Uke School Days
Sunday, September 21, 2003
  Last Day: Uke School Finale!

Auntie Gloria and Uncle Bill just got back from Hawaii and they were all hopped up on Aloha and Ukulele Love. Apparently we're part of a third wave of ukulele rennaissance and they were super psyched for us to be there, learning their music, playing their instrument, sitting around their halau, and being part of the resurgence of the uke. They told us that Roy Sakuma, one of the Hawaiian uke masters who lends his name to the KoAloha Uke, has 800 students! 800! Gloria and Bill think that the uke is on a roll and they wanted to say thank you to us, the first class of the First Annual Ukulele Conference, for being part of it.

Chris, our badass theory teacher was there and helped us through some review, and Kyle gave a presentation on the history of Hawaiian Music, and we sang and ate fried chicken and sang some more. All the Uncles and Auntie and Cousin played for us, and I mean, really played for us, and sang in harmony. Then we played and sang some more and Kyle taught us a few more tricks for the uke, and then, we played and sang some MORE.

Cue Pomp and Circumstance, Hawaiian style. Uncle Rod gave us uke school graduation diplomas and shook our hands. Kath invited us to the island of Vashon for uke school reunion on October. Tom took off, but before he did he told me how much he enjoyed playing with me. Uncle Ben headed out - he's off to Hawaii with his wife for a two week vacation - but before he left, we played Happy Birthday for him.

When it was just Anita (a hula student as well as one of the uke) and I left, my posse showed up. Erin, Terry, Knox, and Nia, arrived. Uncle Rod tried to press ukuleles on all of them - at that point, there were a LOT of ukes lying around. We sang a few songs and then I asked if we could do the Hukilau song. Uncle Rod asked Anita to teach everyone how to do the Hukilau hula. They're good sports, my posse, and they all got up and followed Anita through the hula while Uncle Rod, Uncle Gregg and I played and sang. It was the perfect culmination of the week.

When I left Kyle gave me the hang loose sign and Uncle Rod gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming. We headed off to Knox's house for an impressive spread of Hawaiian BBQ salmon, Hawaiian spanikopita, Hawaiian white wine.. well, you get the picture.

You tell me. Am I off to the islands tomorrow for more Aloha? Your guess is as good as mine. I do have this to say for certain: Learn to play the uke. I'm tellin' ya. You just gotta.


Friday, September 19, 2003
  Day 10: Fingerpicking workshop

"You guys sound just like Brudda Iz! When Auntie hears you, she's going to hire all of you to play for the Halau!"

I am sure that I have mentioned that my teachers have been unfailingly positive. But our teacher last night takes it, really. Pekelo said that we had moved on through Uke 101 all the way to Uke 404 in the hour and a half that he spent with him. I'm a sucker for that kind of positive feedback, but when you see this understated guy smile and tell a room full of novices that they are covering ground about four times faster than he'd planned, you totally believe him. You've heard the false notes and the lost timing, you've heard yourself - and the guy next to you - drop the tune and pick it up again four measures later. But you still believe him. Because look at that smile! It's totally genuine, you believe him.

Still, as if to remind us that we are just getting started, Pekelo played Over the Rainbow for us. Wow.

You can tune your G string high or low when you play Hawaiian style uke. Pekelo plays the low G tuning. My little soprano is tuned to a high G. Most of the people I've met who play tenor tune the G low. If you've got a six string, you get both the high and the low G. If you're Uncle Ben, you don't leave the house without a couple of extra ukuleles. What this means is that last night I got to play Uncle Ben's 60's Martin tenor for the duration of the class. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to let me do that, since I wasn't sure I was going to want to give it back.

Because I had the tenor, I let the guy that showed up late play my soprano. I love the way people are so willing to let you play their uke. When I asked Kath how that new Mele was treating her, she immediately offered to let me take it for a spin. I'm starting to feel like you get to be the caretaker of a uke, but it's really a community object. Maybe that's crazy, but I've been able to play some really nice ukes that way.

