Morphing into a Uke Tutor
How does a classical violin teacher become a ukulele tutor? That idea wouldn’t have occurred to me during the first phase of my musical identity. Some of my classical music friends laugh at my being a ukulele tutor, some think it’s a bit of a betrayal. It’s not, really.
When I was a violin teacher, I wasn’t really satisfied. Surrounded by other string teachers who were passionate about correcting violin students’ playing techniques, I felt like a fraud. What I was doing was mimicking what I was taught during my university studies at the Elder Conservatorium at Adelaide Uni, a place where I never really felt comfortable.
It probably was the two-year stint as a journalist in Indonesia in the early 80’s that made me restless. I landed a job at a news magazine called Tempo (not a music magazine, but a weekly publication based on the Time magazine model). There I saw the world away from the confines of a music teaching institution, where priorities aren’t based on how well a child plays for an exam. I really enjoyed being an observer of people and seeing how they reacted to events.
However, life circumstances (marriage to a non-Indonesian speaking Aussie) brought me back to Australia and the reality of earning a living brought me back to music teaching. It’s not that I didn’t find my perfect school. I got a teaching position at a very nice girls’ school. I remember the first day I stepped into the school, I saw girls sitting under a tree, reading books during their lunch break. I thought: This is the place for me! I wasn’t wrong. I ended up teaching there until my retirement, thirty-two years later.
Thinking back to the reaction I got from friends, some Adelaide friends laughed at me when I told them I was going to Indonesia to be a journalist. I wasn’t pushy enough, they said. Two years later, my journalist friends in Indonesia laughed when I told them I was going back to Australia to teach. I wasn’t pushy enough, they said. I seem to have this habit of making people laugh at my life choices.
Back to my music teaching, the restlessness grew. After more than a decade becoming quite good at teaching violin techniques and getting kids through examinations, I had this niggling urge to do something different. I wanted something more ‘real’, something more central to people’s needs, but I didn’t want to leave the security of the lovely school. And there was the mortgage to pay off. I looked in the mirror to see how I could ‘market ‘myself, and I saw it clearly: an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher.
I did the TESOL course at Deakin while still working full time as a music teacher and subsequently taught ESL at my school. It was the best career move. I was finally in a job where I didn’t feel like a fraud. By teaching my students English and cross-cultural skills, I allowed them to overcome the barriers to their needs. I felt I was finally making a real difference to the lives of others. I was also encouraged to express myself creatively in my teaching – to think outside the box when needed. My husband commented that I was working so much harder teaching ESL than when music teaching, but I was clearly happier.
But I didn’t abandon my love of music. Once I no longer spent my days teaching violin, I got back into violin playing by joining the Victorian Amateur Chamber Music Society, where I found a subculture of people who organise themselves into trios and quartets, enjoying music making in each other’s homes. I currently have 5 different chamber groups running. There’s no financial incentive for paid gigs when we play. There’s just joy in playing together, in belonging to groups where real musical connections happen. Playing together can be exhilarating and you develop real friendships as a bonus.
And where does the ukulele fit in? I was inspired to learn the ukulele after a colleague showed me a YouTube clip of Jake Shimabukuro. This was no plinky-plinky instrument – this has real power! I bought myself a uke the same size as Jake’s and trawled YouTube for tutorials. I soon realised that although I would never get to Jake’s virtuosic level of playing (I’m a realist – I was already in my 40s then), I enjoyed strumming chords to improvise a backing for vocals. I started to learn how to think like a folk/pop musician, who isn’t reliant on detailed sheet music to play. This was liberating.
Now I’m not a properly trained singer, but I enjoy singing. I used to enjoy singing with the kids at school during assemblies, but I wouldn’t be confident enough to sing a pop song out loud. But put a uke in my hands and suddenly I’m a pop singer — in my head, anyway! Strumming the ukulele gives you confidence.
I joined a local community ukulele group and discovered that, unlike community orchestras who are led by the professionally able conductors, you don’t need to be an expert to start a community uke group. A solid intermediate player with good organisational skills could lead a group.
So the year after I joined U3APP – I enrolled in life drawing and watercolour classes – I volunteered to tutor a ukulele group. This group, which eventually named itself Beaut Ukes, started off as a real mix of total beginners and people with varying levels of experience. It probably had an identity crisis of whether it was a class to learn basic uke skills or a community singing group, but this didn’t matter. It was a happy group filled with great members who were keen to learn.
Beaut Ukes wasn’t even fazed by the pandemic. Throughout the lockdowns, this class continued on Zoom – a platform that isn’t suitable for group playing because it only allows one sound source to be heard at a time. We had a system of taking turns being heard: members unmuted and re-muted themselves when it was their turn to perform different verses; others strum along while muted. It was brave of people to do this. We got to know each other better through our Zoom sessions. There were also plenty of opportunities to chat socially between songs during this time. So Zoom was OK, but there is nothing like getting back together after the lockdown ended.
Beaut Ukes is now one of three ukulele classes offered at U3APP. New Ukes is for beginners who want to learn the basics of playing. Fun Ukes is for those who want to learn more songs using just basic techniques, learning songs at a relaxed pace. Beaut Ukes allows members to be more adventurous and learn more complex songs. My role is now more of a moderator of this more advanced group. I encourage this group to develop independence in musical thinking, with members suggesting new songs or alternatives in ways to perform the songs. Some members will take on the role of leading the group in the song of their choice. Above all, we enjoy strumming and singing together. I get a great buzz from our shared music making.
I’ve been very lucky at finding U3APP. I’ve attended so many interesting courses (including classes in Spanish, Feldenkreis, understanding the stock market and a number of lecture series on science topics). I’ve enjoyed being in the U3APP both as a tutor and as a student. I see U3APP as a community of life-long learners who understand the fun in learning; and we are fortunate to have members who are happy to share their knowledge and skills with each other. It’s great to be a member of this tribe!
Written by Minuk Richards