BY CYNTHIA KINNUNEN | FROM THE FALL 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Making music with the ukulele is accessible and often social, and there are lots of informal ways to do it. But what if you wanted to take things to the next level and study the instrument at the degree level in university? Over the past couple of decades the ukulele has started permeating institutions of higher learning in a variety of ways. It is now finding itself among other instruments of rigorous study in these kinds of settings, especially following the emergence of more advanced classical repertoire, like the arrangements of Tony Mizen, the late John King, and others.
As a music educator who continues to push myself in my own learning, I began to take a deeper interest in the ukulele in higher education following my completion of the three-year James Hill Ukulele Initiative (JHUI) teacher certification program and a master’s degree in community music, using ukulele in my capstone research project. I’ve been teaching two very different ukulele courses at two universities over the past five years and have gotten a sense of the challenges and perceptions that come up when bringing it into these academic spaces.
Some students have signed up for elective-type ukulele courses expecting them to be light and easy credits, while others have been surprised by what is possible, expanding their thinking about music-making. I’ve witnessed how it can be received by faculty: often looked down upon in a conservatory-type setting, assumed to be unable to meet advanced performance standards or offer rigorous study like other more historically accepted instruments.
Yet aficionados and enthusiasts alike know what the instrument is capable of when given the chance, and there is delightful possibility in the potential to push boundaries and challenge those preconceived perceptions.
I’ve seen many great learning programs developing outside of institutions as well, but for this article I really wanted to see what was going on at the tertiary education level. I reached out to some friends, colleagues, and teachers around the world to check out what’s been going on in their neck of the woods, both in the ways they personally studied the instrument and how they are teaching it in these higher-education settings.
What I found was that the ukulele is being used and taught in a broad range of ways. Ukulele education is indeed being offered through degree programs and more formal advanced-level music or pedagogical study. It’s also being offered as summer programming, continuing education, and community/special interest courses that feature the instrument in interesting ways. And it’s being studied both as a solo instrument and as part of an ensemble.
Let’s take a little trip around the globe to see how some musicians and educators are bringing our favorite instrument into higher education, and what they see as challenges and opportunities.
It was surprising to learn that in Hawaii, even with such a rich and meaningful cultural and popular history of the instrument, there are still relatively few opportunities for more advanced study in higher education. There are some instructors and musicians who have brought their own advanced technical playing and teaching skills to colleges and universities there. But as is the case elsewhere, it has not been a straightforward path to gaining those skills or making room for instruction at this level in institutions.
Professor emeritus at the University of Hawai’i (UH) at Manoa Dr. Byron Yasui has shared his advanced musical expertise, performance, and composition skills on a number of instruments with many musicians over the years. Though the ukulele is not formally offered as a major at the university, Yasui has supported high-level players and teachers informally and through special agreements, and feels strongly that learning classical approaches are an important piece of becoming musically literate at this level. “It’s very possible to bring ukulele up to where it would be accepted at the university level, but it will take time,” he says. “People need to hear and be exposed to it at the highest level. This also means a lot of repertoire needs to be developed, and composers will have to be stirred up to write serious music for the ukulele.”
At UH, Mika Kane was one of the first in the world to give his undergraduate recital on the ukulele, in this case with advanced solo pieces arranged for him by Dr. Yasui. Following his Bachelor’s degree in music (ukulele focus) and master’s in educational foundations, Kane now teaches at the University of Hawai’i West O’ahu and Windward Community College on the island of Oahu, in addition to other performing and teaching commitments. He notes that the college courses he currently teaches are mostly introductory level classes.
Ian O’Sullivan, a musician, composer, and educator who pursued advanced classical guitar studies, has also kept ukulele in the mix along the way. During his time in the master’s guitar program at Yale University, he occasionally brought in the ukulele. Like one of his former teachers, Jeff Peterson (the subject of our cover story in the Summer 2023 issue), O’Sullivan studied jazz ukulele through a two-year apprenticeship with master performer Benny Chong. He has taught at the University of Hawai’i and is now the director of guitar/ukulele at the Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama Campus, bringing his mastery of Hawaiian music, Western classical, and jazz to his classrooms. He continues to encourage his students to learn notation and build musical literacy beyond the more commonly found rote or tablature.