Yesterday I was at the place in town that stocks the widest variety of ukes. They had two Uke Brand ukes on the floor and I played one of them, the little ropebound one. I think it might be the nicest uke I've played yet. I'm wondering how I can justify my need for another uke, this time a concert sized model with the low G. Uke Brand ukes are not cheap, the model I would like to have is just under 800 dollars. I wrote to the Uke Brand people asking them about the concert sized axe. After all, I have a birthday coming. Technically, I'm supposed to get a sports car and trophy boyfriend on this birthday, but I'm really happy with the husband I have and my car works fine. A trophy guy might not get better with age, but a nice ukulele gets warmer and sweeter with time. Plus, I'd like to have something really nice to share with my uke friends. 
Thursday, September 18, 2003
  Day Nine: Music theory, part two. Chord composition and second postion chords.

Here's a thing about going to uke school that I didn't expect. I have to commute. It takes me about twenty minutes to drive up to the Halau, depending on traffic. I've been getting piles of music from the library to listen to while I do the drive. Mostly, I try to listen to either Hawaiian music or Tin Pan Alley music because they're where you hear the most ukulele, but sometimes I stretch a little to listen to great guitar players. I have to confess that the yesterday I drove around listening to Bruce Springsteen, who's not Hawaiian or Tin Pan Alley, but man oh man, I really like to listen to Springsteen.

Chris, our tattooed theory teacher came back last night, but this time he had a cold and that made him seem a little less intimidating. I stared at his handouts, waiting for that hazy feeling of misunderstanding to come over me, but a crazy thing happened: I totally got it. I totally got the I IV V theory. I understood how to calculate what chord contains what notes and better yet, I understood how to figure out where that chord is on the uke. Now, I have years to go before I can just look at the uke and know where the Fm7, second position is, but I get how to figure that out. And I know, as I slide the F7 up the neck, what I'm getting next.

Kyle showed up a little let and sat next to me. "Tell Kyle what we've covered so far," Uncle Rod said to me. I looked up at Chris and he looked back with some expectation. "Don't listen to me," I said. "Look away!" Then I hashed through the stuff with Kyle. "Did I get it right?" "Pretty much," said Chris, who'd been listening the whole time. I asked Kyle if he knows his fretboard and he said he's tried to memorize it, but mostly he just knows how to count out where he's going from where he is. I'm at that state myself and feeling pretty pleased about it, though I have a long way to go.

We didn't do a lot of playing, just some messing around, and I tried a little bit of vamping up the neck of the uke. I really liked the way it sounded and I'm pretty sure I can get a few basic positions memorized so I can start adding them to my repetoire of memorized chords. Chris played out some stuff on his guitar to show us how the sound can change and then he played my Aloha Royal a little bit too. "He likes my uke!" I thought. "Hey, teacher likes my uke!"

Uncle Rod and Andree and I played the song we learned yesterday for everyone at the end of class. I stumbled through the transitions at the end but I didn't totally blow it. Kyle played it through pretty graciously and everyone else came in and out.

This morning I met some friends for breakfast and they were kind enough to let me rattle on and on and on some more about my ukulele classes. They had all these ukulele related questions and it turns out that I had most of the answers. We also talked a little bit about what it would be like to be a busker. I joked that I'm going to install myself in the subways of Vienna when I'm there next. It's not like there are a ton of uke players underneath the Stephansdom. I could get a handful of Hawaiin standards memorized and make a pile of pocket change that I can then spend on - what else? - cake. Maybe I could learn a few Austrian tunes. After all, we do play Edelwiess when we're learning.
Wednesday, September 17, 2003
  Day Eight: More advanced chord work. Transitions and playing chords up the neck

Okay, so I got there late. I said I would because I was in class. I sped the Tercel down I-5 as fast as I could. And I parked in the QFC parking lot at the risk of having some big thing locked to my car. Because I did not want to miss it. And I made it! There were 15-20 uke players. Uncle Ben was there in a smashing red Hawaiian shirt and lei and Marylin was there and Janinie and her avocado colored Flea uke and the guy I sat next to at the SUPA song circle and a bunch of people I haven't met before. And they were happy to see me, even though some of those people don't even know me. They got me a chair and squeezed me in behind a music stand so I could play with them right there in my neighborhood coffee house. "Come on in!" they said. "Here's a chair. Can you see okay? How great that you could make it." And afterwards, the group leader, Tobin, said to me, "So you've been up at the summit? How's it going?" And I thought briefly about people like Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell and how the Middle East could use a ukulele summit, but, and GET THIS, I didn't answer with ANY irony or sarcasm. "It's SUPER FUN!" I said. And I meant it.

