Friday, March 28, 2014

Alameda Asian Pacific Islanders Cultural Festival 2013

Bay Farm ‘Ukulele’s first performance in the Alameda community!  We were fortunate to be invited to play at this festival which celebrates Asian and Pacific Islanders heritage.  Our group has only been together for 8 months and these 6th-graders performed 4 songs with 4 different strums.  That is quite a feat given we only have 30 minutes once a week for class.

We were also blessed to have fabulous hula dancers from Island Dance, Jo Corpuz’s group.  These talented girls (youngest is in kindergarten) usually only have time to learn one dance during their semester together.  Instead, they learned three dances, all of which were choreographed by Ms. Corpuz.  

Wonderful music, beautiful dancing--pure aloha!

Music Camp 2013: The Periods of Music History

“I thought music camp was fun and I learned a lot.”  
                                                   - Amelia, age 10

I hosted a week-long music camp this summer for the very first time.  We learned about the different periods of music history, the evolution of the piano, and composers from each period.  I had no idea how much work was involved, nor how much fun we would all have during the week.  

“My favorite part of music camp was making the book.”   
                                                    - Tenzin, age 7

The students made their own music history books, which included information about each period of music history and one composer from each period.  (Note to die-hard music history buffs:  This camp was for 7-12 year olds and we only had 5 days to explore all of music history.  Thus, we were only able to gloss over parts of music history.)

The students worked hard every day making their books.

“I enjoyed learning about music history.  I learned about the styles of music that were popular at different times and about famous composers.”                    -Aoife, age 12

We played many games, such as charades,... for notes,...

...and guessing the musical period.  I created several Youtube playlists to test whether the students could tell the difference between the music of each period.  This is the playlist we used on Day 2 (Baroque or Classical?).

All the students wanted to show off their piano skills, 
so we had several recitals.

“Music camp is fun because we got to learn about musicians that lived in the past.”  - Misha, age 7

We learned about the evolution of the piano, from the harpsichord to the present-day piano.  On the last day of camp, I took the cover of my grand piano and students saw how the pedals and action of the piano worked.  There were joyful exclamations and delighted smiles.  We also made origami pianos.

When we studied the Modern Period of music, each camper made their own “Jackson Pollack” paintings and glued it in their music history books. 

“Music camp was fun because of all the outside activities 
and all of camp.”  - Jared, age 7

Thank you to all of my music campers!  You made my week especially fun, thought-provoking, and musically enriching.  I also want to thank all the parents who took a chance and sent your children to my camp.

This camp was successful because I had help from several people. 

A big thank you to...
Bonnie Nelson-Duffey for sharing your expertise in teaching music to children.
Giovanni Rome for your creative ideas with the music history books and crafts.
  1. -Jeff Petersen for your continual support as I turn my passion for teaching music into a reality.

Fiddle Festival

I made my first trip to Weiser, Idaho to attend the National Oldtime Fiddler’s Contest and Festival.  

Purpose:  To enjoy fiddle music while celebrating my parents-in-law’s 60th wedding anniversary.
Result:  Wonderful music and great fun for the whole family.

What I love most about this festival is how much music-making happens across all ages.  The youngest fiddler to compete this year was 4 years old.  The oldest was 91 years old:  a woman named Betty Hopper.

Here’s Betty performing at the festival on the night of my parents-in-law’s anniversary.

A big thank you goes out to my friend Colt Tipton for connecting me with Gary Schuh.  Gary arranged it so that during one of the fiddle competitions, the announcer recognized my parents-in-law and wished them a happy anniversary.  They were thrilled with the announcement and enjoyed that night’s fiddling talent on stage.  By the way, Gary competed this year and won 4th place in his division.  Congrats and many thanks, Gary!

There were so many events happening at the same time throughout Weiser during the festival.  The Squeaky Strings(pictured above) played many tunes at Memorial Park.  I was blown away by the number of tunes they had memorized.  The Squeaky Strings is an after school program based in Weiser.  My kids were mesmerized by their performance and insisted we stay until they were finished.

