Interview: Marianne Brogan
Marianne Brogan, founder of the Portland Ukulele Festival, talks to Ukulele Yes! Editor James Hill about how a joke turned into a full-time passion.
James Hill: You're a student, a teacher and an organizer. Let's start at the beginning. When did you become a student of ukulele and why?
Marianne Brogan: Well, many years ago I was taking a year-long leadership course and, as part of the course, I needed to design a project around community and fun. My partner Ann and I ran into a mutual friend, Tom Hood who was up from Santa Cruz, at a coffee shop one morning when I was trying to figure out what to do. To this day I don't know how we got on the subject of ukuleles. The Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz had not started yet – I do believe we started at virtually the same time – but somehow we got on the subject. Tom said he was playing the ukulele and we just started laughing about how fun it would be to start a ukulele band and what the uniforms would look like... we were just laughing really hard about what this would sound like and look like. And I thought, "well, OK, there's my project."
So I ran around and talked to all my friends at work and asked them if they wanted to join a ukulele band. I went out and found a teacher and she came to my house every two weeks and I got fourteen people from work to come and we bought a bunch of $30 ukuleles and started learning how to play. One of my oldest friends said she was completely tone-deaf and had never done anything musical and I said, "perfect! We're all going to be startin' from square one!" The more shy people were about doing it the more I tried to encourage them. We got a big group together and we met every two weeks for well over a year at my house. Our first song was "Bad Moon Rising" which sounded so horrible that we were just laughing – falling on the floor laughing – it sounded so horrible!
JH: At what point did you decide that it wasn't a joke any more?
MB: Well, I knew that I was going to want to keep on playing. I had been trying to play guitar my whole life and music was something really important to me. As soon as I started to learn how to play ukulele, I realized that I could play it. And that opened up a vista for me. So I knew I was going to want to keep playing and that this small group at my house was probably not going to continue over the long term.
I went up to the local music store and asked them about using their resources to start a group and maybe meet at the store. They were going to have Jim Beloff come and teach some workshops; this was the time when Jim Beloff was starting to take off. So I used the Beloff visit to Artichoke Music as a sort-of "jump off spot." I put it out there to everyone who showed up for the workshop that we were going to start a monthly uke group. And we started meeting at the store and in the beginning there were about 10 people and pretty soon after there were about 15 people.
I was just smitten with the instrument so I started going around to all the festivals that I could find. Anywhere where there was instruction going on I was just hitting them all so I could try to learn as much as I could learn. Because now I had the responsibility of running this group. When I started it I saw it as a "song circle" where people could come and contribute. But it just didn't work out that way. It turned out that I was the one bringing songs and leading the group.
JH: Given your experience with the Portland Ukulele Association, what would you say is the biggest challenge you face when you're teaching adult students?
MB: Well, there's a large variability in musical background. And from the beginning, I felt like anyone – regardless of their background – would benefit from having music in their lives and that this instrument made it possible. That's always been my driving vision and I've always made sure that at the Portland Ukulele Association we play lots of easy songs and that new members always feel welcome. But in any group of adults I might get a range of players from someone who's played guitar all their life to people of retirement age who have never played an instrument in their lives and don't have any sort of music background.
JH: So how do you manage that?
MB: Every month I teach an "Introduction to Ukulele" class and then I follow it up with a beginner's jam. In the 45-minute introductory class I teach people the C scale and the C, F, and G7 chords. In the beginner's jam we play songs with two and three chords and each month I'll stick to one key so that they're playing the same two or three chords over and over again.
JH: Is everyone present for the "Introduction to Ukulele" class, even the people with more musical experience?
MB: Yes. They get a little lecture on how to hold the instrument and where the frets are, how you relate to the notes getting higher as you move up the fretboard, the C scale, three chords and a couple of songs. I try to keep them playing all the time.
I mean, I've been a student of yours for... how many years now? I've watched you teach beginners a lot and I've taken most of that to heart and I've been to the Langley Ukulele Workshop every year since I met you. When I went up to Langley and actually got taught by teachers I just went "Oh, my God! Now we're talkin'!" (laughs). That gave me a framework and I've really stuck to that framework and tried as hard as I can to follow it.
JH: What about young students? What's the biggest challenge you face when you're teaching them?
MB: With the kids it's more important for me, personally, to give them some music education. With adults it might be that they just want to learn to strum some chords and sing.
JH: What do you mean when you say "a music education"?
MB: I mean giving them some principles of music. I try to touch on all the things that are important: rhythm, note-reading, harmonizing, singing. I try to do that in every lesson.
JH: Let's talk about the Portland Ukulele Festival. It was your brainchild and it has quickly become one of the most highly regarded ukulele festivals in the world. How did it start?
MB: You know, I was going around to all the ukulele festivals – Santa Cruz, Midwest Uke Fest, Langley – but the model for the Portland Ukulele Festival was really the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop which is a week-long music camp. Things I borrowed from the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop included having the teachers talking about what they were going to teach and having some description of the skill level the class was aimed at so that someone might be able to pick a couple of workshops that would be fun and easy for them to do and a couple of workshops that would challenge them and help them grow musically.
I had been to lots of different festivals where you do one day of workshops and go to a concert and then it's all over. And that was a lot of fun but I really wanted to do something that would be more like a week-long music camp so that you could really spend 3-5 days learning with one teacher in some particular skill area that you wanted to make some progress in.
JH: What's next for you?
MB: Well, I would very much like to take a year off and become a student. Because I teach so many beginners it's become increasingly difficult for me to find a teacher and to progress in my own playing, which I want to do. When John King died I decided I was going to learn to play the Prelude to the first Bach cello suite in tribute to him. I work on it every day for probably 20-30 minutes and have been for months. It's taught me a lot.
This has always been a challenge for me. I want to progress as a musician myself but I keep myself so busy with the Portland Ukulele Association, private students, classes and setting up workshops for travelling ukulele artists that I just find it very very hard to make time for my own skills.
JH: Do you have any advice for beginning ukulele teachers?
MB: I would absolutely send them to the Ukulele in the Classroom website! The only method that I find is comprehensive and effective is the model that's come out of Canada, the Chalmers Doane method, which has been carried on, primarily, in Langley, B.C. with Peter Luongo and through your new books. If someone wanted to start teaching children I would definitely encourage them to buy the Ukulele in the Classroom materials and start going that way so that children are getting a music foundation. When I was up in Langley sitting in those classrooms one thing that struck me was that by the sixth grade many of these students knew a lot more than most American children know about music in sixth grade. They had a foundation which meant that if they had any interest in pursuing music – no matter what it was on – they had the foundation to do that, they had the knowledge to go forward.
I think anyone who has an interest in teaching at the adult level – the senior citizen level – helping those who are now retired and have a strong interest in music but maybe not a background in music, the approach has got to be more individualistic there, and it's more about community. It's more about "let's get together and sing" and it can be very fun.