Yes…the rumour is true… We have let a rooster into the hen-house this week!!! We’ve decided to welcome some of the lads to stop by every once in a while and today we would like to welcome our first male guest, Ron Service. An avid music fan, and musician, our friend Ron has pried his fingers away from his ukulele and guitars just long enough to write this post for us. Enjoy…
When I was 8 years old, a friend of my Father visited our family. He had in hand what looked to me like a small guitar. I was quite intrigued with this instrument and watched with fascination as Dad’s friend Jimmy strummed a few bars and sang the song “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”. When he was finished, he motioned to me and asked if I would like to play his Hawaiian Ukulele (natively pronounced ew-ka-laylee ). He showed me how to hold it and how to position my fingers to play one or two chords. Within a few minutes I was making music for the first time in my life – and I was thrilled! I could not put that ukulele down. This excitement did not go unnoticed by my parents and for a few hours after Jimmy left, we talked about the possibility of acquiring this instrument and learning to play it.
That was the beginning of my lifelong love of making music. A few weeks after Jimmy’s visit, my Father purchased a small uke (called a soprano or standard ukulele, about 21” in length). Along with my new uke and a beginner’s song book – I was on my way. My parents never had to “make” me practice and they would hear me playing in my room for hours on end. I played popular songs heard on AM radio and even composed my own variations of “Hit Parade” tunes from the early 60’s. In time, I wanted a deeper sound and a larger instrument, so we planned to acquire a baritone ukulele (about 30” in length). It was a Capri model, made by Furness Products of New York Inc. and I still have it to this day – some 50 years later.
While I eventually went on to play guitar as my main instrument, I never lost my love for the ukulele, even when it was no longer in vogue. Now, after a long hiatus from the instrument, I have recently discovered that the uke is making a very serious comeback! In fact, my research is telling me there’s a ukulele renaissance happening right now on a global scale. Ukulele clubs can be found around the world and summer uke festivals are now popular in Europe and North America. This should not come as a surprise, as the instrument can be easily learned and due to the tuning of the uke, beautiful sounding chords can be played with just a few fingers. For children, the soprano ukulele is sized perfectly and there are only 4 nylon strings to play. In addition, the keyboard frets are spaced appropriately and if a child has the desire to play and practice, positive rewards come early. Learning the ukulele is not limited to children either. Adults and Seniors can be challenged to develop musical skills and experience the joys of making music with this amazing instrument. Particularly for Seniors, playing the ukulele is a wonderful way to keep one’s mind exercised, maintain good manual dexterity and experience community and fellowship by participating in uke bands.
After 50 years, it is exciting for me to rendezvous with this marvelous Hawaiian gem that has seemingly, manifested a musical rebirth within me. In the early 60’s I had one Ukulele book from which to learn. But today, with all the learning resources available through digital and social media, Uke musicians are able to take online lessons on Youtube, record and produce uke music flicks for others to enjoy and connect with ukulele clubs around the world – all through the wonders of the Internet.
Serendipitously, I discovered a ukulele club right within my community. Retired school teachers Norm and Elayne Ruplen of String Along Ukulele in Dundas ON are actively teaching adults and children (currently 70 students) how to master the ukulele. They also offer a huge selection of ukes for every budget and aesthetic desire. One Saturday in January, I had the privilege of meeting Elayne. We were conversing about our favorite instrument and looking at their stock of ukuleles, many not carried by music stores. Within a few minutes we had a full range of uke models spread across their living room floor. It was ukulele paradise seeing all these beautiful instruments.
But what type of uke should a newbie buy? I am convinced you don’t need to be an expert to purchase a decent ukulele. I look for straight necks and strings positioned not too far above the fret board as they become hard to press down. At the same time, the strings should not be so close to the fret board that they vibrate and rattle against the frets when the ukulele is strummed. Also, Elayne and Norm are fabulous resources to help you make a selection. Some people enjoy the wood esthetics of ukuleles. While they can be beautiful to look at, I prefer sound quality over finish appeal any day.
If you’re prepared to pay around $100, you’ll get a good ukulele to start you off – but in the end, the right ukulele for you will have the one with that special feel, that special sound, and if you listen, you’ll hear that little voice within you say – “I like this one!!”
So you’ve made your purchase and now your ukulele journey can commence! What an exciting time it is, learning to make music with this wonderful instrument. There will be days of frustration and days of joy, so take your time while you learn to play. Enjoy the process. Learning the uke chords is the first step and learning to change from chord to chord is the second. Practice songs slowly and get it right. You can always increase your tempo as you improve, but get the chord right first, before you work on tempo. Also, remember muscle memory – if you practice poor chord formation and don’t take the time to place your fingers properly, playing chords incorrectly again and again will engrain that in your muscle memory – and it may become your default playing style that will be hard to correct. Oscar Robertson, the great NBA basketball player once said “What you do in practice, you do in the game”. So practice right and your playing will not suffer. But practice because you love it, not because you have to!
Check out your local community and see if there’s a ukulele club for now it’s time to do some serious uke jammin’. Sitting in the midst of 70+ ukuleles, all being played in harmony, all being synchronously strummed and accompanied by a choir of voices results in the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard. It equates to the slogan from the late Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians who claimed they played “The Sweetest Music This Side of Heaven”.
If you take lessons from Norm and Elayne, you can participate in the Dundas Ukulele jam usually held each month throughout the winter season. The other active club in Southern Ontario is the famous Corktown Ukulele jam held at “The Dominion on Queen” each Wednesday night in Toronto. The music there is fabulous and there are always new things to learn and new people to meet.
My “second” ukulele journey is really just starting. In May I am scheduled to go to Seattle and I’ve already contacted a uke club in that city. They meet each Monday night. So who knows what uke adventures await me there when I visit. It is certain though that I will meet wonderful people who love to make beautiful music.
I owe so much of my love of making music to the people who introduced me to it 50 years ago – Dad’s friend Jimmy, and of course my Father and Mother who always supported me in my musical endeavors. Later in life I learned that my father spent an entire pay cheque when he bought me a Gibson guitar because he was investing in me and had the confidence that I would benefit from that experience. Thinking about what Mom and Dad did back then makes me swell up, even to this day.
Jimmy, Mom and Dad are gone now but I shall forever be indebted to them for encouraging me to enter into my musical journey. So come celebrate the ukulele with me. In Hawaiian, they would say “Hele me hoohiwahiwa ukulele!”
For more Ukulele information check out these sites:
www.youtube.com and search on the word ‘ukulele’
Photos by Ron Service
To learn more about Ron visit our Guest Chicks page.