In Praise of the Ukulele

Later tonight, I’ll kiss the kids goodnight and head downtown to see Tune-yards at the Mohawk. I really love her postfeminist, mashup, experimental, loopy music — it makes me think and dance and sing and revel in the power of music to bring joy, even when it doesn’t take the expected forms. But what I really love about Tune-yards (whose real name is Merrill Garbus) is that she can create incredible sounds with nothing more than a ukulele plugged into an amp. (You can see a video of her performing “Powa” here, with the caveat that the lyrics are a bit on the adult side.)

In fact, in the past few years, the ukulele has gained much more street cred and moved light years from Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips. You’ve probably heard of Jake Shimabukuro, but did you know that Eddie Vedder (of Pearl Jam) released a whole record of ukulele music just last year?

Eddie Vedder, “Can’t Keep”

Believe it or not, Austin enjoys a vibrant ukulele culture. Skinny’s Ballroom offers the occasional ukulele night, and the Austin Uke Mob, which operates under the auspices of the Austin Ukulele Society, recently performed a Beatles review on the patio at Hickory Street downtown:

Austin Uke Mob

We came to the ukulele kind of by accident. The Big Kid, who is nearly seven, had been expressing interest in music lessons, but we weren’t quite comfortable with going the violin or piano route, and all of the wisdom we had gotten from our elders was that it was too soon for guitar. We have shelved the idea of a trumpet or a wind instrument until junior high, but we did want him to get some sort of musical instruction beyond what he was getting in school. Then, early in the school year, I saw a flyer on the wall advertising ukulele lessons and I remembered that, a few years back, my husband had bought ukuleles for himself and the Big Kid for Christmas. Voila! Music lessons problem solved.

I called the number and set up an introductory lesson with Kevin Carroll in September, and we’ve been going back every week since then. It’s been a bit of an uphill battle, but the Big Kid seems to have turned a corner and is producing some really lovely sounds with the instrument and is very proud of his accomplishments when he learns a new song. It is helping his confidence and concentration, and we’re looking forward to seeing how much more he develops, musically, over the next few years.

I asked Kevin for his thoughts on getting young kids started on ukulele, and why it might be an appropriate entry point for families who may not be ready for (or maybe intimidated by) the more classical, traditional first instruments. Here’s what he had to say:

LiveMom: What are the benefts, in general, of learning to play ukulele?

Kevin Carroll: The ukulele is a great instrument on so many different levels.  It’s the perfect instrument for youngsters to be able to play melody, harmony, chords, rhythm and sing simultaneously.  Nothing else promotes musical literacy like the ukulele. It is small, which makes it more playable for youngsters.  It is more affordable than many other instruments like woodwinds, cello, violin, etc.Advertisement
The strings are made of nylon which is kinder to the fingers of both hands.  It’s easy to carry and, most importantly, it’s a super fun instrument to play with others or alone.

LM: Why is it a good starter instrument, as opposed to something more traditional like the violin or piano? (Not that there is anything wrong with those, of course.)

KC: The size, affordability and versatility are very unique assets.  I like to think of the ukulele as the most democratic instrument in the truest sense of democracy.  Anyone can play it and all levels of players can play together more seamlessly than any other instrument I’ve encountered.  It is having a huge spike in popularity in the US right now and is rapidly becoming quite common in Thailand, Malaysia and Argentina among many other countries.  This attests to its universal appeal.

LM: Does learning the ukulele at a young age (or an older age, even) help pave the way for transitioning (or not) to other instruments later?

KC: Through learning ukulele, students develop  the rudiments of music and get a true “feel” for what it means to make music both individually and as part of an ensemble.  All of these skills are transferable to other instruments or to other material.  In looking at the ukulele virtuosity displayed by players like James Hill, Jake Shimabukuro, Aldrine Guerero and countless others, it quickly becomes apparent that ukulele can be a lifelong study, too, if a person wants to follow that path.  Many people associate only Hawaiian music with the ukulele.  Though Hawaiian music is beautiful and is enjoying a resurgence due to the current popularity of the ukulele, there are no limits as to what can be played on this wonderful instrument.  I’ve heard Jazz, country, rock, all forms of Latin music, Americana and classical played on the uke.  It’s very popular among senior citizens too.  Several of my students are over 60 and having a wonderful time playing the uke.

LM: Can an argument be made for ukulele in school band?

KM: Definitely!  As an elementary educator, I believe the answer is a whole-hearted yes.  In British Columbia, there is an amazing program that has used the ukulele as the primary instrument for music education for over 30 years.  Not surprisingly, some of the greatest players have come from this talent hotbed.  A music teacher named Chalmers Doane wrote a curriculum for this and it has stuck.  Peter Luongo is the current head of the Langley Ukulele Orchestra.  This is a high school ukulele ensemble that plays contemporary and classical music.  Flight of the Bumblebee on 20 ukuleles.  It’s very inspiring.  In following their lead, I have enrolled in a ukulele for the classroom program that includes the curriculum of Chalmers Doane and current uke master/educator James Hill.  It’s a 3 year program that I’ll start in July.  Only 2 days a year in Canada, and self study with tests and performance requirements at each of the 3 levels.  I’d love to help steward this program in Austin and help adapt it to the cultural influences found in central Texas.

LM: Any tips on selecting a first ukulele?

KC: I think that some knowledge of the various sizes, shapes, wood types, manufacturers and strings help one make a more educated decision.  Many times I tell people to let the instrument choose you and go by sound and feel more than brand or looks.  Having someone play the same song on multiple ukuleles is a good way to get a clear impression of the differences between instruments.

Thanks, Kevin! Kevin Carroll currently offers private ukulele lessons for all age and skill levels. He’s also leading a summer ukulele camp for children June 4-8.  Get more information at!

Catherine Prystup
About Catherine Prystup 2157 Articles
Catherine Prystup founded out of a desire to build a better community for Austin-area moms. She has three children, ages seventeen, eight and three years old.

1 Comment on In Praise of the Ukulele

  1. If you can’t count “them”, how can you keep “it”? Whether you’re playing solo, or in a group, a strong sense of timing and rhythm is of the utmost importance.

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