BY CYNTHIA KINNUNEN | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF UKULELE
The ukulele has come and gone in my life, but this most recent reconnection has changed everything.
Let me step (way) back, for a moment, to the fifth grade. My teacher, Robert Morgan, brought ukuleles into our classroom and I spent the next two years learning the basics, like picking individual notes and strumming along using our repertoire of six or seven chords. As I later learned, Mr. Morgan used some of the elements of J. Chalmers Doane’s East Coast ukulele curriculum in my little Northwestern Ontario classroom. Since I didn’t have my own ukulele, once those two years passed, I didn’t play again for a very long time, but I continued pursuing classical piano studies and then on to a music degree. However, following university, I left music-making behind almost entirely as I went into a career in marketing and fundraising, marriage, and three kids—you know, life.
Unexpectedly, though, something inside of me said that I needed to pick up a ukulele again and I soon found myself staring at the smallish section of ukuleles at the music store. I knew nothing about what I wanted or what to look for—I just knew that I wanted to make music again. I finally took down a concert-sized Lanikai and wondered if I’d remember anything at all. Suddenly, the chords for “Five Foot Two” came flooding back. C–E7–A7–D7–G7–C. Seriously, how did that just happen? Had those chords been lingering in my system for 25 years just waiting to find a wee fretboard again?
I immediately bought that little Lanikai and that was the best $120 I’ve ever spent. I began to learn songs, play a little for friends, and convince my family to sing and play together at home. But, I needed more. We had just relocated to Guelph, Ontario, and I tracked down a local ukulele gathering of about ten people where I began to strum and sing. I enjoyed that, too, but I still needed more.
Before long, I tried teaching. It had been a while since I had taught any music, most recently being Kindermusik when my own children were tiny. I approached my kids’ school to see if they’d let me try running a lunchtime ukulele club for fifth and sixth graders. I was thinking maybe eight kids might sign up, but when over 50 came out, I was suddenly volunteering two lunch periods a week to run a year-long uke club. I loved seeing the smiles and laughter in the group as we played everything from “Riptide” to “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” and, of course, “Five Foot Two.”
Grown-ups needed to have access to ukulele, too, right? So next, I convinced a local pub to let me use its space to try out a four-week beginner ukulele class for adults. People kept asking for more and telling their friends. Something was clearly happening here and I loved it.
During this time, I wanted to be able to go deeper in my teaching and there was definitely interest for more in the community. This is when I found James Hill’s Ukulele Initiative (JHUI) Teacher Certification Program. I needed to commit to a three-year program while working a full-time job, teaching music lessons and classes on the side, plus my family. Being a glutton for punishment, I went for it. Things really started to come together over those three years. I enjoyed learning curriculum and pedagogical strategies that could be employed on the ukulele, as well as connecting with an amazing peer group of teachers from all over Canada and the world. All of my early musical training was coming back and it became clear that I always have to have music-making in my life.
For those adults who wanted to take their learning past the hum and strum to something deeper, I tried out a 15-week learning ensemble program. The Royal City Ukulele Ensemble Program was born and it quickly moved from fall and winter 15-week sessions with 15 original participants, to our current four-season, full-year program that runs from September through June with 30 members and a wait list. I had no idea grown-ups would be so into this, but they are and it’s been such a joy to see it evolve and to see them grow and build their confidence.
The ensemble has an arrangement with a local seniors’ residence that allows us practice space and in turn, the residents can come by and listen to us rehearse and learn each week, and we put on a performance every few months for them. Seeing them connect with the music, by singing along or dancing down the hall while we practice, is part of music’s magical power.
Over the last few years, I’d been percolating on the idea of trying to start a ukulele festival—I was envious of all of the festivals in the US, UK, and elsewhere. I knew from the number of people I’d connected with that there would be a market for it and with 200 people for the full-day workshops and over 400 attendees for the evening concert, we sold out the first year of the Royal City Uke Fest (September 2017).
This little instrument found its way back into my life for a reason and it has brought the joy of music-making back to me. It was entirely because of the ukulele that I came back to playing piano and singing, and have become so passionate about sharing music with others through teaching and hosting events.
All of the neurological, social, therapeutic, and healing benefits of making music are very close to my heart. That people of all ages—even people who haven’t made music before want to learn this amazing little thing— is wonderful.
So really, why do I uke? I uke because it makes my heart unbelievably happy, it keeps my brain lit up, it helps me share the magic of music-making with others through teaching, and above all, it’s an ultimate connector for family, friends, and even strangers.