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I haven’t been writing on the blog much – mostly due to time constraints – but I wanted to touch on the issue of ukulele as a tool for goodness and social connection. The more deeply I dive into the ukulele sphere, the more I see how truly magical it really is.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge advocate for music of all kinds in our lives. Whatever instrument you choose, it can bring a whole host of positive benefits to you and those around you. But I’d like to reflect a bit on some of what I’m seeing with the ukulele.

This is an instrument that has had a wild ride along its history line. From something deeply cultural in its Hawaiian roots (that continues today), to its kooky pop culture adventures over the decades, to becoming so much more in present day.  This little four-stringed wonder has been a chameleon, an entertainer, a social connector, a tool for expression, an outlet for creativity, a very wide open door to musical literacy (for kids and grown-ups), and the list goes on. Using Amanda Palmer’s words, it is a wand of thunder. And at the same time, it is a humble friend.

I really believe this instrument can bring forth positive benefits that I have not seen from other instruments at this scale and reach. Just to touch on a few examples of where I’ve personally seen it go:

  • Its accessibility has given people the opportunity to learn to make music in adulthood, many who perhaps never thought they would ever be able to create music. A huge mind and heart opener that builds self-esteem and happiness.
  • It has been a social connector for people who may not have come together in any other venue. It has enabled them to have a communication tool – the universal language of music – that they can use to relate to others.
  • It can go anywhere. Its portability makes it perfect in so many scenarios. Its unassuming and inoffensive nature lets it join (sneak?) in with all kinds of other instruments. It can make friends with most anyone.
  • It has been a connector for families. I’ve had parents and kids register for classes together and enjoy the beauty of sharing music, opening dialogue, strengthening family bonds. They’ve often told me they continue making music together as a family at home.
  • It’s a healer. I’ve seen this instrument go into hospitals, care centres, and homes of people who are dealing with health challenges. It can help lower heart rates and anxiety, alleviate pain and discomfort, and improve brain activity.
  • It is an outlet for expression. I’ve had students of all ages explore the craft of writing with their instrument, helping sort through their life challenges and successes, through the art of songwriting.
  • It’s an opportunity to explore music one would never have known or thought about. We can play a classical piece and talk about the format of the canon in early western music. We can thrash out a Ramones song and feel the rush of letting loose on three punk chords. We can learn a swinging ditty from the 1930s and challenge ourselves with the complexity and beauty of jazz chords.
  • It builds and invites communities. Its humble and approachable nature, mixed with the happy faces of those who play it, is unique in its ability to lure people to learn. Many people attend ukulele performances and leave thinking “I want to learn to play that!” and go out and buy one. I don’t know many other instruments that have this kind of effect. People might see a concert and be moved and entertained, but they rarely go out and buy the instrument they’ve just seen performing. This happens regularly with ukulele.
  • It’s a tool for good mental health. Art and music offer people the chance to escape and find distraction from their busy lives. Ukuleles are a really accessible way to bring this stress-relieving activity into many homes. I’ve had endless people tell me that they look forward to ukulele class/jams as an opportunity to let their stress go and turn their moods around.

I could go on but I will leave it there for now. I would love to hear what you have discovered through this wonderful little instrument. How has it affected your life in big and small ways?

 

 

There are moments in our days that are inextricably linked to music. The soundtrack of our lives, if you will. Music can bring back memories, trigger emotions, give us strength, motivate us, calm us, and help us through. music gives soul quote

Recently, the Royal City Ukulele Ensemble — an adult ukulele group that I run — had a powerful experience through music. For the last two years, our weekly classes have taken place in a wonderful retirement and assisted care facility. Residents are welcome to listen to us work through our technique and material each week and every few months we put on a more formal performance for those residents.

We have come to find happiness not only in our own music-making each week but in watching the effects of our music on those residents who might sit for a while and listen, who come bopping down the hall to our more upbeat tunes, or who come religiously and listen to our entire 2 hour class each week.

