Interview: Melissa Mcknight
By Ukulele Yes!
A former member of the Pacifica Ukes Ensemble, a group founded by her father Vince Sequeira, Melissa McKnight now teaches music in the Greater Victoria School district in British Columbia, Canada, and co-directs the Island Ukulele Ensemble. She is author of the Little Ukers method book series.
Ukulele Yes!: Everyone has a ukulele story... what's yours? How did you discover the uke?
Melissa McKnight: I was introduced to the ukulele back when I was in second grade in Campbell River. My father, Vince Sequeira, had started a ukulele group at his elementary school. I didn’t, however, become interested in trying the ukulele until my next door neighbor showed me hers. I figured, “if she can play one, then so can I!” All I had to do was ask, and my father gave me a few lessons and brought me into his school ukulele group. I was the youngest player in the group and that motivated me to learn to play well as quickly as possible. That was 25 years ago and I am still playing!
UY!: You're based in Victoria, BC which has long been a stronghold of Canadian ukulele. Give us a quick overview of the ukulele scene there. What's happening there these days?
MM: Ukulele seems to be going through a resurgence in Victoria. While it never lost respect in the area, interest has really grown in the last couple of years. There are many elementary schools and even some middle schools now offering ukulele as part of their music programs. Island Ukuleles, a community ensemble, is also getting a lot of interest in the younger classes. The community seems to have joined in the excitement and we are finding a lot of adults now playing ukulele.
Our local music store has recently started offering ukulele as one of their classes. They have played a big role in promoting ukulele in the community and bringing in clinicians to do community workshops. In November we had Mr. Kimo Hussey come to town to play concerts and work with both the community groups and Island Ukuleles. Seniors are also forming groups and beginning to look beyond just “sing and strum” ukulele.
Rumor has it that there has been thought about starting a ukulele festival in Victoria. So, I guess you can say ukulele is alive and well in Victoria, BC.
UY!: You've done a lot of work with very young ukulele players. What's the youngest age you've worked with? How young is "too young" for ukulele?
MM: The youngest students I have worked with were 4 years old. I run a program for primary grade students in Kindergarten through Grade 3. Most of the students are in grades 1 and 2, but we do get kindergarteners. Occasionally, some of the kindergarteners are young (e.g. 4 years old). The kids handle ukulele instruction really well and have an incredible ability to learn when they are young. There are challenges with the age group, as some of them can’t read yet and finger dexterity is limited. But, they are keen and have the ability to learn through fun and games.
I don’t think there is a defined “too young” age for ukulele. My kids, ages 1 and 2, love to play with their ukuleles. Young children want to play what they pretend are their “little guitars”. However, for a class ukulele lesson with focused goals, age 4 pushes the limits. While they can learn and are excited, they often don’t have the same ability to focus on a lesson yet. My philosophy is, if a child can start piano or violin lessons at age 3 or 4, then why not ukulele?
UY!: You've also created resources for teachers of very young ukulele students. Can you tell us about those resources?
McKnight, left, and Island Ukuleles co-director Tina Horwood.
MM: I have a ukulele book series entitled “Little Ukers: a comprehensive method for young students.” There are two books (level 1 and level 2) in both C6 and D6 tunings. These books came about when I was asked to start a class for primary kids and there were no resources available. Drawing from my years of schooling in the Doane method under my father’s instruction, I put together a set of ten lessons. The lessons were put to the test, expanded, and modified through a trial class of a dozen kindergarten to grade 3 students. The first run of the book was printed locally then tested in a few elementary schools. Level 2 was then created and put through the same tests. Both books have since been revised to add teacher notes, photographs, and more repertoire and are now being published and distributed through Trafford Publishing and music stores.
Each book is laid out in a ten “jump” format. Each “jump” includes a concepts summary page, note reading and rhythm exercises, simple repertoire, some specific skills such as ear training or improvisation challenges, occasional history tidbits, and sometimes a “paper and pencil” exercise to reinforce theory. The books are geared to primary aged students but have also been successful with grades 4 and 5, as well as seniors. Because of its simple terminology, use of analogies, photos, and cute little graphics, children tend to grasp the concepts quickly and enjoy working with the book. While they can be used by individuals, they are intended to be used in a classroom with the guidance of a teacher.
UY!: What's your feeling about tab vs. standard notation for young learners?
MM: As a teacher, I find that I draw on both tab and standard notation. I do have a preference for teaching notation, as it is a musical skill that can be transferred to any instrument. Most of my classes are taught standard notation and are successful. However, when I am working with kindergarteners, sometimes having a visual such as tab can be very helpful. Tab allows the really young learners who do not yet know how to read, an opportunity to learn the instrument without having to learn a whole new language, which is music notation.
