Interview: Roy Sakuma
By James Hill
A renowned teacher and record producer, Roy Sakuma has brought the beauty and versatility of the ukulele to a vast international audience. We caught up with Sakuma in Hawaii just days after the 38th edition of his annual Ukulele Festival, an event that features hundreds of his ukulele students alongside performers from Hawaii and abroad.
Ukulele Yes!: For those who aren’t familiar with Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, can you describe what it is that you do?
Roy Sakuma: Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele Studios has always been about perpetuating the ukulele and teaching the ukulele to children as young as five years old. It expanded over the years to include adults as well and even senior citizens and it’s just grown to the point where the ukulele has become a big part of Hawaii.
When I started this many, many years ago back in the 60s, everyone thought that the ukulele was a toy so to have the ukulele in the minds of everyone here in Hawaii changed now where it’s accepted as a total—as a great—musical instrument is a dream come true for me. So our mission is to teach children and to continue perpetuating the ukulele by putting on this ukulele festival; we just completed our 38th year. And I hope it will continue beyond our lifetime.
UY!: At some point you chose to devote your life to teaching rather than to performing on ukulele. What made you choose one path over the other?
RS: When I first started to learn the ukulele seriously my instructor was Ohta-san. I was very lucky to be learning from who at that time I felt—and still feel—is the greatest ukulele player in the world. I’d practise for six to eight hours a day and I remember him telling me after about 18 months: “you have learned what has taken me five years to learn.” He says, “you can go on your own.” And my goal was to beat him, to be better than him. But the funny thing is, the better you get on the ukulele the more you realize how great the teacher is! It’s true, yeah?
UY!: If you have a great teacher...
RS: Yeah. And so what had happened is I was performing on my own with a trio and he calls me up one day and says, “you wanna come and help me? I’m teaching this adult class and I need help.” I says, “what do I have to do?” He says, “just tune the ukuleles for me.” So he had about twenty adults and I tuned the ukuleles and after the first couple lessons he tells me, “oh, by the way, I’m going to Japan next week; you’re going to teach the next two lessons.” I was petrified. I says, “Herb I don’t know how to teach!” He says, “just teach the way I taught you.”
So I went home and I practised every day the same way I practised the ukulele: I practised for hours talking to the walls, to the carpet, to the mirror as if I was teaching a class. [I was] practising and coming up with all the questions that I would think an adult would ask me and then try to respond. I would get tongue-twisted but I would keep on practising ‘til my answers came out fluent. And you know, by the time I went in front of those adults it was so natural, it just came out of me. And they asked me, “are you still going to be our teacher?” Because we really connected. And the great thing is that when Ohta-san returned he asked me, “do you want to teach my students?” I said, “yeah!” And that’s how it happened.
I gave up playing after that because playing wasn’t important. I had so much enjoyment helping others. Little did I realize that was my calling in life: to always help others.
UY!: You have a lifetime of experience teaching students of all levels. How do you manage a class in which there’s a mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced players?
RS: You can put me in any type of environment with any type of students and I can figure it out. My advice [to other teachers] would be to try to take a step back, look at what the more beginner students can do and focus on that. What can you do with that group by expanding something that will still make it interesting for the others? You cannot go from the top because that won’t work. So you have to focus on what the less experienced kids can do and then create something that will make it interesting.
I’ve run into the situation before where classes have to be combined and so now you’re sitting here with some kids who can play real’ good and then you have these younger kids who don’t know three-fourths of the songs that [the other kids] do but you can find something to do that will have everybody join in.
For me, it helps to know the standards because a lot of the standards can be simplified and [the students] don’t know it. You can teach something so beautiful and everybody can grasp it. And this happens a lot of times in our studio. So you’ve got to focus on the more beginner students and find something that can connect with the more advanced students.
UY!: In Hawaii, playing by ear is second-nature for so many people; so much of the music is passed on aurally. How does this help or hinder students’ progress in your program? Is this an advantage to your students or does it sometimes get in the way?
RS: A lot of times it’ll get in the way. I tell the students that they need to be patient. You’re right, you know, and this is just my personal observation, but I think in Hawaii we have as much musical talent per capita as anywhere in the world. And that is because we’re such a mixed society, you know, we’ve got all the races right here: Samoan, Hawaiian, Filipino, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese; one potpourri all put together. We’re all raised in this beautiful environment of all different types of music and a lot of kids—without realizing it, as you just mentioned—they develop an ear for music.
So they hear something and they pick it up and they play it right away. Our studio wants to teach them the discipline of music because eventually every great artist that goes on, whether they’re reading music, whether they’re learning by ear, etcetera, all the great artists in the world have one thing in common: they all have a good ear. They all have the ability to listen and to play. So the bottom line is we’re going to develop students’ ability to listen and to respond.
So when they come in with this talent we have to kind of discipline them. They struggle at the beginning but then it comes through and then, when you start teaching the part by ear, it’s so easy for them! But it also helps the ones that couldn’t play by ear to develop their ear. And that’s our responsibility as teachers.
UY!: What are some of the skills that you hope students will have learned by the time they “graduate” from Roy Sakuma Studios?
