Interview with Lee Urban from Ukuleles Heal the World

This past week we had the opportunity to sit down with the notorious Mainer, Lee Urban, who launched the grassroots program Ukuleles Heal the World. As a Maine 501(c)(3) non-profit, Ukuleles Heal The World conducts week-long Ukulele Camps at Portland, Maine elementary schools. These camps help kids learn the ukulele, find their inner voice, and help them gain confidence in themselves and their musical abilities. One of our favorite parts about Lee’s camps is that the students get to take home their very own ukulele at the end of camp. Lee also has set up a fundraiser to help children at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital in receive ukuleles. Ukuleles Heal the World and Uku Global have collaborated with each other to help his campers receive Uku Ukuleles at the end of camp! Lee Urban is ukulele saint and someone Uku Global is proud to be working with. We were lucky to chat with him and get his take on the power of the ukulele.

What is your first memory of the ukulele?

Although I have a photo of me when I was probably 10 on Christmas morning holding a plastic T.V. Pal ukulele as designed by Mario Maccaferri, that’s too far back for me to actually remember.  So my first real memory of a ukulele was, yes, Tiny Tim.

How has the ukulele affected your life?

Dramatically!  It has taken me to so many places – geographically, socially, creatively, spiritually – I never would have imagined.

Geographically, it’s taken me into place I never thought I’d get to. I may not have gone around the world with it – but maybe someday. What I mean is it has taken me into places I never thought I’d get to. I’ve played for young kids in cancer centers and memory care facilities. I never would have been in there without the ukulele.

Socially, I’ve made so many new friends! Including you folks at Uku Global!

Creatively, as a teacher, it keeps me on my toes. I have to learn different ways to teach kids with different needs and kids who at different learning levels.

Spiritually, playing at some places – like a hospice care and being able to see the impact that the ukulele has on families. It is a special place that i’ve been brought into and simply its because of the ukulele!

Can you tell me about Ukuleles Heal the World and how it started?  

It started as just me asking a group of dear friends to help me teach kids at what I called “Ukulele Camps” at local elementary school in summers for kids who don’t have some of the advantages that many other kids have.  Then in order to raise money to be able to purchase ukuleles for these kids, I formed Ukuleles Heal The World as a Maine 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation to accept tax-deductible donations for those who cared about such things.  Someone once said, “The only thing any of us can do completely on our own is to have the start of a good idea.” So, yes, I came up with the initial idea about Ukuleles Heal The World and Ukulele Camps, but the rest of it all is a team effort.  I couldn’t do without that great team which is always coming up with ideas for UHTW.

Tell me about your ukulele camps.  

It’s not just about teaching kids how to play a ukulele in a few short hours over four days – an hour each day.  It’s more about getting them to a place where they feel proud of themselves, where they feel good about themselves, where they see that through their own efforts they accomplished something.  Ukulele Camps work because they’re all about fun, and there’s immediate gratification for kids when they hear how they’re making music with ukuleles.

Tell me about your campers.

The ukulele campers are kids who are typically 3rd-5th graders and who are part of a local organization known as LearningWorks, which operates as a after school program. A lot of the campers are new arrivals to the United States. Portland, Maine has a very large community of new arrivals from all over the world. The kids come as part of the program, its free, I partnered with LearningWorks to be one of their after school programs for the summer.

LearningWorks lets me and my volunteers come in and teach one day a week at five different elementary schools. These kids do not have the advantages that many of the other kids have. Most of the campers are eligible for federal free lunch programs and many don’t speak English.

Matter of fact UHTW did one camp, and it wasn’t till after the ukulele concert, which is always on the last day, that I learned that one young lady didn’t speak any English! She was just looking at me and watching where I was going with my fingers. We purposely use colored strings, because it much easier to learn that way – put your finger on the blue string, and they get it. So much easier to learn that way than the more traditional – 1st string, 2nd fret, 2nd string, 3rd fret way.

These kids are very interested in learning to play the ukulele because they have to sign up to be a part of the camps themselves. It works because for these kids, who don’t necessarily have much going on at home, now are able to have some fun! It’s immediate gratification because after ten minutes they can play. The language barrier is not a barrier, the ukulele is the universal language if you will. So these kids understand.