And then, over there, was this person I thought I knew. And I looked at her sideways for a while and she looked right back at me as though she could not possibly know anyone who would be sitting in with the SUPA players, and it turned out to be Robin, who I haven't seen since I was in Vienna. And it turned out to actually be me playing the uke, and Robin said this, "I said to Clay, I said, WHAT THE HELL?!"

Plus, on top of all that, it was only Andree and I at uke school last night so it was pretty much a private lesson, especially since there were two teachers, Uncle Rod and Uncle Gregg. We stumbled through some really difficult chord transition work and learned a little bit about how to locate the up-the-neck position for the basic chords. And because my chord work is pretty good, Uncle Rod worked with me while Uncle Gregg worked with Andree - who, to her credit, only picked up the uke ten days ago so don't think I'm dissing her, because I'm not.

I think that you can tell by the quanity of run-on sentences that it was a good night.  
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
  Day Seven: Advanced chord work and learning to play a song by ear

The season has made a serious shift in the last week or so. I can tell because when I get off the freeway and drive across 175th to the Halau, the sun is no longer blinding me, making me wonder if I'll get to class safely. That's no problem anymore; the clouds are back in the sky and the sun has dropped behind the car dealership at the intersection of Aurora and 175th.

Last night Uncle Rod played a bunch of music for us so we could learn how to count out time. "Listen for the downbeat, listen for the base line," he said, as we tapped our feet or nodded our heads or pretended to be the orchestra conductor. I sat next to Andree who knows all the words from her hula lessons. It's easy for her to count the time out because she knows all the moves associated with the music.

We learned a Tahitian hymn that we had to pick out without knowing how the chords are played. "I'll give you a few to chose from, but I'm not going to tell you the sequence" said Uncle Rod. He handed out some copies with a little bit of paper stapled over the chord sequence at the top. "No peeking." I figured it out okay, but I wanted to add in transition notes. I was surprised to find that it wasn't that hard to do. You can hear the change and that it's gone higher or lower, you know that it's going to be part of one of those crazy I-V-VII sequences, and you can absolutely tell when you're wrong, so you just keep picking it out.

Did you know that Hawaiian, unlike Tahitian, does not have the "t" sound? I did not know that either until last night. The song we played (over and over) last night had a rather somber translation, something about repenting because God is coming, but it's impossible to reconcile the music and their sound in Tahitian to the biblical warning including in the song. Add hula dancers and you have a pretty absurd combination of fire and brimstone and partying barefoot on the beach.

Kyle taught me a little Tahitian strum - down down up up down - and how to do a tremolo, but I couldn't quite get it. I wasn't sure where to put my hand when playing the tremolo and the Tahitian strum is 5 in a 4 beat measure, so the timing is a bit challenging. I won't give up though, I just have to slow way the hell down and figure out how to get the square peg in the round hole.

We also did some transposition exercises. That's pretty easy too, especially if you have the handy chart in front of you. That's not too hard either, though I think it would be useful to be able to do that in my head. I guess you get used to knowing how many steps it is from, say, C to A, and you just go there, but I can't imagine not needing to write it down.

It was Ladies Night in class, save one little guy who was there with his dad. The little guy was dressed for the occaission in a fishing hat that matched his Hawaiian shirt. He sat quietly down at the end of the table, eyes wide open, the uke looking like a guitar in his hands because he was so small. There were a couple of new faces and that means a few new ukes, including a red plastic Harmony that looked like a toy. I didn't get a chance to play it, but I'll ask next time I see it.