It is one of those residents who allowed us the opportunity to be a part of something extra special this summer. I will leave you with the link to an article that was written about this story in the retirement community’s newsletter, the Village Voice. May your days be filled with the magic and power of music.

http://schlegelvillages.com/news/node/gift-ghislaine-bates

 

 

Although it’s something I’ve known intrinsically for as long as I can remember, it’s only been in recent years that I’ve realized how much music brings people together. Music has the beautiful ability to function as an individual activity or one of social connection.

Last evening was one of those moments when I was taken with the warm and joyful experience of the music-making-in-a-group kind. This one centred around ukuleles, of course, and was part of a celebration of music education (Music Monday), an area that I’m quite passionate about.13164260_10209642044954157_4936648171326008186_n

It began with the screening of a documentary called The Mighty Uke. This quirky little film touches on the history (including the pop culture history) of our tiny hero: the ‘ukulele. I scanned the room regularly to watch the reactions of those in attendance, both young and old(er). There were smiles, definitely laughs, some nods of recognition and even a few teary moments. All were engaged in the wild and wooly stories of the “jumping flea.”

The film set the stage for what came next: making music. Some folks were members of the Royal City Ukulele Ensemble and were very comfortable playing together. Some were relative newbies but were venturing out to test their musical abilities in a safe environment. Some were folks who perhaps had never touched a ukulele before (goodness!) and experienced their first ukulele jam session.

We had six songs to play — songs that registrants had received in the previous weeks and we had yet to try altogether as “The Mighty Uke Jam Ensemble”. I gave them a quick pep talk and the mandatory “Z Chord is your secret weapon” advice and, as we began to play and sing, the magic really began to happen.

There were smiles. Lots of smiles. There was laughter and at the end of each song, acknowledgement of the success of having made the song sound like a song! A group of 30+ participants, at least half of whom did not know each other before that evening, came together and created music. Just like that. And it was perfectly imperfect.

As we finished, there was a great energy in the room. The joy of having made music together, regardless of age or experience level. We came together in some cases as strangers but we left the evening feeling as though we had all connected in those moments to create something as a group. It reminded me of many things, including the fact that ukuleles should be mandatory at all business meetings as an ice-breaker, creativity booster and stress-reliever… (don’t get me started)

But mostly, it reminded me that although I talk about ukuleles in my every day life and get some snickers and eyerolls from those who haven’t yet experienced them firsthand (i.e. the ‘ukulele dark side), I know in my heart the power of this friendly little instrument:

IMG_0943

The quiet introvert

The social connector

The charming hipster

The peace maker

The happiness generator

The little instrument that could. And does.

 

2fb1e5b0647671e5927de0437616201eMusic has a tremendous effect on our wellbeing. From lowering stress to improving memory to boosting our immune system, there are myriad positive results – physical and psychological – that come from listening to music. And actually playing or singing creates even more of that good stuff.

Check out this article over on HuffPo that speaks to some of these really practical benefits that we get from having music in our lives.

 

 

kid piano handsI’ve written before about the importance of making time for arts/music as an adult but this time I want to speak specifically to music-making for children and youth.

As parents, we know the options for our kids’ extra-curricular programmes are vast and varied. We make decisions on those options based on a similarly wide range of reasons: our child shows an interest; their friends are doing it; we want them to learn or experience something; it fits into our schedule; it fits into our family budget; and the list goes on. All kinds of activities are fighting for our parental dollars and time. We all have a lot on our plates.

Unfortunately for many, music ends up being low on the list. It’s important that our kids get exercise, team-building, coordination skills, etc. But what I am seeing these days are many children and young people growing up with a distinct lack of social awareness and empathy, an inability to focus on anything that is not on a screen, and at the most basic level, an outlet for those crazy emotions that we all have to learn to control as we grow into adults.

Music in particular sparks a magical mixture of benefits that research has shown us over and over: brain and body benefits, emotional and social benefits. This is a recipe that no other activity can provide in the same way.

