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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

8. Music (1) My love affair with the humblest of instruments

It was during the late 70s / early 80s that I came across the ukulele. I loved it from the start, mainly because it was such an easy instrument to learn – much easier than guitar. (I’d learned to play guitar in the early 70s). The basic requirements are the same: you have to position your fingers to form chords, and strum with a regular rhythm. I taught myself how to play the basic chords in an hour or so. At the time, though, I was playing rhythm guitar in a band, so I put the uke aside – for a decade or more.

I came back to the uke in the late 90s, and - like many people – found it a good instrument to play when composing songs. I began using the uke in song writing workshops with kids and adults. Both seemed to like the instrument. And that got me thinking.

The piano and the keyboard are intimidating instruments. They’re so big, and they demand a lot of you. You need to learn to play with both hands. Guitars are less intimidating, but they still require a lot of effort and commitment to get to the point of playing competently. The thing I like about the ukulele is that it is so UNintimidating.

There’s a lot to be said for the uke:
Firstly, it is portable and easily transportable; the guitar is cumbersome, by comparison.

Secondly, it is a simple instrument to learn. Which is one of the reasons it gets such a bad press, I think. Dr Percy Scholes, the editor of the prestigious Oxford Companion to Music, has no time at all for the uke: he is dismissive, even contemptuous:

About the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century it became very popular in the United States amongst people whose desire to perform was stronger than their willingness to acquire any difficult technique or their desire to make intimate acquaintance with any very elaborate music.

Academics and musicologists may scoff, and choose to see the ukulele as little more than a child’s toy. The ukulele has certainly been linked with gimmickry and ‘novelty songs’. Think George Formby: I’m leaning on the lamppost at the corner of the street in case a certain little lady comes by, and When I’m cleaning windows. Think Tiny Tim. His Tiptoes Through the Tulips may have put the ukulele back on the map, but it also invited a wave of anti-uke snobbery.

Helen Garner wrote about this in her article, Against Embarrassment. She wrote about how she was, for most of her life, ‘a passive consumer’. And she’s not alone. In a few schools – mainly elite private schools and a few fortunate state schools – there are still music programs. But the old requirement of teachers, that they at least learn to play an instrument, and that they use that instrument in their work with children.

Helen speaks of a modest longing in us all – ‘the longing to rejoice, to mourn, or merely to pass the time pleasantly, every once in a while, in song.’

You can spend a few hundred dollars and buy an iPod; it gives you thousands of tracks at the touch of a button. Depending on your tastes, you could become intimately acquainted with very elaborate music – something that Sir Percy obviously regards as important. But your intimate acquaintance would be as a voyeur, a spectator, a ‘passive consumer’.

The ukulele is friendly; it’s a democratic instrument, available to everyone. We could – most of us – learn it, if we wanted to. Helen laments ‘what we’ve lost, in our lifetime, in the second half of the twentieth century … as recorded music took over our world…’ – the capacity to make our own music, to make our own fun.

Spend $25 or so dollars and buy a ukulele. Learn some songs. Practice the different strums. Master the techniques and make intimate acquaintance with enjoyment.

Sir Percy may squirm in his grave when I write this but: where’s the harm in people starting with the ukulele. Who knows, they might move on to other instruments. Where music is concerned, give me active creators any day in preference to passive consumers.

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