SAXTONS RIVER—Beloved regional musician Lisa McCormick recently has added a new role in her efforts to make Southern Vermont a musically brighter place to live: ukulele instructor.
McCormick has spearheaded a ukulele explosion in the Brattleboro area by teaching more than 200 local students to play the instrument and boosting a new community spirit focused around love of making music.
An established singer/songwriter, McCormick plays guitar and banjo as well as the ukulele, and has made five CDs of her original music.
Now McCormick has joined up with a group of ukulele devotees to present the first annual Vermont Ukulele Harvest on Saturday, Oct. 14, at Main Street Arts in Saxtons River.
This debut event has been designed to celebrate what McCormick calls “the ukulele happy-wave sweeping the country,” with performances, instruction, and food. The day includes multiple ukulele workshops, which range from beginner to advanced, jam sessions, vendors, a healthy delicious catered lunch, and open mic performance opportunities, and will conclude with an all-star evening concert.
Presenters and performers are local and nationally renowned ukulele players.
An array of styles
Coming in from California for the occasion, Victoria Vox brings her fresh singer/songwriter music, presented with “an undercurrent of toughness, a beautiful voice, great melodies and loads of charm [that] make her unique folk/pop music impossible to resist,” according to Vintage Guitar magazine.
Vox will perform in the evening concert and teach two ukulele workshops.
Curt Sheller brings a strong jazz guitar background to the ukulele in both his energetic performances and his seasoned teaching. The author of more than 30 music instructional books, Sheller will perform in the evening concert and teach two ukulele workshops.
Vermont’s own Ben Carr is known for his unique approach to the ukulele — using intricate strum patterns, percussive tones, and harmonic textures. Ben fuses traditional techniques and classical styles in the context of modern songwriting and thrives on taking the instrument to places that aren’t commonly explored. Carr will perform in the evening concert and teach two ukulele workshops.
Acclaimed visual artist by day and ukulele player by night, Jane Davies brings a fresh, fun perspective to playing and teaching ukulele skills and concepts to groups and workshops far and wide. Davies will teach a workshop on ukulele strumming techniques.
New to the ukulele stage, area teen Veronica Stevens will make her performance debut, opening the evening’s concert. “Even though still so young, Veronica is a remarkable musician on the ukulele, for which she writes beautiful songs,” McCormick says.
Finally, McCormick herself will present a performance workshop and host an open mic stage where all participants will be encouraged to step forward and display their talents with the ukulele.
McCormick wants people to know that instruction at the Vermont Ukulele Harvest has something for everyone on any skill level.
Workshops include “Intro to Ukulele” taught by Carr; “Who Needs a Drummer?” by Vox; “Learning the Uke Fingerboard” by Sheller; “Open Mic Prep” by McCormick; “Creative Strumming” by Carr; “Intro to Soloing” by Davies; “Becoming a Multi-Tasker” by Vox; and “Building Left Hand Technique” by Sheller.
A new challenge
McCormick became interested in the ukulele because she wanted to explore a new musical venture. A lifelong guitar player, she figured this stringed instrument was well within her comfort zone. Nonetheless, she was surprised at how quickly she learned to play the ukulele.
“Now the ukulele has totally become an integral part of my music making,” she says.
The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small, guitar-like instrument. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the U.S. during the early 20th century and from there spread internationally.
The ukulele became especially popular in the 1920s and 30s, when it was played by such musicians as Ukulele Ike, a big recording artist of his time who made several early sound movies and became the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Later, as part of a nostalgia craze in the late 1960s, the instrument (like raccoon coats and automobile running boards) became symbolic of the Roaring Twenties, such as when camp artist Tiny Tim sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” accompanied by a ukulele.
After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s, when interest in the instrument reappeared. During the 1990s, new manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument.
All-time best selling Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole helped re-popularise the instrument, and McCormick credits the modern resurgence of popularity of the ukulele to Jake Shimabukuro.
“Jake is a young man from Hawaii who has taken the ukulele to a rock level of popularity,” she says. “He is a musical phenomenon who has been called the ‘Hendrix of the ukulele.’”
Ukulele rock star
Wikipedia notes that “the creation of YouTube was a large influence on the popularity of the ukulele. One of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele rendition of George Harrison’s ’While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ on YouTube. As of December 2016, it had received over 15 million views.”
“Shimabukuro has really rejuvenated interest in the ukulele, especially for young people,” McCormick says. “They look up to him as a great role model.”
McCormick believes another reason for young people’s attraction to the ukulele is that the instrument is relatively inexpensive.
“With new manufacturers you can buy a ukulele these days as low as $50,” she says. “And many of these instruments are really quite good. As ukulele becomes more popular, quality comes with the demand. There are crazy-good deals out there for ukuleles.”
For older people, McCormick credits the new popularity of the ukulele in part to the fact that it is so easy to learn.
“Mastering the ukulele is easy and accessible,” she says. “You often hear people over 40 regret that they never learned to play a musical instrument. Even at their age, with the ukulele they really still can.”
Precisely because she realized just how easy an instrument the ukulele is to master, McCormick decided to spread the word and teach some classes.
“I put up a poster around town offering ukulele instruction just to see what would happen,” she confesses. “I expected to see maybe six or seven potential students in my living room. 25 eager people showed up. I suddenly became aware just how popular the ukulele had become. Since then, I kept adding classes on various levels of competency and now I am teaching 200 students.”
McCormick proudly proclaims that southern Vermont has become an incredible area for ukulele playing.
“There is a new sense of commitment, and new friendships are being found as people join and play music together, in classes, in clubs, and in informal ukulele jam session forming around town,” she says.
Vermont Ukulele Harvest is a festival specifically designed for these new, enthusiastic musicians and lovers of this remarkable instrument.