Interview: Melanie Doane
By James Hill
Melanie Doane began her musical journey in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her father, J. Chalmers Doane established the Halifax school ukulele program, in which Melanie participated fully. Now a Juno-award winning recording artist, Melanie has enjoyed a stellar career as a singer/songwriter/actress. Here she talks with Ukulele Yes! editor James Hill about why she's playing – and teaching – so much ukulele these days.
James Hill: What's your ukulele story? How did you get your start with the instrument?
Melanie Doane: I grew up in the Halifax schools city music department so I played uke pretty young. Dad started us all when we were three with a violin/uke class. Playing uke was the "reward" at the end of the violin part of the lesson!
MD: It was like, "ok, now it's playtime" and we would learn a whole new instrument! We'd be singing and playing; ukulele was so much easier that the violin. It was a good trick; Dad was very tricky!
My mom was the volunteer teacher at my elementary school so I got to play in the group – I was the youngest one in the group – she let me be in with the grade 4s and 5s when I was in grade 2 so that was pretty cool.
JH: Wow... you were precocious!
MD: Well, I guess I could play pretty well... but I'm still at about the same level! (laughs) Sadly, I haven't progressed since grade 2 but I worked hard those first few years! Then I went through the whole Halifax ukulele system which was an all-city program. I first got into the "B3" group and "B2" and then "B1" and then I auditioned for the "A" group and I got in in... in grade 5 which was a world record!
JH: So you had to audition just like everybody else?
MD: Yes. And it was worse because, well, did you ever have to audition for your dad? It's really scary! It was terrifying and I found it quite hard. But anyway, I got through that, thank goodness. And then I got to be in the "A" group and we would tour around and make the recordings which I had always aspired to do so those were very exciting times.
JH: Did you contuinue playing uke after your time with the Halifax "A" group?
MD: Well, after grade 12 you couldn't be in the "A" group anymore. I went to Dal [Dalhousie University, Halifax] to study music but I was enlisted as a volunteer to teach in the Halifax program. So I taught B1 for a year and I taught in a couple of elementary schools as well. I guess I was still playing but I was morphing into a teacher. I was planning to be a teacher...
JH: Oh? Then what happened?
MD: Then I auditioned for a production at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax and I got the part. And I took a "year off" of my schooling.
JH: Ah-ha. The proverbial "year off."
MD: That's right.
JH: When you were at Dalhousie music school did you feel you had an advantage because you'd gone through the ukulele program?
MD: Oh, for sure. I mean, everybody would complain about ear training and I would be thinking, "that's the easiest thing!" History? Ick. But, I mean, ear training? Come on! It was just so easy having used my ears in that way for so long. I was lucky on all fronts but I think mostly in the ear training department ‘cause that was something Dad really let you run with. You know, sometimes the Halifax "A" group would write a song collectively or decide to learn a new piece and perform it that same day. No one needed the music. Why would you need music? You just know how it goes and you figure it out. That was not like most music teachers' approach.
JH: And yet there was a strong focus on learning to read music.
MD: Yes, absolutely. Personally, I'm heavily skewed toward "ear" playing so it was more of a struggle to "get balanced" but in the program it was balanced. If you're a person who's a little more right-brained or a little more left-brained, that will come out in the way you learn music. I think it's best if you're able to do both so you have to figure out which one you're weak at and work on it. There was a great emphasis on both [reading and playing by ear] in the Halifax program. That isn't always the case in a music program but that's where the ukulele is so good; it gives you an opportunity to engage students no matter what their learning style might be.
JH: These days you're playing – and teaching – a lot more ukulele. You have this amazing career as a musician and you've come back to the uke. How has that all happened and why now?
MD: Well, my kids are six and eight years old and I wanted them to have a uke program at their school. I knew that if I started a program I'd have to follow it through. When I talked to my dad about it he said, "well, don't start it ‘til you're prepared to take them right to grade 12!" And I thought, "Yep, you're exactly right; it's not a one-year thing." So I really waited for a time when I knew I could follow it through in the proper way. And so that started this year and it's been so much fun! So exciting and great to be with my kids and great to be offering ukulele at the school. The kids I have are playing so well and I love doing it and so I'm gonna do more.
JH: It must have been a challenge to find funding, talk to administrators, parents and so on. People are often skeptical about the ukulele. How did you convince people that this was a good thing?