Tenzin was so inspired by the day’s many fiddle performances that she created one out of my ukulele and a pencil.  She also composed a piece called “Fiddle Waltz.”

On Saturday, we watched the parade in Weiser.

We sat across from Weiser Classic Candy, a shop that produces sweets like no other.  Well, almost like no other...Tucker’s is hard to match.

Of course, we had to make sure the sweets at Weiser Classic Candy really were that good.  

Back at the is the 25th Army Band.  They later performed a number of tunes at Bluegrass Village.  I especially enjoyed their saxophone sextet arrangement of Macklemore’sThrift Shop.  

We saw many beauty queens, including Miss Western Idaho.

A queen on a horse:  
Payette Valley Riders Junior Queen.

As we drove away, I breathed in the beauty of the brilliant, expansive landscape.  
Thank you, Idaho, for a truly unique experience!

Tango Concert with Orquesta Z

I played my first tango concert with Orquesta Z, a talented group of musicians led by bandoneonist and singer Bendrew Jong.  I first fell in love with tango music while living in Honolulu.  I remember soaking in the sweet, sorrowful melodies at milongas (“parties” where people danced tango) while watching the dancers move gracefully around the room. 

The scene at the Garden Gate Creativity Center where we performed was no different.  Dancers stepped and glided to the rich tones of the bandoneon, violin, double bass, piano, and vocals.

One month earlier, I had heard that Orquesta Z was looking for a pianist to fill in for this performance.  I jumped at the opportunity, having always dreamed of playing with a live tango orchestra.  It was a true test of my sight-reading skills, since I only had 30 days to learn 30 pieces. 

I feel so fortunate to have played such lively, demanding, and original music with a friendly and skilled group of musicians.  Bendrew, the leader of this group, even wrote some of the music we played.  He taught himself to play the bandoneon, the traditional tango instrument which is related the accordion.  Sandy Schiewind played a steady double bass, guiding me along when I needed it.  Jim Schallenberger, a seasoned violinist, gave me wonderful tips in the short time we worked together.  Jim is one of the founding members of the Kronos Quartet, an internationally-renowned string quartet.  Resh Ortega’s lush vocals and vibrant bandoneon-playing still ring in my mind.  Sadly, Resh died in a car accident a month after this concert.  We lost a truly talented musical soul.

Mr. Taiwan 'Ukulele

“You really need to meet David Chen,” said Kimo Hussey enthusiastically.  Kimo Hussey is a master ‘ukulele player and had just given a thrilling workshop in Foster City, California on methods for teaching ‘ukulele.  I took his advice.

Five months and 6,400 miles later, I met David Chen.

One of the delights of having family in Taiwan is that I get to visit them every year.  David also lived in Taiwan, so I took this chance to connect with him.  

On the day of our meeting, my mother traversed the busy Taiwanese roads for 2 hours to bring me to David’s studio in Hsingzhu.  David was a soft-spoken, warm-hearted man with an interesting history.  

His ‘ukulele story began 5 years ago.  He was an engineer by day and guitarist by night.  His passion for music ran so deep that he never gave up performing, even as he made his way through school and during his long hours at work.  

One of David’s friends saw his love for music and persuaded him to bring his music to the children at a local hospital.  David agreed, but realized that it would be too difficult to teach children to play the guitar.  He decided that the ‘ukulele would be an easier instrument, and thus began his new-found passion.  Suddenly, doors flung open for David.  Soon after teaching at the hospital, he began taking on students--children and adults.  There were many who wanted to have fun on this instrument, and David’s affability made him a popular teacher. 

In a short time, David had a regular following.

And then...

A friend in the publishing business asked him to write an ‘ukulele instruction book.  David had only played the ‘ukulele for a few years, but he decided to take on the task.  He created a variety of strums, found a good amount of repertoire, and soon produced his very first book.  From what I gathered, this is one of the first ‘ukulele books to be published in Taiwan.  In fact, I had purchased it last year during my trip to Taiwan, as did one of my cousins.

