Anne Ku is the author of “Uku Global’s Happy Helpful Guide to the Ukulele”. After exploring a variety of instruments, from the classical guitar, to French horn, and cello, Anne discovered the ukulele on Maui. She taught music at the University of Hawaii College before moving to Boston where she started a ukulele club. Anne also has her composition and teaching diploma in piano from Utrecht Conservatory in the Netherlands. As you will read in this interview, Anne is incredibly passionate about the ukulele. In fact, Anne’s master’s thesis was written on ukulele song sheets and participative music making. This ukulele aficionado certainly practices what she preaches. Uku Global is grateful for the opportunity to interview Anne and hear her thoughts behind the Guide.
- What is your relationship with the ukulele?
I think of the ukulele as my portable travel companion. It sort of signals to strangers that I play music. It’s a common topic and I will strike up a conversation. I wasn’t able to do that before when I was teaching piano because I can’t carry a piano.
- What do you love most about the ukulele?
You see, I love to travel. As a pianist I have to look for a piano. But, with the ukulele, I can bring it with me anywhere. It’s small, it’s light, it’s portable, but most of all, it’s simple. I mean, what can you do with four strings? It’s kind of parallel to my new life philosophy. I’ve been trying to reduce the complexity in my life; how can I simplify everything? What can I do with less? Minimalist philosophy. What’s amazing is that with just those four strings you can produce so much, whatever you need, to accompany yourself playing music. It’s so versatile. The same as the minimalist approach to life. What can you do with the very little that you have?
- You mentioned that you love to travel. Where has the ukulele itself taken you (and what has it given you)?
Normally, when I travel it’s for work, to see friends, for school or education, all the existing connections. So, how do you meet people that you’ve never been introduced to before, or in places where you would never go to? If you think about it, you don’t. You might strike up a conversation with somebody sitting next to you in a restaurant, but that’s it. Or, you go to a conference and you meet people with similar backgrounds and interests and it’s very deliberate. But, with the ukulele, I could go to a ukulele jam session, a workshop, and then I’d be making music with all these people. I may never see them again. And then, if I keep going to the same class, I’ll get to know the people through music. We have that common interest which is so, so powerful. Individuals and communities.
The other thing is new repertoire. Songs I’ve never heard of before. When I start playing with other people it’s like, wow! I want to learn this song. Because, if you think about it, the songs that you know are the ones you grew up with. The ones that your parents know and you’ve seen them play. Or, what you hear at the gym when you work out. There’s repetition. But, what about all these other songs and music that you don’t get access to? [The ukulele gives] people, community, and also repertoire.
- What inspired you to create the Guide?
Well, I was overjoyed when I was asked to consider writing something. To me, it is a way to consolidate all my research from my MA in music. Not only did I write my dissertation about the ukulele, song sheets, and music making, but I had other essays. For example, in my previous work at University of Hawaii, Maui College I took a course on Hawaiian music and I researched the different historical methods in teaching the ukulele. The Guide is a consolidation wrapping it all together. Also, of what I’ve been creating when I was teaching my students. I had to create handouts. I had to come up with something. What I couldn’t find in the literature or online I had to create. So, the Guide was a way to pull it all together.
- What do you think sets our Guide apart from other ukulele curriculum?
I think it’s timely. If you look at the history of ukulele curriculum it’s very time period, culturally, and location-based. People want to play songs that they’ve heard of, that they know. The ones in Hawaii are Hawaiian songs, the ones in the UK are songs that people who grew up in the UK would know. Which can be different from the ones over here in the states.
The other thing is, I noticed a gap. People are very much after songs and to learn songs. But, my students have vocalized, especially the complete beginners, that they can’t practice the songs unless they have a recording. What they really want to know is how to get your right hand to be automatic, as I tell them to in class, and then the left hand to switch easily between chords. So, that’s why I came up with these exercises. You don’t need to have a recording, you don’t need to know the song, you just need to know how to count. Then you can practice your right hand and your left hand for the chord transitions. I think that’s the main thing that sets it apart.
The second thing that sets it apart is the list of different songs. Because, people go online and say, “I want to learn this song.” So, they find something that they know, that they love, but say “I can’t play this.” Or, they think, “You know what, I’ll just look for a three-chord song. But, there are some three chord songs that are very difficult to play.
The list provides songs of a realistic difficulty.
- What are you most excited about in terms of the Guide?
I’m really excited. I love how it was reformatted into a 10-step method. People tend to say “I want to play this”, so they jump, and they get frustrated because they’re not ready for that step yet. But, with this 10-step method it’s step-by-step, and, when you’re ready, suddenly the world is your oyster.
