The Great Canadian Tuning Debate
Does D6 Tuning Ghettoize the Student?
By Jamyang Lodto
Jamyang Lodto tackles a prickly and timely issue as he questions the merits of D6 tuning (a, d, f#, b) – long the standard tuning in Canadian classrooms – given the popularity of C6 tuning (g, c, e, a).
When I was in Hawaii a couple of years ago I took a master lesson from Bruce Shimabukuro, Jake Shimabukuro's younger brother. Bruce is an outstanding player in his own right but has concentrated on teaching. He began his lesson with me by asking where I was from. I said that I was from Victoria, Canada and he said, "Oh yeah, that country with the funny tuning."
When I was a young kid in the 1950s I somehow acquired a Ka-Lai pineapple ukulele. This was a ukulele produced in the Kamaka factory in a collaboration between Sam Kamaka and Johnny Lai to produce a cheaper ukulele made from monkey pod rather than koa and I remember it had the distinctive Kamaka pineapple decal on the top between the sound hole and bridge and white binding. I don't remember what happened to it but I wish I had it now. I can't remember its tuning. This was in the days before electronic tuners so my mother would tune it for me from her piano and I would learn the chord forms from there. I had that and a little set of bongos. When the 1960s hit the ukulele turned into a guitar and the bongos into a drum kit. That was it for the ukulele until about six years ago when I tripped across an ad for Fluke ukuleles and I sent away for one. I couldn't put the silly thing down and wore off the lower fret markers in about three months. Within a year the guitars and drum kit were gone.
Because my main source of information was the internet, I learned, or rather relearned, the ukulele in C6 tuning (g, c, e, a). I attended the Portland Uke Fest a couple of times and fit right in. I didn't come across tuning as an issue until the first time I attended the Vancouver Island Ukulele Workshop. Because that workshop was primarily aimed at school teachers it was in D6 tuning (a, d, f#, b). When I asked why folks weren't in C6 tuning (referred to in the workshop as "Hawaiian" tuning) I was given a number of arguments on the superiority of D6 tuning. The reverse situation occurred when Larsen Music in Victoria, BC hosted two days of workshops by Hawaiian virtuoso Kimo Hussey. Hussey was in C6 tuning and there were a number of kids and teachers from Victoria-area schools in attendance. The kids fared better than the teachers. There was one, a principal of a school who taught ukulele, who had never heard of C6 tuning! He was totally lost and left after the first session. I realized then that tuning was a problem of isolationism and I became concerned about the validity of maintaining D6 tuning in the schools and the possible disservice to the students that this represented.
According to the article "A New History of the Origins and Development of the 'Ukulele, 1838-1915" written by the late John King and Jim Tranquada and published in The Hawaiian Journal of History Vol. 37 (2003), C6 tuning was used in the first published method book by Ernest Ka`ai in 1910 and by 1915 it was the tuning used in all published material. As recently as 2009 Lyle Ritz opened his instructional DVD Lyle's Style with the statement that C6 is the standard tuning of the ukulele. It wasn't the only tuning of the ukulele, however. During the heyday of vaudeville, music hall performers found that the higher and brighter sound of D6 tuning served them better in theatres that weren't equipped with amplification. It became the preferred tuning of such ukulele greats as Roy Smeck and George Formby.
During his tenure as supervisor of the music programs for the Halifax school district, Chalmers Doane realized that the ukulele was a superior first instrument to teach kids music. It was portable, affordable, accessible, and amazingly versatile. I assume that vaudeville tuning was the most familiar in Canada at this time, for Doane's first publication, Classroom Ukulele Method (Waterloo, 1971) came out in D6 tuning  . Later came Ukulele Encore (Waterloo, 1975) and The Teachers Guide to Classroom Ukulele(Waterloo, 1977). It was much later that he published Classroom Ukulele Method: Hawaiian Version (Halifax, 1988), hence the use of the term "Hawaiian" tuning. Almost forty years have elapsed since the first publication. Since then students have become teachers and D6 tuning has become bureaucratically entrenched.