It’s a recipe missing from too many young lives these days.1397536_10153471368245360_842905776_o

We’re championing ‘creativity’ as a skill that is going to be near the top of every recruiter’s wish list in the near future. It already is at the top of many. But are our children getting the opportunity to explore real, tactile creativity? I mean, aside from Minecraft, Garageband and choosing cool filters on their Instagram pics? And what about emotional and social health?

Here are just a few of the things music and the arts can help develop in our kids:

Inspiration

Confidence

Spatial acuity

Non-verbal communication

Dexterity

Healthy risk-taking

Ability to receive constructive feedback

Collaborative skills

Improved memory

Problem-solving abilities

Tolerance

Focus

Commitment

I don’t deny the importance of sports in the lives of kids. Heck, my own kids definitely have their fair share on the go. But just as we aim to give our kids healthy meals that will keep their bodies strong and growing, we should be ensuring their ‘brain and soul plates’ are just as balanced. Let’s give our kids the opportunity to be truly healthy, inside and out. Let’s keep music and the arts on the menu.

 

For many people, the thought of learning how to play an instrument is daunting, possibly entirely out of reach. So often I hear “Oh, I’ve never been musical” or “Nah, I’m too old.”

IMG_2958I try my best to turn those folks around. You see, I am a believer that everyone has the ability to make music at some level. Just listen to your heartbeat – your body is already giving you rhythm right from the inside. You just need a little confidence kick and allow yourself to be a kid again, in a sense. Set aside your adult worries of “ugh, I can’t get this fast enough” or “I’m embarrassed that I can’t seem to make sense of it.” As adults, we can be very impatient with ourselves!

Learning how to think about music and read music starts as a kind of mathematical/analytical process, deciphering how many beats are in a measure and that the second space on the treble staff is an A, for example. These are the foundational bits that can actually, in many cases, be easier for adults to grasp.

Then there are the more creative and lyrical parts of music, understanding phrasing and dynamics and how a song speaks to us through sound. It’s a fascinating process that, when approached the right way with the right teacher, can be an exciting and rewarding experience.

But so many adults don’t even give it a chance! Or, they can’t find time for it because there are too many other pressing things in their lives, like fitting in their fitness class or running their kids to dance right after work. I totally get it.

But isn’t music worth making time for, too? I mean, you’re doing something for your soul and your wellbeing (research-proven health and brain benefits!) that I would suggest can be an equally important part of taking care of yourself.

10538621_773477946043734_4452203297728217792_nI have had the pleasure of helping adults learn to make music (on the ukulele and the piano) and let me tell you, it’s an interesting experience because these individuals eventually realize that they are capable of far more than they give themselves credit for.

When they have the patience to work at it, they can, in fact, make music! Yes!

Plus, they’re strengthening their mind with the constant “fireworks” of synapses working overtime to process the strange language of written music and translate it into a set of physical movements that somehow produce sound and song. They’re learning to work with others if they’re playing in a group, watching for cues and staying in tune and in time. They’re connecting with emotional places when a musical line triggers a memory or feeling. We’ve even seen that incredible connection with the inspiring research around the simple act of even listening to music and its effect on elderly dementia. Music lives in a special place in our brains that can remain intact when all else is failing. I think that’s a pretty amazing thing.

Music resonates with us on many levels and across cultural and geographical boundaries – remember Bobby McFerrin’s demonstration of our innate understanding of the pentatonic scale in that TED Talk?

Music making is a unique and truly valuable experience that more adults should open their minds to. I challenge you to consider learning an instrument, no matter your age, no matter the instrument. I can guarantee that if you can connect with a teacher who can support your learning effectively, you will have an amazing experience that you’ll carry with you through a lifetime.

 

2fb1e5b0647671e5927de0437616201eThe beginning of a new year can be a time to refresh and embark on something new. Although “getting healthy” is often on the resolution list for many, it usually refers to things like weight loss, physical exercise or changing eating habits.

