Last year I started learning Hawaiian in an effort to improve my understanding of the music that I love. I found that I wasn’t satisfied with the available tools for typing the ʻokina and kahakōs used in the Hawaiian language.
At first I wrote a little AutoHotKey script to make it easier, and it works, but AutoHotKey is kind of a heavy tool for so simple a use case.
This year I set about writing a simple Windows app that gave the same result: global hotkeys to quickly type ʻokinas and kahakōs. It mean learning some old-school Windows coding around creating hot keys and simulating the keyboard, but the result is a simple .NET 2.0 WinForms app called HawKeys. It works great, and even better, HawKeys is my first app published on the Microsoft Store!
Honestly, when I sat down to write about my history with the ukulele, I wasn’t imaging a series. It’s just that I hate huge blocks of text. I like my stories bite-sized. So if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading Part I and Part II first before continuing on.
Let me set the stage: it’s 2012 (yes, finally, for real this time). Girlfriend Anne and I have moved in together. My ukuleles are in the closet in their cases. We’ve planned a vacation to Hawai’i for the Fall, between our birthdays. Ten nights on Oahu, my first real vacation since college, her first time in the islands.
Right at the beginning of the trip, we go the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. I mean it mostly as an exercise to pick up a few trinkets, and to ground Anne in the “real pricing” of things in Hawai’i, keep us from wasting money in the touristy shops if we doesn’t have to.
While I’m walking around, I see a stand with ukuleles. So I stroll over, curious to see what I remember. I see an uke on display with a sale sign. It’s a slim-body, zebra wood tenor. I pick it up, and it doesn’t sound half-bad. It’s easy to hold, easier even than the more expensive Kala I have back at home in my closet.
I fiddle with it, and it starts coming back to me. The only song I’d really dedicated myself to leaning in college, a finger-picking intro for September in the Rain. I have no references with me but my own memory. So I start picking. I keep making mistakes, but every time I start over I get a little bit farther, and my grin gets a little bit brighter.
I ask Anne if I should get it. We’re living together after all. If me practicing is going to bother her, than I might as well put this back on the rack and keep on walking.
For the millionth time I’m reminded why I love this woman. She tells me to go for it. She’s been listening to me play, and despite all the mistakes and backtracking, despite all the evidence that I have a long way to go, she tells me she’d love to have that atmosphere around that apartment.
So I buy it, even getting a cheaper price and a free tuner because their credit card scanner breaks down during my transaction, and I have to go run to an ATM to get cash.
I take the uke back to the hotel, meaning to take it along with us a we travel around the island. I strum a little in the hotel room, but otherwise the bug is only nibbling. It’s a nervous new energy- am I going to really pick this up again? Am I going to stick with it this time?
During the week I pick up a some books from a local music store, and a bunch of CDs of ukulele music for us to listen to in the rental car. And I plunk around with that intro to September in the Rain during those the slow moments on the beach.
The next weekend we’re back at the Swap Meet. Now that we’ve been around the island a bit, Anne’s ready to buy some gifts and stuff for the apartment. I mention that I’d always wanted a pineapple shaped ukulele, and that if we happen to see one, I might pick one up.
This time I find a different ukulele stall, one with some seriously gorgeous instruments. I can see right away the bump in quality over the stall I visited last time, and the owner confirms it when he starts teaching me how to shop for ukuleles. I find out that the zebra wood I bought a week ago is a laminate, and though it’s still a fine instrument, the wood layers will probably split and make it sound awful in thirty years. But the way I see it, it was the right price, the right sound, and it got me back in the game.
Anyways, as I’m talking to him, I spot a pretty little pineapple uke hanging on his wall, and he lets me take it for a spin.
It’s solid acacia, trimmed in mother of pearl, and has gold tuners. The sound is sweet and mellow, and I know I simply have to have it. After I’ve made my purchase, he takes down a $3000 Kanile’a, and lets me play that for a second. My brain almost melts at how awesome it sounds, even in my beginner hands. Out of my price range, but he gives me a brochure, which I slaver over for the rest of the day.
So fast forward to the final few days of our trip, and so we’re heading up to North Shore to watch the surfers. On the way, I see a sign for an ukulele store, and I convince Anne to pull over for lunch at the taco place next door. Then of course, we pop in to see the ukes.
It’s an ukulele-lover’s dream shop! Walls and walls of beautiful ukes. And ss I get to talking to the guy working the counter, and I see a few HMS logos, I start putting two and two together and see that hey, I’ve stumbled upon the Hawaiian Music Supply’s home store! These are the guys my grandmother bought my first uke from, back when they were selling ukes out of the back of a van.
I try out a bunch of ukes, and Anne just kind of nods and smiles as I regurgitate everything I’ve learned about ukes from reading online on my phone during our downtimes in the hotel. I finally decide I need just one more ukulele, this time a Kala Travel Soprano. I’ve only been gawking at them all week on my phone.