With my last cohort from January to February I changed how I taught previously. Even from September I changed the way I taught from previous courses in the spring. I made sure this time that they had the foundation, even if it means a lot more rigorous exercises instead of teaching them with different songs. When they’re ready in week three or four, I give them all sorts of songs and they’re all able to tackle it.
- Who specifically have you used the guide with?
This January, there were some copies of the pre-release version that were out. When I handed out the pre-release Guide in early December, one guy saw these exercises and said “Oh my gosh, that’s what I need because I can’t practice songs!” When he said that I started to check with my other students and asked them, what is it about songs that I hand out in class that you can’t practice? They said: “Well, it’s fine when you’re leading the songs in class, I can do it, but, when I get home I just can’t do it.”
It sounds like the feedback was positive!
- What are your plans with the Guide?
In class, I have only so much time. I want to spend that time actively making sure people are doing the right thing. Correcting their posture, position, playing by ear, checking that they’re fingering correctly, answer questions, and attacking new pieces or new exercises. There’s a lot that I can’t talk about or go over so I just have them read it at home from the Guide. It’s more efficient. For instance, I’ll demonstrate the wham stroke, the students see it, but they don’t understand it. So, they can read about it. They see it, but use the Guide to understand it.
The other thing is, when I handed out those pre-release copies it was amazing to see the reaction when they got to the list of songs. When they see a song title that they’re familiar with… you know, the smile on their faces! It’s almost like seeing an old photograph. It was just amazing. They just have this “wow”, this recognition.
- What do you love most about teaching the ukulele?
Really, I see myself as teaching music through the ukulele. What I love about it is that people can afford to get their first ukulele. That was always a problem when I was teaching piano. Should I get an electric one that’s cheap, should I borrow one? But, with the ukulele, I tell them, you need a clip on tuner, you need a strap, you should get a case. They’re acquiring things piece-by-piece. But, they’re okay with that because it parallels the process of, “Oh my gosh, I can do this.” It’s accessible. It’s like within the first half hour or hour I can see that they get it.
For me it’s about the “wow” effect, can I give them the “wow” effect in their first class, in their first lesson? They’re thinking “I can do it, I want to do it!” There’s always some skepticism. Especially with adults. Adults are more skeptical. They say “I’m so busy, I’m not sure I’m going to like it, but I’ll just see.” So, that’s why it’s important to have the first contact go very effectively. I keep on revising what I call my “crash course” which is the first one hour workshop. I don’t want to intimidate them too much. When I teach here in historic Lower Mills, Boston, I provide ukuleles. If you don’t have one you can just borrow one. You can show up and just experience it. Kind of like going to a group exercise class. All the dumbbells and yoga mats, they’re all there. And, what I want to do is, no matter what your background is, everybody can come to this class. If you prefer “heavier weights”, you can have access to different size ukuleles, one that fits you.
In terms of teaching, what I love is it’s about problem-solving and it’s very creative. I get to think about solutions, I get to think about curriculum, exercises. The other thing is, I get immediate feedback. I don’t have to wait for the end-of-course evaluation. I get feedback right away. I can just see, they’re physically struggling with something, I can go and correct them. Or, people have questions. I love how people have questions, like, “I’m left-handed, what do I do?”, “I have a problem with my index finger”, “I have arthritis”. Or, I see a kid who is having problems holding it. So, I can make suggestions.
I had the privilege of learning different instruments when I was a child at conservatory because I was studying composition. I was encouraged to learn different instruments so I could write for them. What I noticed about learning music is that it’s just so expensive. You have to get the instrument, in terms of cost, but also time. It takes so long to learn anything. With ukulele it just turns it upside down. How much faster can you make music?
- Do you have any more thoughts about how the Guide will be used?
In terms of the usefulness of the Guide, I want to mention that a lot of ukulele players have their communities, like church. Or, they might be a librarian who knows how to play ukulele, and wants to let people know there are ukuleles to borrow. Or, in senior centers where the activities director can play the ukulele. What I find is they say “I’m not a teacher. I’m not a musician.” and they feel like they’re not qualified to teach. But, they just want to introduce the ukulele through a workshop or event. So, what I think they could do with this Guide is follow it, and read it. They can use some of the exercises to use it as a reference for their communities.
The Guide aligns with not only teaching you how to play, but also enables you to teach and spread knowledge with the resources that you have in the community.
It’s just about getting people started. It’s loaded because people have questions. Where did the ukulele originate? How do you pronounce it? What else do I need, what are the different sizes? That’s all explained in the Guide. How do I read a chord diagram? How do I find the songs I want to play? It’s all in the Guide.
Get your guide here –> https://ukuglobal.com/store/uku-globals-happy-helpful-guide-to-the-ukulele/