But what if part of getting healthy meant doing something for your overall wellbeing? What if you could turn off the stereo and create your own music? What if the word ‘scale’ could mean something to exercise your brain and fingers rather than something you have to step on and avert your eyes?

If that sounds like something that’s more up your alley, then perhaps taking up an instrument should be on your list for 2015!

Learning music is fabulous for your brain and your body: improved coordination, confidence, memory, language skills, creativity…the list goes on and on. Plus, it’s so good for your overall emotional health.  No matter your age, getting a little music in your life is simply a great idea.

But which instrument to choose?

Give some thought to what you naturally gravitate to. Do you think the versatile piano is appealing? What about the friendly ukulele, which gets you started quickly but can offer a lot of challenge, too? Do you love to sing? Do you want to play with others or on your own? Is there an instrument lying around that you’ve always wanted to pick up? What’s in your budget?

The beauty of learning music is that you’re never too old or too young to get started and the options are endless.

Whatever you choose, be prepared that just like investing in your physical health, investing in a musical journey requires some level of dedication, even if it’s just to learn for fun. It doesn’t need to be endless hours of painful practice or boring lessons – the right mix of instrument, teacher and method can make the process a truly enjoyable one so make sure you do your research.

Then get playing and make 2015 your year of music!

 

 

Taking music lessons or classes can be a lot of fun. We get to make music with others and work with a teacher who helps us learn new pieces or get through things we are struggling with. They teach us meanings and functionality of this new language we’re learning and help us to discover our creativity.

sketchkeysandmusicBut a very important part of learning to make music is the time that comes in between lessons and classes: the dreaded Practice Time.

Music is supposed to be fun so why do we have to go through the hassle of practicing our technique or our pieces over and over?

Your music teacher aims to push you to the next level over the course of months or a year so if you’re coming back to every lesson and they have to re-teach you the same things over every single week, no one ends up happy. You’ll feel miserable because you’ll be told the same things week after week. Your teacher will feel challenged having to keep teaching the same thing to you week after week when they know you have the potential to do more.

We are all busy, though, so what’s the best way to make practice actually useful and less painful? There are lots of great articles around online to give you all kinds of ideas around how to practice. Here are a few suggestions based on my own experiences to get you thinking:

You can’t cram. Whether it’s 15 minutes or 30+ minutes, it’s important to develop a good habit of time spent regularly on your instrument. You wouldn’t save up one day each week to do 300 sit-ups all at once right before a weekly session with a personal trainer. You’d try to do 50 sit-ups six days per week, right? The same applies with music practice – efficient and consistent practice sessions are the way to go.

That said, don’t stress if you need to miss a day or two. Stressful practice is not going to get you anywhere except feeling crabby. In fact, many teachers say that aiming for four to five days of practice each week is perfect for most students.

Focus and choose. Don’t just sit down and blast through each thing you’re working on once and then jump up and move on. This is particularly important when you’re working on a piece and there are parts you know well and parts you struggle with. Pick one of the parts you struggle with and make that the focus of today’s practice.

Slow down a little! The tendency is to play the parts you know well very quickly and then slow right down for the trickier parts to fumble through them, or even ignore them entirely! Work out the tricky parts on their own and practice those measures until they are more comfortable. Then play the bars leading up to that section so you eliminate the stress as you approach the (formerly) tricky part. Now you can practice the entire piece at a slower tempo so that you can get through the piece without stopping at all. Ease up that tempo a little so that you are getting the piece all the way through until you are finally able to do it entirely up to speed.

Fingerings are there for a reason. While you may find it frustrating to pay attention to fingerings, there is a good reason that someone took the time to write them in there – because they likely make sense and make playing a passage easier! Make sure you pay attention to fingerings right from the beginning.