I get the action lowered so I can play it easier, and in a bit of logistics, have them pack and ship me the zebra tenor I bought at the beginning of the week, so Anne and I only have the two smallest ukuleles to get on the plane.
We spend that very afternoon on the beach, watching the surf come in, and now with my two newest ukes, I teach her the beginning of the intro I’ve been practicing all week.
On our way back home we get caught in the whole Alaska Airlines’ network crash, and so we’re stuck in the terminal for hours. But there I am, happy as a flea (on a pile of dogs, you see) strumming away on my new ukuleles.
The bug’s bit me hard this time.
But wait, the story’s just getting started. Do I stick with it post-vacation? Stay tuned and find out!
Update (06-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part IV!
I first picked up an ukulele in the summer of 2002, but in ten years I hadn’t gotten beyond a half-dozen chords and one melody. By the time I’d moved to Washington State, my two ukes had become nothing more than decorations, empty hints that I was a musician (like guys who “accidentally” carry guitar picks in their loose change). If you haven’t yet, go read that story in Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I.
Now, before I pick up my ukulele story in 2012, I first need backtrack a little to 2009, with my brief experience with another, inexpensive, “people’s instrument”. I’m talking about the tin whistle.
See, I like small, portable, entertainment. My favorite board games fit in a jacket pocket. I have packs of playing cards everywhere, in my bags, in drawers, even in my car. Now that I think of it, even back in college, when I was trying to learn the ukulele, I was also tried learning the harmonica. Harmonicas are legendary portable entertainment. The only problems were the breathing and all that tonguing. I could hardly keep my breath just being me, so playing wind instruments was just masochistic. Plus, I was trying to learn ukulele right? The harmonica quickly got lost in a drawer somewhere.
So, now it’s 2009, and I get the itch to learn an instrument again. I look at my ukes, but I think of my wrists, and I start shopping for alternatives. At the same time, I was also on a crazy personal mission to watch everything Star Trek, from beginning to end. Why you ask? Because I’ve been a self-claiming nerd for as long as I can remember, but when I really thought about it, I’d probably only seen a half-dozen episodes of The Next Generation as a child. So I set out to correct that.
Wait, what does this have to do with the tin whistle? Or learning the ukulele? Trekkies know the answer.
It’s one of the highest-rated Star Trek TNG episodes, and my absolute favorite. In it, Captain Picard, by virtue of a memory implant from an alien probe, experiences living an entire lifetime with a now extinct people. Most memorable is the titular song he learns to play on a little whistle. So now, sixty pounds lighter than I’d been in college, and with Captain Picard at my back, the idea of a wind instrument doesn’t terrify me anymore. I knew I’d found my new instrument.
I went online and bought myself a Clarke Tin Whistle, but much more importantly, I picked up The Clarke Tin Whistle Deluxe Edition by Bill Ochs. It was, by far, the best book on picking up a new instrument, any instrument, that I’d ever read. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have a musical background. And though I had a tall stack of ukulele books, most went straight into the grunt-work of learning an instrument, and just weren’t any fun. Frankly, I’d had enough of Mary and her damn little lamb.
But in Bill’s book, within a week, I had a half-dozen songs under my belt. Sure, Mary was in there, but so were others, longer, more interesting songs that sounded pretty even if I didn’t recognize them. Match that with the simplicity of playing the whistle itself, and I was having a blast. Presentation matters, especially for someone like me, with no musical background. And with the tin whistle, I had an extremely portable instrument that was fun to play, and with the book I felt like I was making real progress.
So why am I not writing about rekindling a lost six-hole love? Why did I put down that whistle?
I felt like I should really be playing the uke. I mean I loved ukuleles. My grandmother had bought me one cause I said I was serious about learning it. I’d even bought an expensive one and dragged it around Africa with me. And so after a couple months, as I spent my time elsewhere, the little whistle went into the drawer along with the harmonica.
So why did it take another three years before I picked up the uke? Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III.
Update (02-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part III!
P.S. Though I set aside learning the whistle, I’d learned something else, something far more valuable. I’d learned that learning an instrument didn’t have to be all grunt work up front with all the fun at the end. That there was a logical progression to learning to play that didn’t need Mary and one chord over and over for hours. And in any area of study, it’s a powerful thing when you learn not just what you aim to learn, but the overall structure and progression for learning things of that category.
It just takes a good teacher. I learned my first programming language at age 8, but without any structure, any wisdom. I hadn’t internalized what it meant to program. It was through my high school computer science teacher that I got a grasp of how to learn a computer language. What to expect. What I needed to know to be able to use that language to solve the problems before me. That skill, learning how to learn a programming language, later became a cornerstone of my career as a software tester.
