What it Takes to be a Good Ukulele Group Leader

A guest post today from Joshua Waldman. As well as leading the Tigard Ukulele Group he has just released a book How to Start and Grow a Ukulele Group (available in digital and paper form (affiliate links)). It’s by far the most comprehensive and inspiring I know of. Highly recommended if you’re starting or running a ukulele group.

When I started the Tigard Ukulele Group (TUG), I had no interest in leadership. I work for myself in a home office. My business is online and I don’t have a team to manage, nor do I have a boss to worry about. I’m not trying to be a better boss or climb some corporate ladder. What does leadership have to do with me?

Turns out, I found an answer to that question very quickly! Running an ukulele group has been one of the greatest personal growth journeys I’ve ever undertaken.

What I learned is that being a leader requires you to find your self-confidence, own the room, make decisions and take risks. It also means potentially making public mistakes and embarrassing yourself. But it also means being someone that others can rely on, being the beacon that guides people, of taking the initiative on fun and inspiring projects.

You make the call

When I first started TUG, we went around in a song circle. Everyone brought their own songs and some extra copies to pass around. This worked fine for the first few weeks and when we had around seven people in my living room. However, as we grew, the song circle format fell apart. Songs bombed. We ran out of music to play.
So the next time we met, I told them what we were playing. “Here’s our song list.” I remember feeling totally surprised that everyone agreed to this. Looking back, this makes sense, they came to play music, not lead a group. That was my job. Even now, at potlucks and parties, when I ask the group what they want to play they look back at me and say, you tell us, we’ll follow.

A few years ago, we were preparing for our very first concert and used our jam sessions to practice songs on our setlist. Our focus was to get into songs and out of songs at the same time. For weeks, we played the same songs over and over again. The concert happened. It went great! And I kept up the practice of repeating songs that needed more work.

After a while of this new format, I checked in with the group to see if they were getting tired of this. To my surprise, everyone really appreciated it. This format continued naturally, even after the concert. In fact, to this day, if a song could have gone better, and I’m about to flip to the next one, members will ask to repeat it, “just one more time.”

You are the leader of your group. You make the calls. Stop looking for approval or consensus. It’s not you imposing your will on others. It’s you offering others the chance to relax and just follow along. Leadership is service to others.

Own your mistakes

We were working on a difficult and highly orchestrated song at TUG one time when a longtime member who hadn’t been for a while showed up. She hadn’t been there the previous two weeks while we were working on this. When she raised her hand and offered some suggestions that would have radically changed what we’d been doing for weeks, I shut her down. “It is the way it is. No more changes,” I said and then watched as she shut down, stopped playing and her body folded in on itself.

I immediately realized my mistake, having gotten so intensely focused on getting the song right that I forgot that we were there to have fun! After the session, I went up to her and apologized. Although she shook it off, said it was no problem and changed the subject, I could tell she appreciated the apology.
Leadership isn’t always easy. But it does make you a better human being as long as you learn from your mistakes.
What I learned from leadership

What I learned is that leadership is a very personal journey. It’s a mirror for your own limiting beliefs, low self-esteem, self-doubt and fears. One of the greatest benefits of having started this group has been the chance to face these parts of myself and deal with them and then grow as a person.

Leadership is an interesting thing. In an age that seems to value collaboration and groupthink as ultimate ideals, apparent leadership seems to be based on how rich you are or how many likes you get on social media posts. I think this is a sad waste. Everyone has leadership potential. Despite our media, human nature is human nature, and groups of humans seek out a leader to represent them. The world isn’t run on consensus or on who has the most likes.

Joshua Waldman is the founder of Tigard Ukulele Group and had just published a book called, How to Start an Ukulele Group where you can find more stories and thoughts on ukulele group leadership.

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9 Comments

  1. Jim D'Ville June 22nd, 2017 4:45 am

    This is a great resource for making any ukulele club sound better!

  2. Penny June 22nd, 2017 7:10 am

    This is great. It gives insight into very realistic experiences as a leader. Maybe I CAN do it. One day.

  3. Jane June 23rd, 2017 12:30 am

    Very insightful advice for anyone who leads anything be it a music group or a book club.

    Excellent synopsis too!

  4. Gustavo Artiles June 25th, 2017 1:59 pm

    But let’s not forget that certain improvements of a uke group also require at least some knowledge of how songs are enhanced by variety, for instance the strumming and the usual instrumentation + percussion and other timbres and so on. For a mere participant it’s difficult to push these things for fear of stepping on the leader’s toes. Also, although uke groups usually sing too, those who materially cannot sing should not sing. This is obvious and the leader must realise it and act accordingly. It’s not enough to say we all want the fun.

  5. Mark June 27th, 2017 12:33 pm

    Good leadership can take many forms and there is plenty of good advice here, but don’t write off collaboration and consensus so readily as part of leadership. We have clear leadership in our group (a committee with elections) partly because of nearly collapsing in a former incarnation with a more individualistic leader. The committee helps keep the leaders on track, helps communication with members and helps share out tasks. Eg, we had to find a new meeting place in a week, and the structure of the group helped make the decision so much easier.

    I also flatly reject Gustavo’s call for non-singers not to sing. In a community ukulele group, the object is to enjoy it and to improve, not to be brilliant performers by some external standard. Some of our strongest singers today were silent when they started.

  6. Gustavo June 27th, 2017 1:26 pm

    I mention the singing because I, for instance, no longer have the voice for it, so I just play along, and this is fine. If you can always hear a very discordant voice in a group, then I fail to see how that, being a question of ear, can be improved. But certainly the playing skill will always grow in time, and that’s a very good target to aim for. The external standard does exist tacitly although of course there are various levels and it is that you either are in tune or you are not.

  7. Barry Milford July 9th, 2017 9:51 pm

    I set my first group up about 9 months ago and my 2nd group about 3 weeks ago. The first was for seniors only running at lunchtime while the new one is for all comers in the evening. I am far from being the best player or singer and welcome all ideas and suggestions for playing songs. I always urge our players to enjoy themselves, to play and sing regardless of ability or skill.

    However, at the end of the day I am the leader and that the final decision is mine as we are now into the run up to our first 2 live concerts.

    I didn’t set the groups up out of any sense of ego but simply to have somewhere and someone to play along with. All it takes is a bit of courage and the ability to poke fun at myself when things go wrong.

  8. Gail July 9th, 2017 10:23 pm

    This is a great article. Thank you, it mirrors my experience in running two ukulele clubs exactly.

  9. loren iversen July 14th, 2017 3:14 pm

    I have been leading mau loa ukulele for four years, it has grown from 4 members to 36 . It becomes very challenging to stay up with new songs and insert new techniques.it is also very rewarding to see how the ukulele club has grown. members are now branching out into forming small groups and playing with other ukulele clubs. We also are now hosting a monthly jam. which requires 2 hrs of music. I do accept suggestions and new songs from members . Leading this group has been an exciting and rewarding experience.

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