Interview: Steve Boisen
By Ukulele Yes!
There's a difference between "a good song" and "a good song for teaching music." James Hill explores what it means for a song to be "teachable," concluding that when it comes to choosing repertoire, you can have your cake and eat it too!
Ukulele Yes!: Everyone has a ukulele story... what's yours? How did you discover the uke?
Steve Boisen: I remember overhearing two elderly ladies talking after a concert and one of them said "you can get a lot of music out of a ukulele." To be honest, I didn't really agree with her at the time, but shortly thereafter I bought a cheap soprano uke to just play around with. I didn't take it seriously until I posted a uke video online and discovered the great ukulele community that had been operating under the radar. I soon learned the true potential of the instrument and began studying the work of great players both past and present to develop a repertoire of solo material which, after many years of playing bass, finally allowed me to be musically self-sufficient. The ukulele is also the perfect songwriting tool for the kind of music I like to write which is often evocative of the past.
UY!: You're based in Florida; give us a quick overview of the ukulele scene there. What's happening?
SB: There's really a lot happening in this state with the ukulele these days. In 2009 I started the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society which has grown to over 250 members and now presents an annual festival. There's also a group of ukulele clubs on the east coast called the Florida Ukulele Network (F.U.N.) which are very active and host their own annual festival in Ft. Lauderdale. Keoni Lagunero also has a Hawaiian ukulele club in central Florida and Nina Coquina features ukulele house concerts at her Floridaloha vacation rentals in Nokomis Beach to the south. Together, we all hope to create a Florida "ukulele tour circuit" to attract players to the Sunshine State. We've already had some success with Lil' Rev and Victoria Vox in this direction and there's more in the works. In addition, many local music stores have become hip to the ukulele and in Clearwater the father daughter team of Augie and Donna LoPrinzi create some wonderful handcrafted ukuleles. I received my first custom instrument from them last year.
UY!: You play bass as well as ukulele. There are many notable uke players who are also bassists; I'm thinking of Lyle Ritz, Byron Yasui, Chalmers Doane, Aaron Keim, and others. Why do you think bassists make good uke players?
SB: Jim Beloff and I actually had this discussion once. He suggested that bass players have a highly developed ability to internalize the root motion of a chord progression, which makes navigating the ukulele come easily. I think someone who plays double bass may find the ukulele appealing because it's also somewhat of a specialists instrument, but one that offers a completely different experience in terms of size, register and the ability to play chords and melodies. I play the uke and bass so much that a six-string guitar feels like a harp to me.
UY!: You play in a duo – the Barnkickers – with your daughter. Have you two always played music together?
SB: The short answer is "yes"! Amanda was singing melodies before she could talk and we have always sung and made up songs together. We used to create homemade "music videos" which to me really form the basis of what we do now as The Barnkickers. Amanda and I will watch these home movies every so often and we always crack up laughing. We still try to include some humor in our performances.
UY!: I'm interested in the way the ukulele seems to bridge generations... the Barnkickers is a good example of this. Do you think you're exceptions to the rule or can others parents/children and grandparents/grandchildren find common ground with the ukulele? If so, how?
SB: I think the ukulele is the perfect instrument for families to play together and in my ukulele club there are several parent/child duos of all ages. We even have a gentleman who taught his teenage granddaughter to play on the uke he purchased back in the 1940s. He eventually bought her a nice ukulele of her own and now they both perform at our open mic sessions. I find that young children and adult beginners are not intimidated by the ukulele as they might be of an electric guitar or a keyboard. The affordability and relative ease of learning the instrument are a great advantage in this regard. The ukulele also has the unique ability to make playing a Tin Pan Alley song very similar to playing a Jason Mraz song, so everyone gets to strum along regardless of the era or genre.
UY!: You have a nice, clear way of explaining musical concepts (I'm thinking of your article on the diminished chord, for example). What is your teaching background?
SB: Thank you. When I was a full time musician, I used to supplement my income by teaching bass and I always used my own method. I would get my students playing actual songs right away which would build their confidence and help them understand how the instrument functioned. When I introduced things like note reading and music theory, they would already have some real world examples to relate this new information to. I also use a lot of metaphors such as relating muscle memory to things like typing or driving a car. This is especially important with adult beginners who tend to have higher expectations of themselves and are more apt to get frustrated when their rate of progress seems too slow. Although I play music on a part time basis these days, I still teach ukulele and bass at Sam Ash Music on the weekends.
UY!: When it comes to teaching music, why do you think the ukulele is such a powerful tool?
SB: One thing I've noticed is that the ukulele sort of "disappears" once you get past the basics and get comfortable. It takes a lot longer for that to happen with the guitar and I don't think it ever does with the double bass! At this point you can focus on the other aspects of music performance that transcend the technical hurdles. Despite its apparent simplicity, all of the essential components of playing and understanding music can be applied to the ukulele.
UY!: Ok, a tough question now. 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?
SB: I don't think the ukulele will ever go back to being the forgotten and largely underappreciated instrument that it was before. The media have been presenting the same story over and over about the ukulele's current wave of popularity and eventually this will be old news, but the internet has helped created a very passionate fan base for the uke, one that seems to span the generations, so I don't see the bubble bursting any time soon.
UY!: What's coming up for the Barnkickers... what can we look forward to?
SB: Although Amanda is away at college studying music, we have some big things planned this year including the release of our second CD of original material. Amanda's voice has grown a lot stronger and her songwriting has matured so I'm really looking forward to presenting our new music which is currently in the mixing stage. Amanda and I will be performing at a few festivals around the country (including the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival) and we hope to add a few more events like this to our calendar as Amanda's school schedule allows. We also have to make a new music video. "One Less Tear" was made in 2008, and even my parents are tired of watching it!
Steve Boisen is one half of The Barnkickers and producer of the ukulele compilation CD Square Pegs & Round Holes, a fundraising project to support the American Asperger's Association. He is also a freelance bass player and founder of the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society.