I got an email from Paul, my friend from last week with the Martin uke, telling me about a bluegrass circle not too far from the Halau. I'm not sure I'm ready for that. He says they're crazy fast and that it's hard to keep up with them. I like the idea of bringing the banjo to a bluegrass jam where I can be not only totally out of synch and key, but also very, very loud. That's sure to win me some friends. On Sunday we had no class so I sat out on the porch with the banjo to mess with the tuning and see what I'd learned. I'm pretty sure they could hear me across the lake in Bellevue. Folks keep telling me I could take the resonator off to muffle the sound a little, but what, I ask you, is the point in that?


Sunday, September 14, 2003
  Day Six: Weekend Work: Putting it all together.

On Thursday, Uncle Ben said that he was going to fix the roof on his shed if it was sunny this weekend. Saturday morning there wasn't a cloud in the sky when he walked in to the Halua. "What about the shed?" Kath asked him. "This was more important."

There were a couple of nice ukes for sale at the back of the room, courtesy of Pekelo, a guy I haven't met yet but have heard much about - lots of people take uke classes from him. There were a few Lehuas, very reasaonably price, and a couple of really nice Meles. Kath bought the Mele soprana, a sweet little mahogany number with lots of pretty inlay on the binding and around the sound hole. "No Christmas presents for me," she said. I walked around with the Mele tenor. It was pretty nice, I have to say. I paced back and forth, strumming Why Are There So Many Songs About Rainbows...

I wandered up in to the store and talked to Kyle for a little bit. He was selling his koa wood soprano too, but I've learned to be pretty happy with my Royal Aloha. The more I play other ukes, the more I like mine. That seems like a good thing. Still, I liked this tenor. "It's kind of quiet," Kyle said. He told me that if my plan is to sit in my house and play uke on my own, that it's probably a pretty nice uke, but that if I want to play with other people, I probably should get a koa wood uke instead because they sound better - and louder. "For loud, I've got that banjo," I said, and he cracked up. "You know, for the money, you could just get a Fluke." The big problem with all this knowledge I've aquired is that it really does make it easy to rationlize buying more than one uke. I could put the low G on the tenor - it gives you more range for picking.

I'm starting to understand why Uncle Ben shows up with four ukes every time he comes to class - a soprano, a tenor, a six string, and his beautiful 60s Martin. He played the Mele for a little bit too and agreed that it was pretty nice, but he's happy with his Martin, and no wonder, it's really a beauty. "They make them in Mexico now, but this one was built in Pennsylvania. The new ones don't have the sound that the old ones have. They mellow with age." As little as I know, I'm inclined to agree with him. When I played the new Martin, I didn't get any feeling from it. Plus, I'm starting to develop a preference for used instruments. Okay, they're a bit beat up, but something about them sparks my imagination. When I pick them up they tell me stories.

In case you're wondering, six hours of ukulele is a lot of ukulele, even if it includes:

Watching an instructional video by one of the Hawaiian masters
Listening to the Sons of Hawaii version of Early Morning Dew
Watching Andree dance the hula while Uncle Ben, Uncle Gregg, and Tom play and sing harmony
Picking out Chopsticks and Home on the Range
Eating homemade chicken and rice
Listening to Uncle Ben and Uncle Rodney play solos
Talking to Andree about why she decided to learn hula
...and a lot of other stuff.

What a day.

I didn't buy the Mele. It was tempting, but I think I'll try to find a used one. Also, I'm thinking about restringing the baritone as a tenor, low G. That could scratch the tenor itch. What's the scary thing here? It's that I know what I'm talking about.

Friday, September 12, 2003
  Day Five: No class today.

But a uke player's work is never done. No sir.

I tried to tune the banjo and busted a peg. At first I was pretty mad at the shop, but honestly, it wasn't their fault. I cranked it down way too hard and the peg just crumbled. The banjo came to me with the original pegs still attached and I should have treated them with more care.

Luckily, I have turned in to one of 'those' people. I have extra ukes lying around to strip for parts. It's true. I took a look at the little 40's souvenir that I have. The pegs are exactly the same as those on the banjo.

Uh oh. I've turned in to one of those people that has extra ukes lying around to strip for parts. This can't be good. 
  Day Four: Theory: Music theory basics, keys, scales on the uke

I don't know what your music teacher looks like, but mine is a big guy with tatooed forearms and a encyclopedia of classical knowledge at his fingertips. Chris looks like the kind of guy you'd cross the street to avoid but his no nonsense approach and patience with even the most simple minded of beginners (yeah, that'd be me) makes for a pretty good teacher.