RS: They will learn the beauty of the melody line because we teach all types of music. We teach Broadway musicals, we go into Hawaiian, we go into classical, to the different music of the world, etcetera. And then we put the harmony in and then sometimes sometimes we’ll teach the same song with different harmonies.
We want them to understand harmony, we want them to understand melody, we want them to understand the importance of timing, and we want to give them a broad knowledge. Not necessarily so that they’ll go out there and become professional musicians but so that they’ll have the skills to listen to the radio and say, “I can follow that; I can play that song.” They learn to play by ear and they can take what they’ve learned here and share it with others. That’s the beauty of it. It happens all the time. Kids leave here from high school, they take their ukuleles to the mainland and what happens? They kanikapila. All the kids come to their dorm and they all sing and play. It’s great.
We’ve had a lot of students go on to professional careers but I’m just as happy with those that became band instructors, that became professionals in life. One of the things that we stress—that we talk about a lot—is that it’s character building. So not only are we teaching them music, but we’re also teaching them character building without them even realizing it; just by the role models they’re learning from. One of the things that I always strive for is to build self-esteem in children. And you can tell when you teach someone, you can tell the kids that need more help, the ones that aren’t feeling as good about themselves, and it’s really important to bring that confidence out. Music is a great way to do it.
UY!: Is a student ever too old to start learning ukulele?
RS: Never. We have senior citizens in their seventies that start with us and it’s the same answer. Practically everyone will say, “I wish I started twenty years ago, this is so much fun!” We have senior citizens that have been with us for over twenty-five years. They love it. They love it! And, um, some of them don’t practise, you know, but they come for the enjoyment.
So you’re never too old to start and I guess you could say you’re never too young to start but we used to teach three-year-olds and we were successful. But the problem is by the time I was finished teaching a three-year-old student I was totally exhausted! You know, because just to keep their attention [was difficult] so we raised the limit to five years old. So from five years old to any age there’s no limit. Even if you’re in your seventies, eighties, and you can hold that ukulele, take lessons because there’s so much love and joy in playing the ukulele.
UY!: You write a lot of original tunes for your students. What makes a tune particularly good for teaching?
RS: If I’m writing a song for the students, the first thing I do is create a melody line that I feel that the students are going to enjoy playing. Secondly, I will play it in a way that is simplified—where it’s easy to play—and thirdly, I need to be careful not to make it too syncopated or too difficult where it takes time for the students to understand because I want the kids to enjoy the song and to be able to play it.
I wrote a song called Ukulele Itch. That song is so simple but, wow, you talk about the kids loving that song! And then when you teach it to the advanced kids [they say] “wow this is fun!” And it’s so simple. The melody line is simple to understand, the picking is easy, and I have practically the whole melody on the [first] string so everything is right there.
That’s the key. The key is first to find a melody that you know the kids are going to like and then arrange it in the key that it’s going to be playable. And because I’ve been teaching all my life I know what key and how to place the song so that the kids can play it good. Those are very important steps.
It’s kind of amazing. Even my instructors tell me this—at first I thought they were biased—but they would tell me of all the songs they’re teaching they said, “Roy, your songs are always the best. The kids love your songs.” And I think that maybe to some small degree I have that ability to write melodies that the kids like.
UY!: Is Ukulele Itch on one of your DVDs?
RS: It’s going to be on the next DVD. The new DVD will probably have twenty to thirty of the songs I’ve written over the past thirty ukulele festivals.
UY!: Speaking of which, DVDs and the Internet have changed the way people learn music. How has technology changed the way you do things at Sakuma Studios?
RS: It hasn’t affected me too much in the sense that I love teaching so much and I love the personal contact. That, to me, is [essential] because when you have personal contact you can take children that have hang-ups or have low self-esteem and you can bring them up. And, you know, when they leave the classroom they hug you. You know, they hug you. They’re not even my students sometimes; they walk out, they come up to me and they hug me. Nothing can replace that.
UY!: Do you think there’s a place for ukulele in Hawaii’s public school system?
RS: Definitely. The ukulele should definitely be in the public school system. It should be taught to all the children. I know a lot of schools do that but I think they should do it in every single public school. See, the ukulele is such a simple instrument to learn. It’s non-threatening. And it’s an instrument that the kids can all relate to because it’s such a big part of Hawaii.
You know the beauty about the ukulele is that you can be having a “down” day and even if you can just strum simple chords you can pick up your ukulele and you can walk into a private area like your bedroom or your bathroom and practise with it. You can take it outside on the grass and practise with it. It’s so very easy to take with you to an area where you’re comfortable. And when you play ukulele you release whatever tension you have.
UY!: You’ve built a successful ukulele school over many years. When you retire, what happens to Roy Sakuma ukulele Studios? How will you hand over the reigns to the next generation of teachers?
RS: My wife and I have talked about that a lot. We have a niece who’s currently a manager and she loves teaching kids but she’s going back to school to get her degree in psychology. But we have several instructors that have been devoted to us that we feel that maybe someday they can take a bigger responsibility.
But as long as I’m healthy and my wife is healthy we’ll be there to help out because I don’t think I could ever stop teaching or helping people. I have such a yearning to help people, you know, so I don’t think I could ever stop teaching the ukulele.