Do you have a particular memory or story that you can share about how the ukulele continued to impact a particular campers life?

This summer the plan is to bring back as may Ukulele Campers as we can to do an End-of-Summer concert, and then we’ll know more about how the kids have been doing.  I can say right now, however, that parents have told me that they’ve never seen their child so happy as when he or she learned to uke. School teachers have told me that some of the Campers are continuing to uke on their own.  We do give each Camper an excellent instruction book that they can use to teach themselves how to do more with their new ukuleles. For me, the best thing a Ukulele Camper ever said about teaching ukulele was when at the conclusion of one Ukulele Camp, a 9-year-old Camper said, “It’s going to be a better world if people teach other people how to play the ukulele.”  How cool is that!?

I can remember one camper named, John. He didn’t believe it on the last day when I said “Here’s a ukulele for you to keep.” He could not believe it! He stared at me – and in the most earnest and serious voice he said “You’re lying.” I said “No, John, it’s yours!” He responded again with “You’re lying” and his buddy next to him turned to him and said “No, No, John, look at the back, it doesn’t have Mr. Urban’s name on it.” He threw his arms up in the air and was beyond overjoyed. That interaction gave me goosebumps. That’s one of the better reasons why we have Ukulele Camps.

My favorite quote of yours is “there’s no pressure in Ukulele Land.” Can you dive into the meaning of that and how that translates to your camps and students.

By that I mean that we can make it hard or we can make it easy, so why make things hard.  Just do the best you can with what you know and enjoy the moment. Learning to uke is not a race; it’s not a competition; there are no winners and losers.  Instead, it’s just you and your ukulele and having however fun you want to make it. Ukulele Camps work because it’s all abut having fun. When I begin by saying, “hey, here’s the cool thing about Ukulele Camp – you’ll never have to practice!” That always gets a resounding cheer.  But then, of course, we may not “practice”, but we do many variations on the same songs, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” using different chord progressions each time. Sneaky. And when they “get it”, they groan and laugh at the same time.

What’s the easiest song to learn on the ukulele for beginners?  

“Row, Row, Row Your Boat” using only the Am7 chord (no fingers needed). That’s the song we start out with at Ukulele Camps so that after only 10 minutes into the Camp on the first day, kiddos are strumming and singing together.  TA-DAH!! “Hey, I can do this!” think Campers. I can see it on their faces.

Why is music education important?  

I’m not sure I’d say that as, “music education is important”.  Instead, I’d I say it as, “learning to play an instrument is important”.  It involves responsibility for oneself, self-discipline, developing creatively.  I don’t think anyone needs to be able to read music to accomplish all that.

What’s next for UHTW?

Success is a good thing, but we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.  We’ve been invited to start Ukulele Camps in other states, but that would be huge jump in resources needed, not the least of which is time.  And we don’t charge for anything we do. Ukulele Camps are totally free. Everything comes from donations.

Tell us about your Jam Fest coming up!?

Great question!  Our fifth annual CascoBay UkeFest takes place in Portland on September 21.  The event has been growing each year by leaps and bounds. We started with maybe 75 participants with not much publicity, then 150, then 250, then 300, and we expect 400 or more.  We try to make it what I’ll call a “low-barrier ukulele festival” – a Saturday, a free beginner workshop to start off, and then a very low charge for subsequent workshops that day (like $10), a concert by a headliner (last year it was Jim and Liz Beloff), and then ukulele groups from all over Maine each perform in the afternoon.  We sell tee shirts, lunches, whatever; and the net process of everything goes to UHTW to carry on.

This Ukefest is special – one day, one place, everybody is together! It starts in the morning and finishes before dinner. People love the setup.

What Uku Global Ukulele is your favorite and why?

I really like the Hibiscus Soprano.  The design honors the instrument’s Hawaiian roots; and, quite simply, the Hibiscus Soprano is beautiful to look at.

Where can people go to help donate to UHTW?

We have a Facebook page, and there’s a donation button there to click on.  And folks can mail donations – checks made out to “Ukuleles Heal The World” –  at 129 Neal Street, Portland, Maine 04102.

UHTW: https://www.facebook.com/ukuleleshealtheworld/