UY!: You've been involved in the Canadian-style ukulele program in every way: student, ensemble member, arranger, teacher, author. What do you think is/are the most important thing(s) that young people can gain through playing ukulele?
MM: I believe that young people can gain a full music education and self-confidence through playing the ukulele. Because it is such a versatile instrument, and relatively inexpensive and easily accessible to everyone, the ukulele is a music education tool that most people can benefit from. It is small enough to transport, quiet enough to not be obnoxious, and easier to learn than a piano or a wind instrument: what better instrument for a timid, curious, could-be-musician, to try? There are enough resources out there now that anyone can learn to play the ukulele and have success.
UY!: It seems like there are two sectors of the ukulele population these days: 1) ukulele enthusiasts (i.e. uke players outside the school-based uke scene) and 2) those involved in music education through ukulele. Do you agree? If so, what can be done to bridge the gap between these two groups?
MM: Yes, there are definitely two sectors of ukulele at the present time. The group of ukulele enthusiasts is growing all the time, particularly with adults and seniors. With community groups beginning to form, we are finding more and more of a gap between the two sectors. The ukulele enthusiasts are often taught to sing and strum, whereas, those involved in music education are being taught to read music notation, play melodies, and sing and strum.
The other main difference that is becoming evident in the Victoria area is that relating to tuning. Most of the community groups of enthusiasts are operating in C6 tuning, while the school system is using D6 tuning. In the past, we have shied away from bridging the gap between the two sectors. Now, however, efforts are already being made to bridge the gap. Over the past two years, the Vancouver Island Ukulele Workshop has brought in participants from both sectors. The workshop offered instruction in both C6 and D6 tuning simultaneously. When the stigma that one tuning is better than the other is removed, the participants are ready to learn! In addition, the teachers who are offering joint workshops for enthusiasts and music educators, are preparing materials and using resources that gently guide “sing and strum” participants towards playing simple melodies while also challenging the music educators to improve their strumming skills.
Victoria has also been offering week long ukulele events which culminate in a public performance featuring our school ensembles as well as public ensembles. With more exposure to what a ukulele can do, more enthusiasts are looking to learn how to further their skills beyond singing and strumming.
The main effort that is being made toward bridging the gap between the sectors comes from the advancement in education opportunities and materials that are now available for those who are leading the groups.
UY!: You've done a lot of work with vocal groups as well. Do you find it easier to teach vocal skills when students have ukuleles in hand? Why or why not?
MM: Tough question! I have two thoughts on teaching vocals with ukuleles, or any instrument for that matter. Much of my success in teaching vocal skills comes from adding movement while singing. We use a lot of hand and body movement, as well as imagery to help attain correct vocal technique.
The more physically, emotionally and mentally relaxed the student is, the better the vocal results. However, that being said, the ukulele can help some students achieve the relaxation and confidence required for singing. It can be used as a teaching aid for hesitant students. The simple act of holding the instrument for use as a pitch reference tool can make singing a lot more pleasant for the more timid singers.
Given a choice, I would chose to not have instruments in the students’ hands while working on vocals. However, it is a great instrument for accompanying voices in a performance, as it is gentle and unobtrusive, allowing the vocals to really be the focal point.
UY!: When it comes to teaching music, why do you think the ukulele is such a powerful tool?
MM: Teaching music to students, or anyone, always puts some people in a state of discomfort. There are students who are afraid to make mistakes or to “sound funny”. The use of an instrument gives some security because they can always say that something is wrong with the instrument! Young students also like to have something in their hands: something they can apply the lesson to. With the ukulele, there isn’t an “embouchure” and air production complication to deal with. Recorder, band instruments, etc. require coordinating fingers, correct air flow, and music reading skills, all of which can be difficult and overwhelming for some students. However, the ukulele puts everything in the hands.
The fact that the ukulele comes in different sizes and looks like a mini guitar makes it pretty appealing to the elementary and middle school students. Many parents of our youngest ukulele students say that they are enrolling their children so they can gain skills and progress to a guitar.
UY!: Ok, last question. Looking into your crystal ball, what do you predict for the ukulele in the near future? Clearly the instrument is enjoying a resurgence at the moment but do you think it will "boom and bust" as it has in the past?
MM: I believe the ukulele is here to stay for a while. There is a lot of interest and the advancements in technology allow that interest to keep growing. The internet opens a lot of doors for people to show off the ukulele. Teaching resources are also more developed and widely available.