Whether you just started ukulele lessons or you’ve been playing for years, there are a number of benefits that result from learning to play an instrument. From social perks to health benefits, it’s important to learn about your instrument and craft. Here, writer, speaker, and host Don Smith shares interviews with ukulele players on the big power of a small instrument and why you should learn to play ukulele…
Gone are the days when the ukulele was just an instrument for comical value. It was common to think of the ukulele as an instrument only played by men in flamboyantly printed shirts in a tropical setting.
Cristine DeLeon, a New Jersey based singer/songwriter, has seen an increase in the use of the ukulele.
“It really is a fun instrument to play,” she says. “My husband got me one about four years ago, when I said I was interested in learning to play.”
And what she has seen is the level of sophistication that musicians have brought to the ukulele. In fact, it can be compared to other trends in the artisan communities, where very basic items are refined into more complex works of creation.
Take macaroni-and-cheese, for example. One blogger writes, “it’s time to ditch the almost-instant stuff (complete with day-glow cheese) for a more sophisticated version.” It’s not uncommon to see higher-end restaurants with mac-and-cheese made with noodles made on premises with more exotic cheeses and other ingredients such as bacon and parsley.
Another example is the adult coloring book renaissance. In a recent article in The Guardian it states that “coloring has been said to be able to help [adults] achieve mindfulness, banish anxiety, and even deal with trauma.”
With that spirit, the last few years have seen a renaissance in the ukulele, and DeLeon is thrilled.
“There are performers like Victoria Vox and Lil Rev who are two of my favorite ukulele performers,” DeLeon says. Both of these performers are serious ukulele players who have made it their life’s work. ”
Another inspiration is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain,” DeLeon says. “They are fantastic!” The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain formed in 1985 “as a bit of fun,” and since, has inspired other ukulele groups all over the world.
DeLeon took a different direction with her ukulele group. She and fellow musician Jeff Rantzer started a duo called BrassFedora and perform the music of Tin Pan Alley (i.e. “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” and “My Blue Heaven”) and are able to capitalize on the trend.
“For most people, the ukulele is easier to learn,” she says. “Whereas the guitar has six strings, the ukulele has four.” She also feels that the nylon strings of the ukulele are easier on the fingers compared to the steel strings of the guitar. “It can take a while to develop the callouses on the fingers to play the steel string,” she says. “The ukulele is easier on the fingers.”
While it takes several piano lessons before a player can play the most basic songs, the ukulele is quick to learn and quick to play. “When playing it [ukulele], there’s an instant gratification,” she says.
These days, many people learn to play ukulele by watching YouTube. Back in the day, however, musicians learned from books. Justin A. Martell, Tiny Tim’s manager, said Tim learned to play from a book.
“[Tiny Tim] got a book called You Can Play the Ukulele by Don Ball,” Martell says.
Tiny Tim was born Herbert Khaury and made the song “Tiptoe from the Tulips” famous in the ’60s. He’s probably one of the most famous ukulele players who ever lived. Sadly, Tim passed away in 1996 from a heart attack.
Martell has been able to share details about Tim’s life; according to Martell, Tim found it easier to get into the ukulele because he played guitar beforehand.
Martell says that when Tim would audition for shows, he would use the ukulele because it was easier to carry. Martell says that if the performer failed the audition, it wouldn’t be awkward to ask for the sheet music back from the pianist. “[Should] I never make it, I wouldn’t have to hang my head in shame and ask for my sheet music back, I could get right out’,” Martell says, quoting Tiny Tim.
Besides helping Tiny Tim save face, the ukulele has another benefit: health!
In Hawaii, the Roy Sakuma Studio offers a program called “Hands on Healing” which is free of charge for cancer survivors. According to the website, “[The studio] provides an environment where those facing cancer may explore and discover their creative resources to promote physical, mental, and spiritual healing.”
The program helps cancer patients “discover new personal expression in a non-medical setting. It’s a great way to quiet your mind while keeping your hands busy.”
One blogger who suffered from breast cancer, says the program helped her “forget about cancer for a little while.”
“The physical and mental scars are a daily reminder of what we’ve been through,” says cancer survivor Lori Nakamura. “But the [ukulele] program lets me focus on learning new songs, and I know the process is helping with my memory.”
“I’m not surprised to hear stories like this,” DeLeon says. “The ukulele is such a fun instrument and learning a musical instrument helps in all kinds of areas.”
In an article on Effective Music Teaching, some benefits to learning an instrument include better memory, improved coordination, better concentration, stress relief, a sense of achievement, and happiness.
“I have played the guitar for years,” says DeLeon, “and now learning the ukulele has just made my life so much richer.”
With resurgence and health benefits, there will always be the element of fun in the world of the ukulele. Going back to Tiny Tim, Martell wanted to make sure that Tim’s legacy and his place in the world of the ukulele were understood.
“I think he definitely would have liked [the resurgence],” said Martell. “Unfortunately, I think many of those involved in the resurgence – neo-ukers I call them – scoff at Tiny Tim. They overlook the fact, though, that Tiny saved the ukulele from extinction in the ’60s.”
Martell adds, “If people perceive Tiny as a joke, that’s their problem, not his. He was very serious about his craft.”
While Tiny Tim was serious, DeLeon says there will always be a place of whimsy in the ukulele culture. When asked if she believes there will still be a place for the ukulele players with the flower print shirts, she laughed.
“Of course,” says DeLeon. “There will always be a place for fun in the world of the ukulele.”
For a primer on how to play the ukulele, check out at a video of Christine DeLeon (produced in coordination with this article) explaining the basics on how to play the ukulele.
Ready to reap the benefits of playing ukulele? Find a ukulele teacher near you!
Photo by Donald Judge