Today, David hosts the annual Taiwanese ‘Ukulele Festival, which continues to grow and grow.  He trains teachers to teach at his music studio, since he is often busy traveling internationally to teach and soak in more ‘ukulele.

David is about to write a second instruction book and has a contract to translate an English ‘ukulele book into Chinese.  The possibilities are endless.

I enjoyed our meeting immensely and am thrilled to have connected with a kindred spirit.  Thank you, David, for spending so much time sharing and listening.

Special thanks to my mother, who drove 4 hours that day, much of it in torrential rain and in the dark. 

Wine Country 'Ukulele Festival (September 2013)

My ‘ukulele students performed at the Kids’ Day festivities at the Wine Country ‘Ukulele Festival in St. Helena.  Heidi Swedberg kindly invited us on stage to play a song with her.  Then Bay Farm ‘Ukulele, 7th-graders from Bay Farm Elementary & Middle School, entertained the attentive audience with a set of songs.  We first sang and strummed the Bay Farm School Song, with lyrics by Bonnie Nelson Duffey, talented music teacher at Bay Farm.  Next, came our signature song, John Cruz’s “Island Style,” since we hail from the island of Alameda.  With “Pearly Shells,” our precious hula dancer expressed the words with her hands, as pictured above. We ended our set with Queen Lili’uokalani’s “Aloha ‘Oe” to bid everyone farewell.  For pictures of our performance, go to my Facebook page.  

After that, my student Max and his mother Elisa happily played two duets, “Carnival of Venice” and “Oh, Suzanna.”  

I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Arimoto and his wife Petrice Oyama.  Jason is an accomplished ‘ukulele player, creator of PhD ‘ukulele strings, and heads up ‘Ukulele Creations, a comprehensive music program based in southern California that he developed with Daniel Ho.  

I participated in the ‘Ukulele Teacher Forum at the festival where we shared ideas on teaching ‘ukulele and resources to support our teaching.  I was pleased to have met Mike DaSilva, skilled luthier and ‘ukulele teacher.  Mike shared with me some tips on purchasing strings in bulk for my classroom ‘ukuleles.

I also taught a beginner’s ‘ukulele class to 10 people.  Originally, this was a kids’ beginning ‘ukulele class, but since half the students were eager adults, I modified my class a bit to include them. 

I am grateful for Elaine de Man for organizing this big event. Thank you, Elaine, for inviting my students to be a part of this festival.  Thank you also to Teri Hawkins, who organized the Kids’ Day events and is also a talented teacher who has shared with me much of her ‘ukulele wisdom.

Overall, the Wine Country ‘Ukulele Festival was a pleasant, energizing event.  I hope we can go again next year!

Slack-Key, Chocolate, and 'Ukulele

My trip to Maui began as a vacation.  My niece from Oregon wanted to get married on the Garden Island and asked if I could could attend both as a family member and as the wedding officiant.  How could I refuse?

As the trip approached, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to connect with an ‘ukulele instructor on the island.  I have always wanted to learn more about ‘ukulele instruction in Hawai’i.

I had recently reconnected Dr. Steve Sano, a former music professor of mine from Stanford University.  Besides being a world-class choral conductor, Chair of the Stanford music department, and one of the nicest people you will ever meet,  Steve is an incredibly talented slack-key guitarist (listen to his beautiful music), and he has ties to Hawai’i. 

Steve connected me with Tony and Val, owners of Maui Specialty Chocolates in Kahului, Maui.  Yes, the idea was to help me find an ‘ukulele instructor on the island.  But in doing so, I discovered mouth-watering, delectable chocolate.  After landing in Kahului and securing a rental car, I found Tony’s shop quite easily.  It was off the beaten path next to a gymnastics studio.  As soon as I walked in, Tony greeted me and kindly offered to let me taste some of his chocolates.  As soon as I bit into a Kona coffee chocolate, my mouth was filled with a sweet and fragrant happiness.  It has the perfect balance between coffee and chocolate, and as I sit here typing at home, I regret having not purchased more when I was there.