Dr. Kamuela Kimokeo has instructed at all levels, including at the college level. He has taught at UH at Manoa, UH West O’ahu, and is now at UH Windward Community College, where he serves as head of the music program and director of the Hawai‘i Music Institute. The institute offers several courses in ukulele that are taken by teachers and aspiring music makers of a range of skill levels. The classes provide a customized blend of pedagogy, technique, and musical literacy, using Hawaiian music as a vehicle for learning with a mix of standard notation, tablature, and imitation. When asked about some of the challenges faced in the academic setting, Dr. Kimokeo says, “Many come into an ukulele course thinking ‘easy A.’ They very quickly realize that it is a college course that does have academic rigor. The course is easy, however, not because it is not rigorous but rather because it is enjoyable and the rigor is less obvious to the learner.”
Canada and the Continental U.S.
In Canada, the ukulele has been explored in higher education from a pedagogical standpoint for many years, dating back to the late 1960s and the early work of J. Chalmers Doane. Following his tenure as supervisor of music for the Halifax School Board, Doane became a professor of music education at Nova Scotia Teachers College from 1984 to 1993. He had a substantial influence on the use of ukulele in the classroom through training of teachers at the college.
In the following decades, specialist instructors have been brought in to teach in this pedagogical context in institutions such as the University of Victoria, University of Toronto, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Queens University, including James Hill, Peter Luongo, Bonnie Smith, Roberta Lamb, and Melanie Doane, to name a few. The instrument has also been used in unique alternative course offerings, such as music therapy programs, health sciences (McMaster University), or first-year seminar explorations (University of Guelph).
The study of the ukulele as a performance instrument or main instrument of focus within a degree has also begun to emerge in Canada. Recent University of Calgary graduate Mustafa Kamaliddin, for example, switched to ukulele as a focus of his master’s degree during the pandemic, with an eye toward developing repertoire based on renaissance guitar transcriptions. “I had already made some arrangements of concert-level classical guitar pieces on the ukulele,” Kamaliddin says, “but in a year’s time after focusing on ukulele, I had about two hours’ worth of concert-level pieces arranged from piano, cello, classical guitar, and period instruments.”
The continental U.S. has seen ukulele offered in institutions for elementary teacher education alongside other band instrument offerings, including classes taught by Lorelei Batislaong at Baldwin Wallace University Conservatory of Music, or as special interest, electives and community courses at schools like Berklee, Stanford, and Occidental College. At Occidental, where teaching artist Jason Arimoto, Ph.D., has been an instructor for ukulele courses, student Anthony Stanley Kauka performed his graduate recital on ukulele, followed by a performance by his family’s halau. Some expert players have guest lectured at universities as well, including Daniel Ho at Stanford.
There are also teachers testing out ukulele in different contexts. For example, natural scientist Dr. Gary Grossman used inquiry-based music-making using ukulele in his science classes at University of Georgia to explore ecological topics. Dr. Cynthia Miller, a professor of anthropology, taught ensemble ukulele courses at Emerson College in Massachusetts. She was interested in bringing her music teaching ideas into the college setting after taking the JHUI teacher certification program, and developed two successive ensemble courses that ran for several years. “We covered the history of ukulele, basic music theory and notation reading, music across cultures, music and identity, and music in the community,” she says. “The aim was not only to learn the ukulele, but to use that as a common point for thinking about culture, society, history, and their own lives.”
United Kingdom and Europe
The United Kingdom and Europe have certainly seen activity bubbling up with the instrument in academic settings. Back in 2000, Andy Eastwood was the first in the U.K. to perform his final recital on the ukulele when pursuing his music degree at New College, Oxford. It apparently caused quite a stir, not only because of the novelty of the instrument in this context but also because Eastwood was performing in several styles, including popular music, as well as singing to accompany himself.
Samantha Muir at University of Surrey just wrapped up her Ph.D. this spring. A trained classical guitarist, her early steps towards the Ph.D. began with her interest in the machete and its history and works. Muir soon moved into ukulele and developed a set of advanced compositions drawing on historical techniques. One of the things she wrestled with as she was composing and arranging was whether people could come to the ukulele to learn at this level without a classical guitar technique background. As she puts it, “If I’m really trying to contribute to research here and develop this repertoire, that’s great, but who is going to play it?” This pushed her to build some pedagogical didactic material into her Ph.D. as well.
Matthew Quilliam, who received ukulele instruction from Muir as part of his degree, is just finishing his bachelor’s degree with ukulele as his main instrument in a joint teaching/performance program at Chichester University. Muir and Quilliam both noted the challenge of a lack of precedent and repertoire as they worked through their programs with ukulele as the focus of study. “The pre-established orchestras and ensembles were set up for more traditionally played instruments and there was little room for a ukulele in most of those,” says Quilliam. “But I would often make my own opportunities and form my own groups, host my own concerts.” Both hope that they are helping to lay the groundwork for future students.
