. Professional ukulele entertainer Ralph Shaw, who started the Vancouver Ukulele Circle in British Columbia, Canada back in 2000, says, “When you look more closely, every ukulele club has its own fingerprint—a particular and unique way of operating. The soul of a ukulele club arises partly out of the people who attend, but is mostly a visible reflection of the person or persons who started and run the club.”
Attracting New Members
It’s a well-known fact that to attract sharks you chum the water, but how do you lure people to your new ukulele club? All of the successful club leaders interviewed point to social media as their main vehicle for attracting new members; i.e. Facebook, Twitter, MeetUp, YouTube, and the like. It’s also a plus to have your own dedicated website. The Austin Ukulele Society, located in the Texas Hill Country, does all these things and more. Since forming in 2010, co-founders Jen Richardson and Bob Guz have grown the club to nearly 700 members. Bob says, “Along with basic social media, we use search engine optimization [SEO] to lead folks to the AUS. Another thing we’ve found that works great is posting a new performance video every month on our 1,200-member YouTube channel [Ed. note: as of 11/4/21 it’s up to 6,700] and on our own website.”
The reason the Tampa club has been able to attract over 2,000 members is its willingness to integrate into surrounding communities. Tom Hood explains. “We developed a partnership with local libraries and now run jams and workshops at over 30 libraries in five counties. This activity, combined with the number of open mics, jams, and special workshops, provides wide exposure in outlying communities. We see a direct relationship between attendance at our beginner workshops and new members joining the club.”
Overwhelmingly, our club leaders suggest not charging a fee to join a new club or to attend meetings. Dean Denham, the founder of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective in Australia, tells us his take on this advice: “I remember that I consulted the oracle through the I Ching right back at the start and it counseled that the problem with forming a club was that there are those who are allowed in and those that aren’t. For example, if there’s a bunch of people in a boat and it catches fire, who are you going to save? Just the ones in the club, or everybody? Consequently, we had to save everybody and make sure anyone who wanted to be part of the MUK could be. That’s why there are no formal rules or fees for joining.”
The principal function of a ukulele club is to facilitate people playing music together, especially encouraging those that never thought they would play a musical instrument. In Tampa, their club does that, and a whole lot more. Through their TBUS Cares program they have donated tens of thousands of dollars to local charities over the last decade. That’s in addition to their work with seniors, children, and the homeless in their community.
Tommy Anderson (aka Tommy Rocks) is the founder of the wildly eclectic Jerome Ukulele Orchestra, whose home is perched at 5,000 feet above sea level in the windswept mountains of south central Arizona. Tommy says, “Our local community loves us! We are very well known, and participate in a lot of civic functions, including the annual Firemen’s Picnic, Humane Society fundraisers, the Fourth of July parade in Jerome, the Verde River Day Festival, and we perform in local libraries and at other civic events.”
One of the reasons SUPA in Seattle has been in existence for 15 years is its community involvement. SUPA’s John Leder tells us, “We support many local nonprofits. We participate with the Northwest Folklife Festival, Relay for Life events, the Active Ferry Employee’s Charitable Trust ferry cruise for the developmentally disabled, Green Lake Pathway of Lights community festival, and the Live Aloha Festival at the Seattle Center.”
Structure Your Meetings
Probably the oldest continuously meeting ukulele club in the United States is the Oasis Strummers in Corona Del Mar, California. Jack Toon founded the club in the early 1970s and when he passed away at age 97, about 35 years ago, Tony Cappa (who is a spry 96) took over this active group of strumming seniors. “I think of myself as a sergeant at arms, more or less—just keep the people playing. Don’t get into a lot of talk, where it ends up with one or two people talking and the rest of the group sitting around twiddling their thumbs. It’s very social, but we’re basically there to sing and play our songs.”
Far and away the largest ukulele group, with over 6,000 members worldwide, is the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, which has been in existence for 16 years. Co-founder Andy Andrews details the group’s tried-and-true meeting structure, which happens monthly at Bocci’s Cellar restaurant. “We usually have an optional workshop guest before the meeting ($20), then open the meeting with ‘Under the Boardwalk,’ culminating with the shout ‘show us your ukes.’ We then hand out five to six new songs that we play all the way through twice but never play again at a future meeting. We then introduce our guest artist or band and watch and/or participate in their performance.”
Instruction isn’t a mandatory requirement in a ukulele club meeting, but many leaders feel it’s an essential aspect of moving the club forward. One such leader is John Caudrey of the Oxford Ukuleles in Oxford, England. “We have two regular classes that are held on alternate Mondays. One week is a beginners’ class, which is 12 classes over a period of six months that’s designed to get new players up to a level where they hopefully feel confident enough to join the intermediate-level players.