See, I don't get math. And music theory is all about math. But I do get patterns and luckily, there's a lot of stuff having to do with patterns that makes perfect sense to me. Find the pattern. See where it starts to repeat. Look at the fingerboard chart. And repeat the pattern, starting in the next key, when you find the location of that key on the fingerboard chart. Yesterday, day before, it was my hands that hurt. Today, it's my brain.

Most of the work we did last night was on paper and I have actual homework today. I need to practice my scales and I need to transpose the charts up in to G and F. I need to spend a little more time picking out notes up the neck where I've previously spent no time. It's hard work. I need a day off.

Which is okay. Because there's no class today. I'm going to eat a big breakfast and read my handouts about 'the circle of fifths' and about step tone half tone I IV V. Nope, I don't know what a lot of that stuff means. I'm not sure I will when I'm done reviewing, but handily enough, the whole thing has a practical application for me. I think part of the reason I didn't get math is because I didn't need to do anything with it. I can do something with this.

See, if you know all the approapriate usable notes in a key, you can pick out tunes and play along with anyone. Some big tatooed dude is playing the blues in C on his guitar? You're good. Because you know the notes and you can jam along. Which is what we did last night. Chris picked up his guitar and just strumed the basic progressions. And we picked out notes up and down the necks of our ukes. Sometimes we missed and sometimes we didn't and when we didn't, it sounded pretty good.

Thursday, September 11, 2003
  Day Three: Fingerpicking: Learn to read fingerpicking notations. Practice basic picking.

"Nice horn!" said Uncle Ben. "Oh, look at that, that's so neat!" said Uncle Rod. "So that's the one!" said Pauline. "May I?" said just about everyone.

My banjo uke arrived yesterday afternoon. It's an eyebrow raiser, to be sure. You know what a banjo looks like, of course. Now think about looking at it from really far away. Thing is, it doesn't look like a toy. There's something about the construction of it that makes you believe it's a serious instrument, but that does not stop you from cracking up at the pearlescent head and fretboard. "Mother of toilet seat," said local uke maven Pauline. "That's what that stuff is called." I reminded her of what Julie at Spruce Tree had said. "Bad taste never goes out of style." Kath had a lot to say too, being a former banjo player. "Don't move that bridge and you might want to check that the head is good and tight. You'll know what kind it is if you take the resonator off." And it went. Pearl made a lot of new friends last night, that's for sure.

It's a little harder to play compared to the Aloha Royal, so it wasn't the best choice to bring to class last night. Plus, because the strings are new, they're slipping and it won't stay in tune. And because it's a banjo, it's a lot louder than just about any other uke in the room. Fingerpicking is hard and on a loud, out of tune instrument it sounds - well - terrible. It won't always be that way, the strings will stretch and hold, I'll get better (I hope) but I couldn't leave the house without it.

At the beginning of class, Uncle Ben and Uncle Rodney each played a version of chopsticks and of a little number called Crazy G. It was crazy, watching their hands fly up and down the fretboards and the ukes sounded just gorgeous. They each have their own style, and while I couldn't describe to you the difference, you'd know if you were listening that they hadn't learned from the same person.

When Uncle Rod was learning to play, there was an art teacher from the University of Hawaii that he used to follow around. This teacher was moonlighting as a musician at one of the resorts. The day before Rod left the islands to go to college in Chicago, he buttonholed the teacher. "I want to play like you," he said. "What do I have to know?!" Uncle Rod learned the teacher's unique style of finger picking and passed it on last night to us, his Seattle uke students.

Plink. Twang. Buzz. Twang twang. Blink. Buzz. Fingerpicking well requires a great amount of dexterity and you have to know which strings to pluck to pull out the melody. Uncle Ben taught us his four-finger picking technique, which requires less concentration than Uncle Rod's but still requires skill. I have to slow way, way down to get through a song using either method because my brain shorts out when my picking hand misses a note. Plink. Twang. Buzzzzz. Ooops. Let's start over. Tom, the nice gent sitting next to me, got it right off. I wanted to take his uke away from him. "Quit sounding so pretty over there. I can't concentrate!"