It’s the same thing with natural languages. When I learned French in high school, I didn’t really remember a thing later. Like most Americans, I had a scatter-shot of language education, especially grammar. Not that important if you’re a native speaker, as long as you’re surrounded by people who speak correctly, you’ll pick it up naturally. But for a foreign language, especially in my case, where immersion wasn’t possible or even encouraged, I was just parroting most of the time. I had no roadmap for turning my thoughts into words. But in college, I learned how to break a language down, to know what things I needed to learn, so that I could function in an immersive environment. By the time I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I was driving my teacher crazy because I kept wanting to jump ahead of my classmates. I could see the bigger picture, and so knew ahead what I types of things I was going to need to know. But after ten weeks of training, when I was thrown in the deep end of completely on-my-own immersion, and I swam just fine.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but I ended up teaching computer science in Swahili. No way would I have been able to do that, if I didn’t understand how to learn programming, and how to learn a natural language. And computer science is hard enough to teach in your own language!
I first picked up an ukulele in the summer before college- a little late you might say, considering I’d spent my childhood immersed in native Hawaiian culture.
I was surrounded by all the right an ingredients: Hawaiian music and instruments about the house, my mother who not only taught hula, but also choreographed new dances and put on performances, with all of the endless dedication and practice that that lifestyle requires.
Still, I was never forced (like many children) to learn a musical instrument. The most I’d ever done is dink around with a Casio keyboard, learning Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. Other then that, I couldn’t read sheet music, didn’t know a thing about music theory, never showed more than a passing interest in any school musical programs.
Fast forward to 2002, when on a family vacation to Hawaii, I began fooling around with a cheap toy ukulele I’d got at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. My grandmother asked me if I was serious about the instrument, and that if I was, she’d get me a “real one.”
I said I was serious, so she bought me a little soprano Lanikai. We got it from the Hawaiian Music Supply, back when they were selling ukes out of a van, before they became the ukulele powerhouse that they are today.
I spent as much time as I could on that instrument, and while in college I even joined Berkeley’s Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band for a time. Had a lot of fun, but it was hard to make progress: I couldn’t practice too much in the dorms, and the band’s “practices” often had 40+ participants, and was really aimed at members who could already play so they could practice the band’s set list.
The best sessions were the after-practice jams at Mike Dailva‘s workshop, who since then has been growing in recognition as a master ukulele luthier.
But I struggled a lot with the size of that soprano Lanikai; I could never keep the thing from falling over, and as this was around the time I started having RSI problems with my wrists and fingers, clutching it upright only made it harder to stay motivated and keep playing.
Thankfully by the time I’d left for the Peace Corps in 2006, I’d found part of my salvation in the larger, tenor-sized ukuleles. My grandmother had loaned me an antique Suzuki ukulele, and through it was easier to hold, it hadn’t aged well in appearance or sound quality.
So when I went back to Hawaii after graduation, I picked up a brand new tenor from Kala.
It was easier to hold than the Lanikai, easier to play, and sounded great! Problem was, I still didn’t have any real guidance on how to get any better. I took the Kala with me to Tanzania (logically I’d take my newest, largest, most expensive instrument abroad), and while it served as a great reminder of home during training, by the time I’d be assigned to Zanzibar, the uke spent more time in the case than out.
I came back from Africa no better at playing- my ukes had become decorations, ones I proudly displayed, even if I couldn’t do much with them. I brought them with me when I moved up to Washington in 2008, and I left the tenor out on guitar stand, even though the stand was too big and the uke was always at risk of toppling over.
I hardly touched them, and it wasn’t until four years later that ukulele bug bit me again, and hard. Stay tuned for that story next time.
Update (29-MAR-2013): Continue reading with Part II!
By association with nature’s enormities, a man’s heart may truly grow big also. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living
I grew up immersed in the culture of Hawaiʻi. My family is Native Hawaiian on my mother’s side; my recently passed grandmother was 75% Hawaiian, which makes my mother, siblings, and myself all hapa haole. My mother grew up in Oʻahu before the family uprooted for the mainland; there they quickly built ties with the local Polynesian community. She started dancing hula as a little girl, and grew up to teach hula as a kumu hula for many different hālaus.
I myself have never lived in Hawaiʻi, though I’ve gone to Oʻahu on many extended vacations. The longest of which was three weeks back in 2000: two with family, and a third spent camping at Camp Pupukea. There I focused on learning traditional Hawaiian skills (as opposed to the regular Scout stuff) and earned the Hawaiiana Award. That’s probably the closet thing to work I’ve done in the islands, and trust me, once your feet touch sand, work is the last thing on your mind.
Most trips I’ve gone with family, and the trips have ranged in activity from an elaborate multi-family reunion (all housed in a multi-million dollar mansion), to spending a week in a three-room concrete condo barbecuing and flying a kite on the beach. But whatever the action, there’s no such thing as a bad trip to the islands.
There’s something ethereal about Hawaiʻi, a slight hum and a heartbeat I can’t explain, something that hits me in the chest the moment I land and whose throb beckons me back as soon as I leave. I feel at home with the sun, sea, salt and surf- a unique connection with the land that I don’t feel any where else. When you’re in Hawaiʻi, it’s what defines you; your cares, every measure by which you evaluate your life, simply melts away. So though I say my soul was forged in the redwood forest, my heart was definitely cast in Hawaiian islands.