FROM THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Here’s another cool batch of stories from Ukulele readers about their love of uke. We love hearing from you! —Blair@stringletter.com
Some Dreams Come True
I very much enjoyed your article on George Harrison (Ukulele, Fall 2021). I’ve been performing Joe Brown’s version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Harrison’s version of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” for about four or five years now. Three years ago, my wife and I were in Liverpool, with the Cavern Club just a block away. To our disappointment, we’d just missed what would have been George’s 75th birthday party, which they celebrated with a ukulele festival. I’ve attached a shot of the flyer.
Every time I perform “See You in My Dreams” I include this incredible story:
My father was very involved with the Masonic Lodge. One of the [lodge] Fellows moved to Vancouver, BC, from Wales and he and my father became best friends. At some point, this Fellow’s great uncle, who was in his mid 80s, flew from his village in Wales to Vancouver, telling him he was getting on in years, didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to travel, and wanted to see the family one last time. They took the old man to the lodge and later to the Welsh Club for a beer. The old Fellow breaks down; starts crying. It seems he hadn’t come to see family. Sixty-five years earlier he’d been secretly in love with an older woman. She’d gone off to London, met a soldier, married, and moved to Canada. The last he’d heard of her she was living in Vancouver, but he didn’t know if she was alive or even if she still lived in Vancouver. He’d flown half-way around the world on hope, not realizing how big Vancouver was. My father asked for her name, saying he grew up in the Scots/Welsh community and might know somebody who knows something about her. Violet Eastman. It was my grandmother! So, here’s this guy who has carried a torch for 65 years, all hope lost, in a city of two million people, and he has ended up sitting with her son. She was still alive, and they spent two weeks together before he had to go back to Wales.
One last story, if I may. Peter Luongo introduced me to [Canadian uke education guru] Chalmers Doane’s methods for teaching uke in the schools, though it was Bonnie Smith on Vancouver Island who ended up being more influential to me. In the mid 1980s, Bonnie took a group to the ukefest in Wailea Park in Maui and I was asked to be part of the team. On hand at the festival was a reporter for BBC Radio who was stunned to learn that a Canadian school group was taking part in a Hawaiian uke festival. Bonnie told him to interview me.
After some time, he started asking about our triangle-shaped instruments [Doane’s distinctive ukuleles, used in the Canadian public schools]. I told him it had a lot to do with where kids could play in Canada. “Outside, I gather,” he said. Then you have to consider the weather. “I gather it snows a lot,” he said. I told him that when the kids played outside, snow would collect in the curve of a regular ukulele. Having the triangular shape allowed the kids to quickly wipe the snow off. This went on for several minutes until he finally looked up and said, “You’re having me on, right?” So somewhere in the BBC archives is a story about Canadian A-framed ukuleles. —Bob Gibb; Victoria, BC, Canada
Helping the Elderly Through Music
For eight years, I’ve been an activities coordinator at Saint Mary of the Woods, an assisted living and nursing facility in Avon, Ohio, just west of Cleveland. Six years ago, I was looking for a more portable instrument than my piano to share music with the residents. That’s when I took up the ukulele. After learning a few songs, a friend suggested I take the ukulele to work. I told her I only knew three songs, and I make a lot of mistakes. But then I thought, “If I wait until I’m perfect to do anything, I’ll never do anything.” So I started taking the ukulele to work and asking the residents if they would help me learn to play it. They were thrilled, and together we muddled our way through.
But I discovered the real value of learning to play the ukulele when the pandemic hit. Through COVID, the ukulele was invaluable because we weren’t allowed to bring in entertainers. So my boss bought me a rolling cart, and every day I would decorate it as it related to a specific genre of music. During quarantine, when the residents weren’t allowed to come out of their rooms, I would push my ukulele cart into their rooms, and their faces would light up! I kept this up for a year and a half. Sometimes, their families would be standing outside of the window singing along. It was heartbreaking. If I was never sure of the power of music before, I sure learned about it then. —Sheryl Patry; Avon, Ohio
A Teacher’s Journey
Like many young people of my era, my life from age ten was consumed with classical piano lessons. They were private, practicing was solitary, the experience was regimented and formal, and the emphasis was on reading notation, practicing, then perfecting, memorizing, performing, and competing. This routine continued daily, relentlessly, yearly, and included complex theory. Eventually I received my ARCT (Associateship of the Royal Conservatory of Toronto) in piano performance, and never again played a piece of classical music.
In the early ’80s, I happily became a public school teacher and music itinerant—traveling and teaching 40–plus classes of music each week, including choirs, bands, and ukulele groups. I loved my job—sharing, collaboration, and enthusiasm were the energy and glue that made it memorable. I never once auditioned students nor took part in a competitive festival.
However, on a personal level, I could not play anything by ear—I was terrified of experimenting, of failing, and of being less than perfect. I loved watching musicians in pop and jazz groups, and I could see their enjoyment and connection to each other—and improvising seemed like magic—How did they do that?
About ten years ago, after decades of searching, three events conspired. During a music workshop, I plugged a new set of headphones into the keyboard. Knowing that no one could hear me and no one could judge, I took the first steps to listening, experimenting, and improvising. It felt safe and was incredibly freeing. Then I found some friends to jam with. We were terrible, but we were terrible together—and fun entered my musical world. And finally, there was the global resurgence in popularity of the little uke that coincided with my return to teaching after a short hiatus.
The uke is perfect for learning music—it can be held in a hug and comes with a smile! My students ranged from teenagers to older adults. We started with F and C7 (or the “effin’ C7s” as my students like to call them) and sang with double gusto. Soon it seemed logical to move to C and G7, the next two I and V7 chords in what was increasingly obvious, the Circle of Fifths. I started to hear patterns—I could hear the music moving.
There was so much to explore: learning about chord families, solfege, “moveable do,” and scales, as well as recognizing melodic and rhythmic patterns, trying different strums, picking patterns, and singing harmonies. The experience for me has been structured but it is also “teaching by feel”—and always, enjoyment is paramount. There is no pressure, we do not perfect, and never perform—although we do have big bashes together and take turns in sharing sessions.
Singing and playing in groups is a joyous connecting experience—it brings people together and lifts our spirits like nothing else can. —Heather Stubbs; Vancouver, Canada
Thanks for the interview with Jake Shimabukuro, who is always so humble and friendly, and obviously one of the best to ever play the ukulele. I was happy to see him give credit to the people who influenced him, like Peter Moon. I’m a few years younger than Jake (I’m 40), and Peter Moon and Troy Fernandez were the guys who all of my friends and I listened to and tried to play like. I even had a VHS instructional tape by Moon called Magic of the Ukulele. None of us were that good, but we still had fun singing and playing songs like “Surf” and “Tropical Hawaiian Day” and “Kawika.” I also remember seeing Troy play several times with Ernie Cruz (R.I.P) in the Ka‘au Crater Boys and listening to their albums over and over. What a talent! You should do a story about him! —Andy Nakao; Honolulu, HI