After class Kyle, who's an pretty hot fingerpicker after two years of playing, asked to play my banjo. "Hell yes," I said. "Because this gives me the chance to play your six string!" I have been wondering about the six string uke for a while and now my questions are answered. The C and the G (I think) are doubled up, strung right next to each other, an octave lower for each. This give you lots more range for picking out melody and it really makes your uke sound rich. It's a little harder to play because you hold down two strings with one finger, but I'll bet you get used to it, just like I'll get used the the different feel of the new black strings on my banjo.

Bless his heart, Kyle immediately started playing "Why are there so many songs about rainbows?" on my banjo - that's the first song I learned to play. He learned it in G, so I taught him the transitions in C and we played a few verses together. One of the other students joined us for a little on her Martin. "Right on," said Uncle Rodney from across the room. "A jam session!"

I listened to Led Ka'apana and Bob Brozeman in the car on the way home. Later that night, I sat on the couch watching the end of a West Wing rerun. I held the banjo in my lap, one hand across the strings to muffle the sound, and I counted out Uncle Rod picking pattern. Two three one four one three. Two three one four one three. Two three one four one three. 
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
  Day Two: Strumming: Learn the basic of rhythmic strumming.

Ouch. My hands hurt. Not just my chord hand, but my strumming hand too. Ouch.

Uncle Rodney brought in Uncle Gregg to help out with the strumming workshop. Uncle Gregg is the sometimes host of the Hawaiian Radio Connection and he's a walking discography of ukulele music. He works for Muzak, that's right, he's the guy to blame when you're listening to The Girl from Impanema while standing in the elevator. Actually, his gig sounded pretty interesting. He told us about a client he had, some big Indonesian themed resort in Florida, that he had to prepare 8 hours of music for. "Bamboo and orchids," he said. "I had to find music that suggested bamboo and orchids."

I've been doing a little reading about some of the folks that wrote the popular Hawaiian style hits in the 30s and 40s. Gus Kahn, the guy that wrote that great uke standard, "Ukulele Lady", was a German Jewish immigrant and wrote, well, almsot every Tin Pan Alley hit you've ever heard of. I'm off to the library to learn more about Tin Pan Alley music. After all, not only is it the music of the ukulele, it's the music of my people. Whatever with your "Hava Nagila." I'm working on "Dream a Little Dream of Me" - NOT by Mama Cass, thank you, and "Makin' Whoopie." This stuff is perfect for the uke and the uke is perfect if, say, you have like three seconds to grab everything before the Cossacks burn down your village. It's small, portable, lightweight, and don't tell me it can't play the blues. "Brother, can you spare a dime?" I rest my case.

There are a bunch of ways to strum your uke. There's the Changalangalang and the Molokai and the Zig Zag, but Uncle Rodney doesn't really pay any attention to that stuff. Nope. He suggests you play the song through, count it out, pick up the down beat, and go from there. Though he does say that it's the strumming that makes the uke sound great. The simplest of chord progressions can make a regular Jake Shimabukuro out of you if you have the strumming style down.

Everyone strums their uke differently. Kath uses a kind of claw finger thing when she really gets going. Moana uses a thumb down- first finger up. I use my four fingers and try to keep my wrist really loose in a not quite flamenco thing. Lots of folks use an index finger only strum and Kyle says that doing that allows him to easily transition to finger picking. I know it's easier for me if I keep my hand loose and open.

We played Jingle Bells again, I hope for the last time, so we could count out 3/4 time. We moved on and played Edelweiss in perfect waltz time while I quietly amused myself by thinking about how much fun I had making the husband watch "The Sound of Music." Then we played Pu'anama (in 4/4) over and over and over again, vamping the bits between the verses, speeding up each we started over, really hammering away by the time we got to the last round. We also played a ridiculously hokey little tune called "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii" again, picking up the pace as we went through each time. When I play fast I really grip the uke much too hard and hammer away with my strumming hand, hence the abused paws this morning.

