Ukulele groups, clubs and orchestras seem to be springing up all over the place at the moment. But if you’re setting up a ukulele group where do you start? I asked a number of people that have done just that to find out.
Who’s Going to Join?
Andy: The first thing you need to do is think about who you want to come to your group and what you want the club to do/play. For example, I want my group to be cool and contemporary like the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra, rather than just be the George Formby Appreciation Society.
Are beginners welcome? Really? Do you really want to spend your precious uke club time teaching C to people with badly out of tune rainbow Mahalos? Equally, everyone has to start somewhere, and a beginner probably has more incentive to continue coming than someone who can already play. Also, if beginners aren’t welcome, there might not be anyone else in your area who can play?
John: One of the primary things that I wanted to do with the Monday Ukearist was keep it beginner friendly so for the first couple of session we chose easy songs and have devoted the first hour to teaching. Initially we have stuck to songs in the key of C and with each new song learnt adding one or maybe two chords to those already learnt. My favourite song for teaching first is slightly simplified version of Get Back by the beatles which uses C, C7 and F. You can usually get complete beginners playing a passable rendition of this in half an hour and they’re generally amazed that they can actually play a recognisable song so quickly, hopefully that will get them hooked! The teaching has simply cover basic strumming with pointer finger, fingering chords and moving between them and holding the uke. Songs where the chord changes aren’t too rapid are good for starters too to give folk a chance to form the chord and strum it a bit before having to change as those who haven’t held a uke before will inevitably be a bit slow first off. Song sheets that show the chord changes above the lyrics are really good for beginners – like on the Dr Uke site. So first tip – keep it beginner friendly.
Jimmy: Many of our students and club members are folks that used to play the guitar or people who bought a ukulele while on vacation in Hawaii with good intentions of learning and then lost interest because they didn’t have anyone to play with.
Mike: I think you have to decide early if you want the group to be a drop-in happy beginner-friendly strumalong, or if you want to eventually perform somewhere (in which case it’s worth practising arrangements with percussion and bass). Having a performance goal can give the group some direction after the first few meetings. It’s possible to have a beginner session for the first hour then switch to the tricky stuff.
Corrie: I work in a coffee shop in Brockley, South East London where I’d noticed a few people sheeplishly picking out tunes on my toy uke then scurrying out. My lovely boss suggested I use the coffee shop for a jam session so I put up a notice inviting the closet ukulele players of Brockley to join me on Sunday. Which was all ridiculously easy.
Jimmy: Play in public. Most towns have a Saturday Market. Play and let people know you want to start a club. Go to some senior centers and entertain the folks, or play for church functions, work, picnics, etc. While you’re there advertise how easy it is to learn, that you’ll teach people to play, and would like to start a ukulele club. Give a lesson while you’re there to spark interest.
Andy: Make a poster. You don’t have to be a design whiz to do this, and you don’t even need fancy pants software. Here’s a tip:- open a new document in MS PowerPoint, go to ‘page setup’ and change ‘slides sized for’ dropdown to ‘A4 paper’, then change the page orientation to portrait. Then create ‘text boxes’ to stick your words in, pick a nice font, and move it all around until it looks good. – Hey presto! Instant poster!
Make sure your advert gives people an idea of what to expect from the club. Something with George Formby or Tiny Tim on it is going to give out a very different message to a picture of Eddie Vedder playing a uke.
Make sure you put contact details on the poster. I set up a google email account rather than give out a telephone number. Call me old fashioned but I didn’t fancy drunken people screaming ‘When in cleaning windows’ down the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning.
Even if you don’t have a time/date/venue sorted out you can still stick up an advert to create some interest. I put up a couple of posters in a local bar that just said ‘GOT UKE?’ a short explanation of what I wanted to do, and an email address.
Several people responded within days.
Finally, I’ll let you into a secret here. Journalists (like most people who have to work for a living) are quite lazy. They are constantly searching for stories and information to fill column inches or broadcast time. If you contact them and tell them about your club, you’ll be effectively doing their job for them – and they’ll love you forever!
Using the Net
Andy: If you are in the UK, post an ad on your local Gumtree site, or the classified website linked to your local paper (most have them). If you are American, then post on Craigslist or such like.
Set up a Facebook group. Advertise this on other Facebook groups about your area. You’re setting up a Ukulele club in Sheffield? Let people in the ‘I love Sheffield’ group know about it.
Join your local Freecycle group – these very often have Freecycle café/chat groups attached to them that you can advertise on. Another idea I had, (that I didn’t have to use) was to offer up one of my old (working) ukuleles on Freecycle. Not only are you ‘spreading the love’ but you’re instantly going to get a response from people who are potentially interested in ukuleles.
Post in the ‘Clubs’ section on ukulele cosmos. It might not be seen by anyone local, but their mate in a different city might see it, and tell them about it. You can also get help & advice from successful clubs on there, and find out what other people have done in the past.
Set up a website for the club, or blog about what you are planning to do. Mention your club as often as possible, and include the name of your club/website in your signature on forums, or when you respond to posts on other blogs. You’ll be amazed how much traffic you can generate this way.
Ultimately, what you want is for someone to be able to google the name of your Town/City and ‘Ukulele’ and for them to find you. If you can get to this stage, you’ve cracked it! (Woodshed: If you’ve done that and are still having problems let me know and I’ll help you out – unless you’re in Wellington or New York).
John: We have done very little advertising, just an advert on gumtree, posts on a few ukulele forums and a website. It seems that these days most people look to the web first to find information. We may put up posters in music shops too at some point but currently we have a very healthy number of people coming along. I set the website up at wordpress.com where you can free hosting and quickly set up a very well featured website, great when you need something up quickly.
