BY JAMES HILL | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE | PHOTOS BY DENNIS DUCKLOW
I love a good ukefest. Some of my earliest professional gigs were at ukulele festivals and I still enjoy the camaraderie and excitement of a well-produced and well-attended event. In this article, I’ll share my thoughts on how ukulele festivals might evolve—especially in the way workshops are organized—in order to remain a vital force in this third wave of ukulele. Here are some thoughts on moving toward “Ukefest 2.0.”
Education, Entertainment, Community, and Commerce
Ukulele festivals are where we make friends, meet friends, teach, learn, jam, and renew our love for our favorite instrument. The first festival I performed at (as a soloist) was the now-legendary Uke Fest West, held in Santa Cruz, California, in 2004. It was, in many ways, the “Woodstock of ukulele festivals,” and a coming-out party for the third wave of the ukulele. Events in the early 2000s like Uke Fest West established a format that is still the norm today: workshops and jams during the day, a concert in the evening, and a vendor area showcasing luthiers and ukulele-related products. This tried-and-true ukefest recipe is a win-win for promoters and attendees alike: it gives promoters multiple sources of income while giving attendees a range of activities to enjoy.
Education, entertainment, community, and commerce are the four corners of a well-built ukulele festival. That’s unlikely to change. But as a ukefest organizer, promoter, teacher, and performer, I have seen festivals from all sides and I’m always thinking of ways to improve and enrich the standard ukefest model. In my view, it’s the educational aspect of the standard ukefest that can use the most improvement.
Ukulele Hot Springs, a “destination retreat” ukulele weekend I produced in late 2017, gave me the chance to test-drive many of the Ukefest 2.0 features that I’d dreamed of, especially on the educational front. In particular, three experimental features came together to create an immersive ukulele learning experience unlike anything I’d been part of before: 1) pre-festival prep, 2) differentiated arrangements, and 3) the orchestra-workshop format.
Being a student in a conventional workshop is like trying to drink from a fire hose: You’ve got an hour or so to absorb a truckload of new ideas and techniques. In my experience, that isn’t enough time; the teacher feels rushed and the student feels overwhelmed. So, before Ukulele Hot Springs, students had over a month to practice and prepare their parts at home. The sheet music (which included both standard notation and tablature) was sent by email, along with links to audio recordings of the entire repertoire. We created a Facebook group so students could collaborate as they learned their parts, and everyone was encouraged to switch parts if they found the music wasn’t at the right level for them.
You might ask, “But if I already know my music when I come to the workshop, what’s left for me to learn?” The answer: all the good stuff! All too often, we spend the bulk of our workshop time on the mechanics of the music: Which fret? Which string? How many beats? This leaves precious little time to explore the good stuff like tone, phrasing, expression, dynamics, voicing, and playing as an ensemble (the art of playing together as one).
Years ago, I attended a workshop by my friend and mentor Kimo Hussey. To paraphrase something he said, “Don’t pay a teacher for information, pay a teacher for insight.” In other words, questions like “Which fret? Which string? How many beats?” can usually be answered (for free) with a quick Google or YouTube search. If you’re spending a lot of money getting information like this, you’re probably not getting good value. Save your money and spend it on a teacher who will show you what isn’t printed on the page! Because the good stuff is the stuff you can’t write down.
While there are still some workshop topics that lend themselves to a “short and sweet” hour-long format, I hope that more festivals will start to offer students the chance to prepare in advance so that teachers can focus more on the soul of the music and less on the skeleton.
Great teachers work in three dimensions. In other words, a great teacher can quickly increase or decrease the level of difficulty for any song or skill that they introduce. For instance, when I teach the C chord, I know that most students will get it. I also know that some will struggle because it’s too hard and some will get bored because it’s too easy. I’m ready for that. Those who struggle can simply pluck the C string or play a C6 chord (i.e. strum all the open strings). Those who need an extra challenge can play the C chord using the ring finger on the 7th fret or my personal favorite, the “mandolin voicing” 0-0-3-7. That way, everyone is engaged at an appropriate level, but they can all still play together.
The same thing applies to arranging. I created four arrangements for Ukulele Hot Springs: one classical piece, a jazz standard, a pop favorite, and a “secret song” which was announced at the event (it was Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey; big fun!). Each arrangement had three layers: a beginner part, an intermediate part, and an advanced part. I knew that the success of the event hinged on the arrangements, so I took the time to make each part interesting, while tailoring it to a specific skill level. Click here for an example arrangement.
These differentiated arrangements allowed us to explore a new way of organizing classes: the “orchestra-workshop” format.
The Orchestra-Workshop Format
Each learning session at Ukulele Hot Springs began with all 110 of us in the same room. I would give a short introduction to the arrangement and then we’d dive right in and plow through the piece, warts and all. We called this “the before picture” and it gave everyone a sense of what needed to be improved. There were inevitably a few thrills and spills, but it was all part of the fun and nothing that a little laughter couldn’t fix.
Following that, we’d split into four workshop groups: one group of advanced players, two groups of intermediate players (since they accounted for half of the orchestra), and one group of beginners. This way, each section of the orchestra had its own workshop, and students at every level had a chance to fine-tune their parts and focus on their piece of the puzzle. It was like taking apart a Swiss watch, cleaning the cogs, and putting it back together. That’s when the magic would happen: We’d all get back together and perform again. Wow! This was the “after picture” and it was a thrill to hear the music come to life with over a hundred ukuleles, at three skill levels, playing in harmony!
One thing was unmistakable—the sense of shared purpose among the students. Instead of working away in separate rooms on unrelated techniques and tunes, everyone knew—regardless of their level—that they were building something together. This made for enjoyable and lively social time, too, as everyone seemed to feel like they were on the same team. What’s more, everyone knew that although they were studying a specific set of musical arrangements, the techniques and musicianship skills they were learning could be applied to any number of pieces they might encounter down the road.
Wrapping It Up
I admit, it was a lot of work to create the arrangements, record the audio, and send out all the parts for Ukulele Hot Springs (the next installment of which is scheduled for 2019). It was a risk to try the orchestra-workshop format and it was a leap of faith to expect students to prepare their parts in advance. But the results were stunning. We were able to go where few ukulele festival groups are able to go—beyond the page. My team of teachers was able to focus less on the mechanics of the music and more on expression, dynamics, and the many subtleties that make for a great performance.
Why am I so jazzed about these new experiments with the ukulele festival format? Because festivals play a key role in creating sustainable ukulele communities worldwide. Ukulele events must continue to evolve into vibrant, innovative places for enthusiasts to congregate, learn, and share. After all, Grace VanderWaal was just six months old when Uke Fest West heralded the resurgence of the ukulele in 2004. What will her generation expect at a ukefest? Unless we want the third wave to crest and crash, we’d better find out.
James Hill is an award-winning ukulele performer, co-author of Ukulele in the Classroom, and director of the JHUI Teacher Certification Program. Hear James’ music at jameshillmusic.com and learn more about Ukulele Hot Springs at ukulelehotsprings.com.