MD: Well, that was easy ‘cause I started as a volunteer! Even so, I'll admit I went in nervously to the principal cause I figured, "she doesn't know anything about this." You know, it's not like when I was in Halifax and every school had this. So first I went to the music teacher and she was very excited and then I talked to the principal and basically it was a "go." Now I'm finding that other schools want the program which is great and they're interested in talking to me about helping them set it up. There are lots of ways that they're finding the funding; I think every school's gonna find a different way to do it. I'm not sure what the answer is on that yet.
JH: It's interesting the point you made about "It's not like it was in Halifax." Clearly, individual teachers and parents have to take a more active role if they want a ukulele program at their school. So what advice do you have for someone who thinks this is a good idea but doesn't know where to go from here?
MD: I mean, for me the big one was having you come and play for the school last year. That was huge. If you have someone who can come and show what the ukulele can do, that's great. This year we have our own student ensemble and already we've played for five other schools. The past two weeks they've been walking from all over the place, coming on the subway, filling our gym and we've been playing for them to show them what it's about.
Of course the music teachers "get it" instantly when they have that in front of them. If they don't have that in front of them then you have to explain what it is you can do on a ukulele. It doesn't take a lot to convince a music teacher because of the fact that you can sing and accompany yourself, learn melody, harmony, rhythm, all those things. It's unparalleled really. Now I've got a little group of my own and that's it: the proof is in the pudding.
JH: What do you think is the ideal age to start students on ukulele?
MD: Grade four seems really good. I did start a few kids a little earlier and they're doing fine. I know I started earlier so it's definitely possible. But I do an hour-long class and the kids are playing for the full hour – I'm busting them the whole time (laughs) – and I want them to be able to hang in there with me. They're tired at the end – they're having a great time – but they're having to think the whole time. It's an after-school thing so that's after a full day of school. A grade 2 or 3 student is gonna be really tired, I think.
JH: At that age what do your students get most excited about? Skills, repertoire, picking, strumming, singing? What do they like?
MD: Just that they're successful. That they're able to do it turns them on. I always think, "oh, this is a goofy song" but I'll teach it anyway. It'll be, you know, "Down by the Riverside" or something very old-fashioned. But you teach them to sing a harmony with it and they will sing it, and sing it, and sing it! Why? Because it feels so good. I may be playing the chords and they may be just picking an open string harmony part or they might be just singing and playing the bass notes but they're thrilled that it sounds so good as a group.
JH: What are your feelings on the "C6 vs. D6" tuning debate?
MD: I hadn't thought of it until recently. I went into a school and I brought my bass and we were playing; these were young string players. They all played violin, cello, or bass and they were already really good young musicians and they were just starting to learn ukulele. I had them for two days in a row and it was really fun. They were musical and they could read notes and they had good ears so I could grab one of the kids and say, "OK, now you play bass" and I could keep changing bass players. Then it occurred to me that if we'd been tuned in C6 it would have been so much harder. We wouldn't have been able to use the open strings on the bass. And what if we'd wanted to play with guitars or add mandolin?
Often we had this experience in Halifax, too. Since a lot of the kids were also violin players we could do fiddle music – we're East Coasters – you know, we'd always have a couple of fiddle tunes in the show. We'd be able to just all mix and match [ukes and other stringed instruments] because the keys are much more compatible in the D6 tuning with stringed instrumentation across the board. Especially if you're talking about beginners and you want them to join in with others it really helps to be in D6 tuning. I don't know, I really feel strongly as a string player and multi-instrumentalist it just makes a lot more sense.
JH: And, of course, the argument for C tuning is that it matches better with the piano.
MD: People don't play piano on the bus or on an airplane. C6 tuning is just fine but I think from the musician's point of view D6 tuning is more versatile.
JH: Where's it going from here in Toronto? What's the next step for you?
MD: We'll see where it goes! I'm enjoying myself and it seems like there's some music teachers nearby who are excited to have me help them get it started and I'm more than happy to do that.
JH: Can people contact you about that? How do people get in touch with you?
MD: You could go to www.melaniedoane.com and leave me a message. I guess what I'm saying at the moment is that I'm making myself available to music teachers in the Toronto, ON area who would like help getting their program up and running.