“Classes are two hours of instruction in chord shapes, strumming and picking patterns, and melody playing using tab. The classes are backed up with videos and support in order for the students to be able to remember and practice what they have learned. On alternate Mondays, we have our intermediate level class. The first hour is spent learning a new song or new techniques like strumming and picking. We often arrange the pieces in several different parts to suit the different skill levels. The second half of the session is spent practicing other songs that we have been working on recently or recapping on previous classes. If our Big Band has a gig coming up, then we will often use the second half of the session to practice songs in the set.”
In Austin, the main focus of each meeting is honing one song, Jen Richardson explains. “Bob Guz demonstrates the new song we’ll be learning and takes the group through a series of helpful exercises for each component of the song. Next, the group plays the song a few times through, with input from Bob as needed, to improve with each run-through. At about an hour into the meeting, we take a break and have up to five open-mic participants share songs they’ve been working on. We then practice the new song again and record it for YouTube.”
And on the Big Island of Hawaii, Alan Hale runs the Kona Ukulele Players Association Hale (the phrase kupa hale in Hawaiian translates to citizen’s house). “We used to be small enough that we could do a traditional kani ka pila where we sat in a circle and just went around asking everyone in turn what they would like to play. When our numbers got larger, we started asking people to jot down their request on notepaper and then the songs are drawn from a hat. That way you at least have a chance to have yours chosen, whereas if we went around the room we wouldn’t be able to get to everyone.”
Song Selection & Presentation
When I created the Baywood Ukulele Social Club in Los Osos, California in 2012, my main goal was leading a club that did not use music stands, paper handouts, or songbooks. When a player is looking down at a songbook, they are not fully engaged in the group aspect of playing music together. Most of the songs I chose for the group contained a mere one to four chords and had very recognizable chord progressions: 12-bar blues, doo-wop (rhythm changes), etc. Another effective element of the song selection process was choosing songs with call and response parts. So, even if the players didn’t know the song, they could easily sing the response part.
Although most of the clubs interviewed for this feature still play from the printed page, the trend is toward using a projection system. Tommy Anderson of the Jerome Ukulele Orchestra says, “I started our group with a flip chart and handouts. Each week I created new handouts, featuring new techniques and new songs. We have evolved into a group that uses projection and SongBook software on tablets and iPads.”
Oftentimes clubs post songs for upcoming meetings online so members can download them in advance to their mobile devices. Although the Oxford club still uses handouts, John Caudrey encourages his group to get off the page. “Generally we use printed handouts that I create and upload to our website. I really try to push for people to learn the songs that we play for gigs so that we don’t have music stands, and hence we have a band far more engaged with the audience, looking forward and smiling.”
Beyond The Hum and Strum
The “Hum and Strum” type of club is your garden-variety ukulele group. There are no pre-agreed upon arrangements. It’s basically, “Okay, page 278, 3-4-go!” The problem with this approach, musically, is that all the songs seem to share that familiar down-up, down-up strumming pattern absent of interesting dynamics. Dean Denham of MUF says of this approach, “I don’t mind hum and strum as long as it’s with feeling! So less hum and more belt it out. We have various levels of arrangement complexity and it kind of depends on the general overall ability of the group. At the core, I like to have a good, solid groove that varies through dynamics, rhythm contrasts, and multiple singing parts.”
As mentioned earlier, in Austin their meeting focus is on one song. Jen Richardson explains, “Our monthly meet-ups are formatted more as workshops than sing-alongs. Rather than trying to play a large number of songs, our approach is to do a ‘deep dive’ on a single new song each month, exploring in detail its composition, chord progressions, lyrics, strum patterns, and vocals. These different elements of the song are broken out and practiced separately, then built back up until the group has a solid understanding of the entire piece.”
The most important factor to consider when choosing to move beyond the hum and strum club model is if your group wants to perform in public, like the Jerome Ukulele Orchestra. “Ever since I created the group,” Tommy Anderson says, “I’ve been teaching not only playing techniques such as muting and fingerpicking, but also music theory [using the Nashville number system]. I’ve also taught them stagecraft, microphone techniques, vocal techniques, scales, and leads. We are definitely not a humdrum strum kind of group. We have a lot of dynamics, and I continually push people to play at their upper level.”