When we were done, Uncle Rodney and Uncle Gregg played (and sang in harmony) a really sweet version of a burlesque tune about hula called "Keep your eyes on her hands." I love this swingy little tune and its naughty lyrics - "don't go thinking that you would like to mow the lawn..." Plus, it was probably written by some Jewish immigrant on the lower East side.

Now please excuse me while I go get some chicken soup. I'm sure it's good for ukulele bruised hands.

Monday, September 08, 2003
  Day One - Chord work: Learning basic chord work and practice transitioning between chords.

In a fit of enthusiasm, I arrived too early, surprised to find that I was not the first student there. Amia was the youngest student at ten years old; she's been playing the uke since March. Tom, on the other end of the scale, has been playing for about six years and plays with the Senior Center of West Seattle Uke Players. Quite a few of the students have been playing for a year or two, and about four of them had never played at all. We all got notebooks with our names on them and a freshly sharpened pencil. It was a perfect back to school moment.

Uncle Rodney runs the classes. He learned to play the uke when he was six "in Hawaii in Mrs. Wong's first grade class on a seven dollar department store uke." He's everything you want in a teacher, personable and kind and unfailingly positive. He's got something of the motivational speaker about him, but because he's enthusing about the uke and not about how you can make a million in real estate, you totally believe him. "I CAN play this thing! I CAN!" you think. You can. I'm sure of it too. Cousin Kyle, who's helping out, has been playing for two years and he sounds like I want to sound. He carries his uke around like it's part of his body.

Uncle Rodney had us introduce ourselves to the group. The young woman on my right teaches hula right there at the Halau and learned a few chords last week from Uncle Bill. The woman on my left was from the Big Island. She got her uke as a present from her daughter and also has just started to play. Paul, at the back of the room, got a uke for his 50th birthday when his wife told him he could have anything he wanted, though she did not expect him to choose the ukulele. Most of the students recieved their ukes as gifts of some kind and found themselves hooked.

We tuned for a bit, Uncle Rod gave us a pep talk and showed us how to read chord notations, and then we played Jingle Bells. Amia asked what the vamp was for Jingle Bells. The vamp is a Hawaiian three chord turn around that you play at the beginning of a song; Rod says it's designed to give the dancers time to warm up. (Think 1-2 1-2 1-2-3-4 and 1-2 1-2 1-2-3-4 - GO!) It's fun, no matter what it's for, and it gives you a chance to get the beat of what you're going to play. Jumpin' Jim puts these three chord turn arounds at the end of the chorus in his Hawaiian song book; you play them before you go on to the next verse. "I don't think there's a vamp for Jingle Bells," said Uncle Rodney, and then he made one up to make Amia happy.

Rodney asked us to fill out evaluations at the end of class. It's hard to be critical when you're grinning like an idiot, but if I'd been a bit less clouded in Aloha, I'd say I wish that the class had been listed as for absolute beginners. Still, if I had know that I would have stayed home and I would not have had the chance to talk with Paul and to play his Martin tenor uke.

Martin makes the Rolls Royce of mainland ukuleles. You might know them for their guitars, but they also make a mighty fine uke. I refused to play the Martin when I was in the pawn shop where I picked up the Aloha Royal because it was hundreds of dollars. Paul showed no such restraint. When he was in his local music store he played around with the Johnsons and the Gremlins, but the guy behind the counter took them away from him and handed him the Martin soprano, the only one they had in stock. Paul was wearing that ukulele grin while telling me about what it sounded like when he started strumming away on the Martin. I swear you could see the angels flying around his head. I asked him if I could take a spin on his fancy axe and he handed it over like he wondered why I'd waited so long to ask.