Tony: When I fell in love with the uke the year before, I started looking for a uke get together so that I could begin to develop playing skills but there was nothing like that in Ireland. I discovered the various uke forums, ie, Ukehunt, the Cosmos, FMM, eZe-folk, Ukulele Underground and I looked through their memberships lists for uke players in Ireland and wrote to them all (initially about 20) and suggested the notion of meeting up to play the Uke. I also put up a posting on all of the forums. I was overwhelmed by the very positive response and co-incidentally “Cool Hand Uke” aka: Dan Scanlan the well known Californian Uke veteran (he’ll kill me for that!) and fantastic teacher had written to say he would be in Dublin in August so we had our initial meetup in a nice large room in a house overlooking the sea on Saturday August 9th last year. Dan gave a great workshop on the day and it got us off to a great start.
Charlie Connelly (late of the parish of London and the “Cosmos” is now resident in Dublin and he is the “official chronicler” of our activities and anyone who is interested can have a look at his excellent blog Ukulele Ireland.
Mike: Get a website where you can post PDFs of the songs, or links to them. Blogging software is great for this. Also consider an actual songbook/ringbinder you can give to newcomers. One group I know uses PowerPoint.
John: I think it’s important to have a semi-private space to conduct the club, be it a pub function room, village hall etc. I think a lot of beginners would be put off if it was in a public bar. We have our group in a language school, the manager of which is a keen uker and offered up the space for free. If you are hosting a club on a ‘dead’ night of the week a lot of pubs or social clubs will be pleased to have you in as it’s extra custom for them. I’ve heard the working mens clubs and the like can be good places to try for a venue. Having somewhere easily accessible is really important too. I did actually start another uke club in a pub about 45 minutes drive from central Edinburgh that on it’s busiest night had four people (including myself and the other organiser) and a bloke who played the spoons! The contrast to Monday Ukearist couldn’t be more marked!
Mike: One group I was in was supported by the local music shop and met there after hours; they let walk-ins use thier cheap ukuleles, tuners, and music stands, and I’m sure they got some business out of it.
Jimmy: If your local parks and recreation dept. has programs such as this one, check with the activities director and see if you can start a ukulele class. Once you have the interest then you can start your club like we did.
My grandson was attending a children’s play day through our local parks and recreation dept. I noticed there were classes like yoga, dance, sewing, etc., and guitar. I spoke to my friend and asked him if he thought we could start a ukulele class and then start our own ukulele club. We contacted the parks and rec. dept, the program director loved our idea, and we started our classes three months later.
Tony: It’s a pretty democratic affair and everyone is involved in the decision making. We take it in turns to lead the group for the day and introduce about two or three new songs at each meeting. Everyone is encouraged to contribute but there is no pressure. I think the greatest strength for us has been the acceptance of uke players of all abilities and a willingness to help and support each others playng and development.
Corrie: We’ve always played covers, the further removed generically from George Formby the better (Though Arctic Monkeys in the style of George Formby was an exception). Some ukers being more adamant than others (Myself included) we got a bit wary that some members were feeling a bit left out we started nominating a different person each week to bring song suggestions: the rules being there are no rules. Nothing is mocked, everything is attempted, from Bonnie Tyler to Bauhaus. And if enough of us are feeling it then it’s in. These days everyone trusts each other enough to bring songs to the table regularly and I’ve met people with awesome taste in music, it’s been educational.
Mike: Repertoire is always a sore point. I love the Brockley Ukulele Group’s taste in music, but it wouldn’t suit some of my uke group. There’s plenty of room for diversity, so core members should feel happy stating the sort of thing they’re interested in playing, and if other folks don’t like it they can start their own ensemble. I would love some method of voting on repertoire without hurting anyone’s feelings…
John: When starting off it is probably best not to go weekly as you may end up spreading a small number of ukers over many nights, it would be better to concentrate them in fewer nights so I would suggest fortnightly or monthly. Ours is fortnightly, but such has been teh success so far I am currently looking for a beer-serving venue to take it weekly so that we’ll have alternating one week at the language school and one week at a pub. I envisage that the pub sessions will be less beginner focussed and more about just having a jam with friends. I think this will work well and give a nice balance of focus across the two venues. I don’t want to get into separating people into beginners and experienced, I would rather keep everyone together as far as possible.
Tony: We meet on the second Saturday of each month.
Corrie: About 5 people showed up to the first meet-up. Attendance was pretty erratic for the the first couple of months, ranging from 3 to 9 ukes, sometimes timid, sometimes raging. I guess it was down to keeping the meetings consistent, having them every week at the same time regardless of how many could show, how hot or cold it was outside (Or inside for that matter), how tired/hung over you were etc . Once people felt assured that you weren’t going anywhere then people got more committed and we gradually came to have 6 or 7 regular players, with several additional ukers who play when they can.
Corrie: No Guitars, No Guitars, No Guitars.
Andy: No Banjoleles, No Hawaiian Chords, No E-Major Chords. By saying no banjoleles I wanted to subtly distance myself from George Formby associations. The no Hawaiian & no E-majors bit I stole from Kiwi Ukulele Mike, mainly because I think its funny! (and if the East Yorkshire Polynesian community has a problem with that, tough!)
If It’s Not Fun, Don’t Do It
Corrie: After a ropey Halloween gig, including most of the classics, there was a debriefing/drinking session in which we admitted that it wasn’t that we didn’t like the songs, but we were playing what we thought we should play instead of just enjoying ourselves with songs which compelled us to laugh, stare whistfully or rock out, which was why people came to see us, and why we met-up in the first place.
Tony: I think all of our members would say its been just brilliant meeting up with all these other uke enthusiasts and making new friends. The age profile is as wide as its possible to be and its been wonderful to see how much fun this magic little instrument has given us all.
John: We all go for a beer afterwards too – that bit is important!