And then there are the clubs solely devoted to becoming polished performing groups, like Scotland’s A Touch of Purple. Director Stuart Butterworth explains. “ATOP is an extension of the Dumfries & Galloway Ukulele Strummers and Singers (DUKES). Back in 2010, I wanted to create a hybrid teaching and jamming framework, to allow students to rise through the ranks. A Touch of Purple is the pinnacle in a DUKES member’s learning journey: Beginner-Improver-Intermediate-Advanced-ATOP. We currently have 18 ATOP members.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Ralph Shaw says of his Vancouver Ukulele Circle, “I chose to make the club a non-performing group. As someone already carrying a musical career, I didn’t want to also be running a performance troupe. The club became all about playing music and having fun doing it.”
Hey Kids, Let’s Put On A Show!
The phenomenon known as the ukulele festival burst upon the Third Wave scene on the beach in Santa Cruz, California. Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz co-founders Andy Andrews and Peter Thomas had no idea the monster they were creating. Andrews recalls, “In 2004, our club produced the largest ukulele festival ever—UkeFestWest. About 1,000 people attended. We had 34 of the best ukulele artists in the world, including Lyle Ritz, Bill Tapia, John King, Jim Beloff, Ian Whitcomb, James Hill, and on and on. We had dozens of workshops and four solid days of music including an 11-hour concert and a uke club meeting with 550 people attending.”
In contrast, if your club would like to produce a ukulele festival, it would be a good idea to start small. Test the waters by organizing a workshop/concert event with one of the many professional players currently traveling the ukulele teaching/performing circuit. If the response is good, consider organizing a one-day festival. Who knows, it might turn into an event like the Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway.
Now in its ninth year, TBUG usually sells out within hours of tickets going on sale. Tom Hood adds, “We hold the Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway the first weekend in November. This is a three-day festival. We have national performing artists teach workshops and perform a concert. Attendees have opportunities to participate in open mics, jams, ukulele raffle, and silent auctions, merchandising, meet and greet with the artists, a luau, and lots of networking opportunities. This is our biggest annual fundraiser and helps us fund our community services and programs.”
By far one of the most entertaining ukulele festivals in the world is the Melbourne Ukulele Festival in Australia. Started by Dean Denham in 2010 and held in a couple of small pubs, it has grown into one of the premier festivals in the world. The success of festivals like MUF depends on its volunteers. The wildly popular Ukulele Festival of Scotland relies on its Purple Army of volunteers to keep things running smoothly for an event that in its third year and attracts more than 600 people.
Ready, Set, Go!
When asked for advice about starting a ukulele club from scratch, Bruce Cowan of Ukuleles Unite of Port Townsend echoed the thoughts of most of the leaders interviewed for this article. “There are no rules, so just do it. Pick a time, find a place—home, coffee shop, rec center, etc.—put together a few song charts, let a few folks know, and go for it. Literally, they will come.”
Another great bit of advice comes from Jen Richardson of the AUS. “Have a strong leader, as Bob Guz is for our group. Have someone that can keep the group engaged and also teach to musicians of all levels. We also recommend choosing a date, time, and location that can be scheduled consistently so that folks will always know where and when they can join.”
Joshua Waldman, founder of the Tigard Ukulele Group in Oregon, and the author of How to Start and Grow an Ukulele Group, says, “Know what kind of club you want to build before you start. That initial intention is really going to inform a lot of the decisions you are going to make, whether you know it or not.”
Ben Hassenger, Michigan Ukulele Ambassador and co-founder of the Lansing Area Ukulele Group (LAUGH), says once you get your group going, you never know where it will lead. “LAUGH has truly served as an incubator for uke groups across the Great Uke State. Being in the center of the ‘mitten’ [Michigan], people come from about a 90-mile radius to attend our strum and sing. If there’s not a uke group in their area, they are inspired to start one. We now have at least 30 active groups across Michigan, in both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas.”
Vancouver’s Ralph Shaw puts the entire ukulele club experience in perspective. “So long as the members are happy, that’s the main thing. Some clubs make it their goal to perform in public and do this to a very high and energetic level. Some Australian clubs manage this well and are superbly entertaining. Most clubs create a relaxed experience where the main purpose is to let go of day-to-day concerns and have a drink, a sing, a strum, and a laugh. Life doesn’t get much better than that.”
Clubs mentioned in this article:
Austin Ukulele Society, Texas
Jerome Ukulele Orchestra, Arizona
Melbourne Ukulele Kollective, Australia
Oxford Ukuleles, England
Tigard Ukulele Group, Oregon
Ukuleles Unite of Port Townsend, Washington
Vancouver Ukulele Circle, Canada