In Italy, Dr. Giovanni Albini has been leading a serious ukulele charge at the Conservatory of Alessandria with several ukulele courses, theory and practical, that can be taken by bachelor’s or master’s students. He has also initiated an application for a bachelor’s degree in ukulele, which would be the first of its kind in the world. In 2021 Albini launched an academic ukulele conference, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Performance, Composition, and Organology, which continues in 2023 with a second gathering in Italy. He has also been presenting his ukulele research at music institutions such as the Juilliard School in New York and Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
European universities have also begun to offer teacher education programs for ukulele alongside other classroom instruments. In Finland, with its lively ukulele community, those studying to become elementary teachers can learn ukulele as a teachable instrument. Charlie Fischer, based at the Zurich University of the Arts, is using ukulele as the main instrument in her study of pedagogy in the music education master’s degree program. She’s learning proficiency and pedagogy in a range of genres, including Hawaiian, Western classical, blues, and pop.
Elisabeth Pfeiffer of Germany is another formally trained classical guitarist, educator and composer who has been taking ukulele to the highest levels of study and research with the instrument. She is developing repertoire, investigating histories (e.g. Ernest Kaai tone production), and generally building out new spaces for the instrument to grow. Currently in doctoral studies at the University of Surrey, her research aims to explore traditional and innovative approaches to plucking technique in contemporary ukulele music. An expert instructor who is equally at home at ukulele festivals or higher education, she is also teaching the instrument at the university level, as well, including instructing ukulele methodology at Zurich University of the Arts.
In South America, musicians like Brazilian professor Vinícius Vivas are pushing the instrument to more acceptance in the university setting. Vivas has been using ukulele in university since 2011, when he began working on ukulele pedagogy with teachers at the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. He continues to instruct in the university setting, supporting teachers with pedagogy as well as teaching ukulele as an extension course, his Orquestra de Ukuleles da UFRJ. His master’s dissertation focused on research around ukulele as a comping instrument for children.
Aline Kelly, who is also a classically trained pianist, created six transcriptions for solo ukulele as her final project at the university and presented a concert and academic poster. “Vinícius was one of the supervisors of this work,” she says. “He came for a concert at the university and he talked about the instrument in this concert. One of my goals at that time was really promoting the ukulele.” Also at the Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Leandro Donato completed a master’s program with a focus on creating teaching methodologies for children using ukulele.
All three of these performer-educators also participated in the JHUI program, bringing some of those pedagogy concepts back to Brazil to complement their own areas of study and teaching.
Asia, Australia, and New Zealand
East Asia is seeing a growing demand and focus on pedagogical ukulele training in universities. Master Changsoo Kim, based in South Korea, has been composing, teaching, and performing on ukulele for more than two decades. Kim teaches ukulele education at Chung-Ang University and directs the high-level Bambell Ukulele Orchestra. He is also president of the Korean Ukulele Music Association and teaches advanced techniques in solo and orchestra playing at the association’s education center. Some of his former students now teach at Singu College and Beikseok University using his ukulele pedagogy methods.
Performer, composer, and educator David Chen formerly taught ukulele in the music department at Shih Chien University in Taiwan. Chen has recently relocated to Shanghai and now teaches at the Zhejiang Conservatory of Music training music educators to use ukulele.
There is also ukulele activity beginning to permeate higher education Down Under. It’s found in general music programs in some cases, and as a teachable instrument option for those studying education. Institutions such as Victoria University of Wellington and University of Western Australia’s Conservatorium of Music have both featured ukulele courses in their curricula.
Though all of these musicians and educators are working in different parts of the world, there seems to be common thinking about what the future could hold for the ukulele in higher education. Many recognize its potential as an instrument capable of playing advanced-level music, and that it can support highly developed music literacy and musicianship skills. But it still struggles to be taken as a serious instrument that can be held to a high standard alongside other formally studied instruments.
A developed canon of repertoire plus instructors who can competently teach the instrument at this level are sorely needed. There would also ideally be discussion around what advanced pedagogy could and should look like: Reentrant or linear tuning (or both)? C6 or D6? Range of repertoire? History? All are potential points for discussion when we look to bring the instrument toward academic acceptance in a more formalized way. In other words, it will take time to grow and develop these things, much like the classical guitar’s evolution. But it’s also amazing to see how it’s already finding space in other ways, like pedagogical training or unique interdisciplinary courses.
Though many hope to see it reach these high academic standards and offerings, everyone seems to agree that its diversity and potential to be accessed at every level are what makes ukulele such a rewarding instrument, no matter our aspirations in music.
Editor’s note: The web version of this article has been updated to include information about Elisabeth Pfeiffer.