Have fun! Just as learning anything new can be tough sometimes – there is certainly an ebb and flow to music learning, as I’ll talk about in a future post – you can mix things up to keep it engaging. Focus on mastering a really tough few measures for 10 – 15 minutes but then switch it up and play something fun that you know really well. Or just spend a few minutes improvising and see where your imagination takes you. Then go back to those few measures with a fresh mind and you’ll see results!

Keep working on developing good practice habits and you’ll see your playing improve in no time!

 

 

mukecropped.jpgWhy people teach is an interesting question. But even more fascinating is why people end up teaching music when it can be (at times) such an undervalued, underestimated and overlooked subject?

Music teachers are a unique breed, I’ve discovered. They come from all kinds of backgrounds and have all kinds of incredible stories of how they arrived in their role as teacher. For the record, I’m speaking here about the music teachers who really love what they do and who have chosen music teaching willingly.

Some knew from a young age that they had a passion for music and perhaps later discovered the joy of sharing it with people. They could be the music geeks (I use that term lovingly) from highschool who treasured music classes each week and made that connection in those years. They may have had aspirations for other things and found their way into music teaching inadvertently. In any case, they have likely had years of music lessons, training, examinations, performances, and potentially thousands of hours of practice to become reasonably proficient on an instrument and gain a substantial knowledge of music literacy.

But teaching music isn’t usually just a job. Most people I know who have chosen to teach music do so because they feel passionately about music and its possibilities. I am so impressed by some of the teachers I’ve met who have spent, in some cases, years running through mud to find a way to inject more music programming into their schools or get instruments into the hands of kids. These are people who know firsthand the countless benefits of a music education in a young person’s life.

In addition to lesson planning and actual teaching time, they put in the extra hours to coach kids, find money to buy instruments and resources, jump through hoop after hoop making the case to administration for more than just a short lunch break to provide instruction. I know a teacher who was relegated to teaching her music class in the stairwell of the school! I don’t know many math or science teachers who have to repeatedly convince administration of the importance of what they’re teaching or who have to take their classes into the hallways to make them happen.

So why do they bother? There are the obvious reasons but the things that can bring home the “why do I teach” for these folks are not only the big performances or the successful examinations but those smaller moments: A thank you from a former student, an “I finally got that really difficult passage!” revelation in a lesson, a comment from a parent about their child connecting with a grandparent through music, a proud smile in a lesson when they realize they are really making music on their own. Although teaching music can be challenging, it can also be a tremendously rewarding profession, in my humble opinion.

I will leave you with a short, inspirational 8-minute TEDTalk by the lovely Rita Pierson, who speaks to the importance of relationships and connection in teaching. I also leave all of you teachers (of any subject) with a high five for pursuing such a challenging and incredibly important career.

 

 

Learning to make music isn’t just about reading notes and making sounds. It’s just as important to hone your skills as a good listener.girlwithheadphones image

A fun way for you or your kids to work on this musical skill outside of formal practice time is to crank up that radio in the car or put on that sound system at home and perk up those ears with a listening challenge. By the way, parents, this is a super way to engage your kids in musical thinking between lessons or during the summer and they’ll have no idea they’re working on their skills!

Here are some initial things to listen for:

Mood/key: For beginning learners, you can ask what mood the song feels like. Happy?  Sad? Agitated? For more advanced, can you tell if the key is a major key (happy) or a minor key (sad)?  Does the key change during the song?

The beat: For beginners, can you find the pulse or beat? Can you tap it along with the song? Advanced – what is the time signature?  3/4?  4/4?  7/8?  Does it change during the song?

Tempo: Is it fast or slow? Does the tempo stay consistent throughout the song?

Instrumentation: What different instruments can you hear in the song? Is there a solo part where a particular instrument shines? What instrument is it? Are the sounds you hear real instruments or electronic?

Song structure: Can you tell what parts of the songs you’re hearing?  The intro?  Verse?  Chorus?  Bridge?  Outro?

With active listening – even with pop or rock songs on the radio – musical learners can start to move from just hearing to really listening and identifying what they hear.  So turn up the stereo and engage your ears!