Naturally I handed him the Aloha Royal. I apologized for its lack of prestige and pawn shop lineage. But Paul would hear no criticism. "Is that a rosewood fretboard?! Listen to this thing!!! Where did you get it?!?!? Feel that action on the strings, listen to that sound! It's like my Martin!" We blushed, the Aloha Royal and I. And we agreed that the action on his Martin tenor (I do hope he brings the soprano next time) was a little high. I told him about the nice woman in Ballard who fixes guitars. And I told him about how I got the Aloha Royal. He effused for a while about how his beautiful wife never tells him to put down that damn ukulele. Now, Paul may turn out to be like that guy in The Castle who thinks that everything is pretty damn wonderful - "Honey, what do you call this? It's incredible!" "Meatloaf." "BRILLIANT! IT'S BRILLIANT!" - but I like to think that the Aloha Royal is worthy of his praise and that a guy who plays a Martin knows quality when he sees it. He tells me he's been looking for a camping/beach uke and that he's going to keep his eyes open for an Aloha Royal. (Aside: If you haven't seen The Castle, you should. It's one of the funniest movies ever made. Add it to your Netflix list, like, NOW.)

As for the Martin, I liked the way it sounded, but when I traded back to my thirty dollar Aloha Royal, I paid special attention to the action on the strings. It kicked the Martin's ass.

  The First Annual Ukulele Conference

I called the Halau (Hula Studio) on Sunday just to confirm that I'd been registered and that indeed, yes, the First Annual Ukulele Conference was on for September 8th. I had to leave a message, and then Auntie Gloria called me back. The Hawaiians I've met all introduce themselves as Auntie and Uncle, no matter that they're the same age as me. I like the way it has a formal feel - you treat your Auntie with respect - but it's also very warm - they're family even though you've just met.

We chatted for a little bit about the program. She said they'd been holding on to the checks in hopes that more people would register. It seems that in spite of the fact that the Seattle Ukulele Players Association list has over 150 members, only four students registered for the whole session. "You'll have lots of one on one time," she said, and asked me how long I'd been playing. "About three months," I said, and she told me that I was going to have a great time and that the program is going to be perfect for me. I feel pretty pleased about the small size of the group, but I do think it's a shame they weren't able harvest a banner crop of new uke players. I only saw the conference listed once - on the SUPA mailing list. It didn't show up on any of the uke message boards and I'm not sure that I saw flyers for it at any of the local uke service providers - Dusty Strings, Trading Musician, Lark in the Morning...

I did do a little back to school shopping last week. Back to school shopping for uke school is a whole different sort of shopping, as you might imagine. At first I pictured myself shopping for new Hawaiian shirts and beach flip flops, after all, what else do you need for uke school, besides, of course, your faithful axe? (Where did the use of the word 'axe' to describe an instrument start?) It started to rain this week, right on cue, so flip flops and Aloha wear are out.

What did I buy? Well, another ukulele, of course. This one is a banjo uke purchased from the nice people at Spruce Tree Music in Madison, Wisconsin. If you call the people at Spruce Tree to chat about the uke that's caught your eye, they will indeed pick up the uke and strum it into the phone for you. They Understand. I thanked Julie for indulging me so thoroughly in all my ridiculous questions: How's the action? What about the skin, do I have to do anything to take care of it? How's it tuned? Does it have a case? Can I really PLAY it, because that's what I want it for, not just for looking at? Do I restring it like a regular uke or does it have that oddball banjo bridge thingy? And so on and so on. Julie was a sport. "You didn't ask me why it doesn't come in pink," she said, " so it's fine."

The banjo has been checked out by the Ukulele Freedom Front's founder (also in Madison) who described her to me on the 4th Peg message boards as a "pearly tart who probably did time strumming relaxing tunes for the patrons of a New Orleans whorehouse." That cinched it. Her name is Pearl and I'm sure she belonged to a hooker with a heart of gold. "One day I'm getting out of this place. I'm saving my money and going west where I'm gonna start a new life! I might even get me some education."

Pearl's owner never made it west. She married a wealthy Swedish immigrant and they moved up to the rich dairy lands outside Madison where they started a successful dairy farm. Pearl ended up in the attic and the kids never played her. She passed through a number of apathetic hands before ending up at Spruce Tree where they restored her with love and put her on the shelf until it came time for her dream to come true. She's on her way west right now - according to the UPS tracking site, she left Illinois on Saturday afternoon. She's gonna start a new life and get some education out west, where she's always wanted to be.


09/01/2003 - 10/01/2003 / 10/01/2003 - 11/01/2003 /

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