Steve’s favorite item in that store is the peanut-butter chocolate mochi.  When I tried it, I understood why.  I grew up eating mochi of many varieties.  The usual flavors are red bean, mung bean, black sesame, and peanut.  The peanut-butter chocolate mochi was something else.  Like the Kona coffee chocolate, the flavor had a nice balance.  I usually find peanut-butter cups a bit too strong and a bit too sweet, so the addition of mochi made this the perfect not-too-sweet dessert.  

I could go on and on about the chocolates I tasted that day (try the Rocky Road, too!) but I have side-tracked from my main point.

I am so thankful that Steve Sano connected me with Tony of Maui Specialty Chocolates, because Tony then graciously connected me with Benny Uyetake, ‘ukulele teacher at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao, just 20 minutes from the chocolate shop.  I had a tremendously uplifting time at Benny’s classes and want to thank Steve and Tony for making it all possible! To read about my wonderful experience with Benny, go to my previous blog. 

3 Ways to Play: Practice, Courage and Imagination

I had a revelation this morning during my weekly rock-climbing session. As I gripped the holds with my chalky hands and pulled my body up the wall, I had this thought: 

    This is just like playing an instrument.  

I started rock climbing a year ago and had no idea that I would enjoy it so much. Having played the piano for over 30 years, I know the in’s and out’s of this mighty instrument. I also know that it takes a lot of mental focus, practice, persistence, and courage to play the piano. That goes for any instrument and all art forms.  The more you practice your craft with mental focus and proper technique, the better you get. Practice is simply repeating a task over and over again so that your muscles remember that action.

As the daughter of busy Asian immigrant parents, I had little exposure to sports. In a stroke of luck, I joined the cross country team during high school, but mainly because I didn’t have any hand-eye coordination skills. Basketball and volleyball were out. I could run straight ahead and up hills, but I could not catch a ball to save my life.

Fast forward several decades, and here I am scaling walls in a gym in downtown Oakland. I realized today that rock-climbing and music converged in 3 areas. In order to become good at either, I needed practice, courage, and imagination.

All sports coaches and music teachers will tell you the same thing:  It doesn’t matter how talented you are or if you are born with some remarkable genius trait that allows you to throw a football an incredible distance or play arpeggios like a speed demon. In order to excel, you must practice.

I spent the last year practicing rock-climbing.  But this past summer, I went on several trips and stopped climbing for about a month. When I got back, it felt just like the time I lived without a piano. My fingers ached, my body felt weak. After a few months of consistent practice, however, I felt my technique come back. I could grip the holds longer and subtly shift my weight with finesse.

It goes without saying that climbing a wall, especially one that is 48 feet high, can be a bit scary. This is where I believe climbing and playing the piano really intersect:  they both tap into two primal fears. For climbing, the fear of falling overtakes me from time to time, especially as I ascend to greater heights with sweaty palms and awkward positions.  Even though I am strapped in with a harness for many of these climbs, the thought of falling can produce instant fear.

The primal fear that comes from playing an instrument manifests itself during performance. I believe that we, at our very core, are all social beings.  Our survival depends on the support and acceptance of others, even if some of us choose to live hermitic lives once we enter adulthood. Our desire for community stems from our heritage, which is why performing music in front of others can conjure up a sense of dread that is so pervasive.  This is why most people’s fear of public speaking is greater than their fear of death.  Now that’s an apt comparison--would you rather make a speech or fall to your death?

In facing my fears on a weekly basis at the climbing gym, I get a rush of adrenaline and a sense of pride when I reach the top of a difficult climb.  Likewise, I still feel a rush of anxiety every time I perform music in front of others.  That primal fear is ever-present, even if my fingers don’t shake.  And when I complete a performance, I am overcome with confidence and a sense of relief.  Perhaps that is why I do it again and again.

I have often believed that what separates sports from art is that art allows for personal expression and creativity, whereas sports is simply a set of actions that usually requires physical strength and skill. But I’m starting to realize that it’s more complicated than that.  