One cannot respond to arguments of preference. Most of us prefer what we are used to or at least prefer not to change. Once used to D6 tuning a lower tuning would seem somewhat different so that the bright sound or the taut strings of D6 tuning would seem more natural than a lower sound or slacker strings. I believe that these preferences are learned and are not intrinsic to the tuning itself. One perpetual argument for D6 tuning is that it suits children's voices better. Voice range, however, is more an issue of the key that a song is played in rather than the particular tuning of the instrument the song is played on. There is only a tone difference between C6 and D6 tuning. A child who could easily sing in one but find it difficult in another would have serious problems with melody lines that can commonly span over an octave. I would suggest that there have been thousands of children in Hawaii that have been taught the ukulele in C6 tuning who have experienced no difficulties whatsoever.
One advantage in the ukulele that Doane recognized is the fact that music theory can be taught on it. It has been my experience, even at the university level, that introductory music theory begins with the C major scale both because it has no accidentals and because it can be easily visualized on the piano keyboard. On a C6-tuned ukulele it is easy to play a C major scale in "home position" but almost impossible on a re-entrant-D6-tuned soprano ukulele. As the standard tuning of a ukulele is re-entrant it must be remembered that a low top string is itself a variant tuning even though the note is the same just an octave lower. If the ukulele is chosen as an entry level instrument in the school system because theory can be taught on it, it would make more sense to teach it as a C6 instrument.
It has always been Doane's intention to use the ukulele as a first instrument in the context of a broader school music program. In a way, the tuning of the ukulele in this context is not really important except for the obvious advantage of teaching theory on a C6-tuned instrument. However, this view does not take into consideration that the vast majority of students will not continue on in school music programs. Seeing the ukulele, because of its advantages, only as a stepping stone within a broader music program is to fail to see that those same advantages make the ukulele valid as an end in itself. The two views are not mutually exclusive. The ukulele, taught more inclusively, can give a child a musical instrument for life.
I teach adults in a community centre setting as well as leading two ukulele clubs. Most of them are picking up an instrument for the first time in their lives and they are drawn to the ukulele because it seems less threatening than other instruments. This is a product of what has been called the "third wave" of ukulele popularity that has been building since the 1990s. This wave of popularity is largely a product of the internet. Most of the content we experience on the internet is from the United States. It is there (and in Japan) that C6 tuning has emerged as the "standard" tuning. The major publishing houses such as Hal Leonard and Mel Bay, as well new ventures like Curt Sheller and Flea Market Music, all publish their material for the ukulele in C6 tuning. What has occurred in Canada is a clash between the wave of popularity of the ukulele in the "real world" and the way in which we teach the instrument to children in our public schools. The result? We run the risk of "ghettoizing" our students.
And this is the real issue! The school system can no longer remain isolated and aloof in its ukulele pedagogy. Its concern should always be the consideration of the student. The one thing that I have noticed in festivals and workshops is that although C6- and D6-tuned ukuleles can play together, they cannot be taught together (See this article on how to teach in two tunings at once – Ed.). Even teachers of one tuning get completely lost in workshops held in another tuning. Fingerings cannot be easily transposed. Isolating the student from the standard tuning of the "outside world" does not serve the student. I agree that tuning does not make any difference inside a school music program. But that should not be the only place where you can learn to play your instrument. I thoroughly agree with Chalmers Doane's evaluation of the ukulele as an affordable, portable, accessible, and fun instrument. However, I believe that the ukulele is a legitimate end in itself as an instrument for life; the learning process on the ukulele need never end. To be isolated from the world by tuning is an unnecessary restriction and runs contrary to the purpose of education.
Only in Canada, eh?
1. Doane took lessons from Roy Smeck in New York; this is likely where he became convinced to play in D6 tuning if he wasn't already – Ed.
Jamyang Lodto first learned to play ukulele in the 1950s and has recently re-discovered the joy of uke. He is a founding member of the Victoria Ukulele Circle, a group of ukulele enthusiasts based in Victoria, BC, Canada.