Climbing a wall is like a puzzle. There are specific ways to do it, but with imagination, the possibilities are stretched.  Likewise, there are many nuances with playing an instrument.  No one person will ever play a piece exactly like someone else. The most gifted players are the ones who create a sound that is their own.  

I now believe that sports and art are actually more similar than different. To play sports well, one must be mentally focused, well-practiced, courageous, physically fit, imaginative, and even graceful. The same can be said for playing an instrument.  Being in top physical shape is not a requirement for playing an instrument well, but it can certainly help.

Lessons From Benny

The highlight of my trip to Maui was meeting Benny Uyetake, an award-winning musician and ‘ukulele teacher at Kalama Intermediate School in Makawao.  Last year, Benny won a Nā Hōkū Award, the highest honor in Hawaiian music.  Some call it the Hawaiian Grammy because it is so prestigious.  Benny also won the Makawao Community Member of the Year Award.  2013 was quite a year for him!

Through several connections (see Slack-Key & Chocolate), I contacted Benny while I was still on the mainland and he kindly invited me to observe his 6th-grade classes.

On a beautiful Thursday morning in Maui, Benny welcomed me to his classroom, which was covered with chord charts and tablature to songs and chord progressions.  His lively spirit infused the class with energy as they warmed up on chord progressions.  This quickly led into an instrumental ensemble of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Uku Boogie.”  The students were entranced.  Next, they delved into learning “Hawaii Five-O,” a difficult arrangement filled with chords interwoven with plucked melodies.

During my day in Benny’s classes, I learned so much more than I had anticipated.  My mentor, Kimo Hussey, emphasizes the importance of having fun and reminds me to infuse fun into my teaching.  Until that day in Benny’s class, I didn’t know that there were that many ways to bring fun into learning the ‘ukulele. 

Here are five things I learned from Benny:

  1. 1)Performing is Key:  Benny motivates his students by giving them myriad performance opportunities.  He says he schedules a performance the second week of school to push his students to learn the repertoire, and, I suspect, to give them a taste of performing.  It’s wonderfully thrilling to perform, especially with one’s peers.  His students often perform twice a month, and thus they are motivated to practice.

  1. 2)Keep a Routine:  Every one of Benny’s classes has a routine, which gives structure to the class.  His 6th grade classes begin each class the same way:  with chord progression warm-ups and reviewing notes on the fretboard.  Then, the class plays familiar songs for a good while.  After that, they learn the new song, which can be followed by a break.  Lastly, class ends with one or more familiar songs, leaving the students on a high note.

  1. 3)The Fun is in the Songs:  Benny’s song selection includes familiar and popular tunes, a big contrast to my own selection which is often heavy in the classics and older tunes.  I grew up playing classical piano, so it was wonderful to see how much technique can be covered with popular tunes.  Benny’s classes made a CD last year, and here are some of my favorites:
            - Dueling Ukes
            - Tequila Aloha!
            - La Bamba

  1. 4)Give them a Break:  Benny gives his students a 5-minute break during class, which seems to allow students to rest a bit, practice on their own, and regroup.  He is able to sense when they need this time and it seems to make the time he spends teaching even more valuable to the students.  I’ll definitely be inserting breaks into my classes.

  1. 5) Play it FAST!:  The desire of many (if not all) students I have encountered is to play their pieces very, very fast.  As a classically-trained teacher, I insist my students slow down and listen to the metronome.  While there is definitely merit in breaking things down and working on notes for precision, there is something to be said about letting things kids simply jump off the deep end and playing their songs fast.  It’s an indulgence and a thrilling ride, which can push students to practice harder.  Benny says he likes to have his students play fast because it’s fun, they like it, and it sounds great.  If you listen to his recordings, they are all played in a steady tempo, so the fast-playing doesn’t seem to hinder the music.  I am certainly giving this one a try.

I feel so thankful to have had this opportunity to meet Benny and watch him teach.  Mahalo nui loa, Benny!  You are a gift to your students, to Kalama Intermediate School, and to everyone around you.  

If you want to learn more about Benny, check out his website: