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Interview: Eve Goldberg

A favourite at festivals, folk clubs and concert series across Canada and the U.S, Eve Goldberg has released three albums to widespread acclaim. She is a certified Level 1 Teacher in the James Hill Ukulele Method and leads the Parkdale Ukulele Group in Toronto, ON.

Ukulele Yes!: You're well established as a guitarist and songwriter. How did you catch the "uke bug"?

Eve Goldberg

Eve Goldberg: A number of years ago I was doing an album release tour and my friend Ken Whiteley was travelling with me. Ken is a master at many different stringed instruments, including the ukulele, and he brought a ukulele to play in the passenger's seat. When I was not driving the van I started fooling around with it. Later I was at a dinner party at his house and for some reason we got onto the subject of the ukulele. He proceeded to haul out his whole collection until all ten or twelve of us at this dinner party were strumming away! I think that was probably the beginning of it I got myself a soprano uke and kept playing around with it a little bit at a time.

When David Newland and Steve McNie started the Corktown Ukulele Jam here in Toronto I started attending, and that's probably when I really got seriously hooked. It's a pretty amazing gathering every Wednesday night there are anywhere from 40 to 90 people in the back room of the Dominion Pub. There's something so infectious about being in a room with that many people all strumming away together, and Corktown attracts people across a huge range of ages and musical interests, which makes for a pretty dynamic community.

UY!: Can you describe the kind of ukulele teaching you do? The age range and the type of material you cover?

Somehow many of us have gotten the message that we shouldn't be [making music] if we don't sound perfect.

EG: Almost all my students are adults and I do most of my teaching in community settings either out of my house, where I now have a lovely teaching space, or in some kind of community centre or school. This year I started the Parkdale Ukulele Group, a weekly class I run out of my house, and I've had a really fun time doing that. This fall I'll have two groups Tuesday nights is an ongoing group who have a bit of experience under their belts now, and Saturday morning is a beginning group who might need more of the basics before they get fed into the Tuesday night group. We do a lot of the material frrom the Ukulele in the Classroom series but I also mix in other material that seems right for the group. We do folk songs, Tin Pan Alley, Beatles, jazz standards, whatever! It's a lot of fun, and of course I learn a lot myself from the whole process.

UY!: Do you find that there are two kinds of adult learners: those who are looking for a more social/entertaining experience and those who are looking for more rigorous instruction? If so, what do you do to keep these two "camps" happy?

Many adults come to music with emotional baggage around making music or being in a learning environment.

EG: Maybe it's because of my background and particular strengths as a teacher, but I've always felt like the vast majority of students I encounter are thirsting for music in their lives, and they tend to be looking for the social experience more than the rigorous instruction. Often their goal is as simple as wanting to sing with their kids, or lead songs at a party, or even just play their favourite Neil Young song for themselves when they get home from work.

Many adults come to music with emotional baggage around making music or being in a learning environment – difficult school experiences when they were younger, the little voice in their ear telling them they have no musical "talent," and so on. So I feel like a lot of what I do in my teaching is to try to create an inclusive, fun space where everyone can learn together, no matter what their previous experience or "talent" is. I put visual quotation marks around that word because I feel like that concept of "talent" can do a lot of damage.

Music is a natural human activity that everyone should be able to participate in, and somehow many of us have gotten the message that we shouldn't be doing it if we don't sound perfect. I think through mass media and consumer culture we have generally become alienated from our own creativity, and one of my goals as a teacher is to help people connect to that natural human creative impulse. I am constantly amazed by what my students can do once they are in a comfortable, supportive environment. Ukulele is great in that regard because compared to guitar or other instruments, it is relatively un-intimidating and easy to get started on, so it opens up that possibility of fun and musicality very quickly.

I am constantly amazed by what my students can do once they are in a comfortable, supportive environment.

Once you open up that creative space and get people excited about their own music making, then I think you are in a position to challenge a little bit more – and I think that's the moment to get more rigorous. It's sometimes a delicate balance, keeping that open, supportive environment but pushing students to go a little bit beyond where they are now. Working with the Ukulele in the Classroom materials is great because the meaty stuff is built into the materials in a very inviting way.

When I'm working in a group, I'm often thinking about the extreme ends – the student who is so anxious he's afraid to pluck the strings in case he makes a mistake (and I've had a lot of students like that) all the way to the student who is there because she's been playing for twenty years and she's on a "plateau" that she wants to break out of (and I've had my share of those too). I feel like I need to be able to offer something for everyone along that spectrum when I'm teaching, and that's definitely the most challenging part of teaching for me.

Eve Goldberg

Usually I start with a simple technique or approach and slowly build on more and more complexity. Students who are working on more basic skills can stick to the simple version, while those who are more experienced can try fancier techniques. The nice thing is that everyone can be playing together, but each at their own level. And often I'm pleasantly surprised when the students who I think are looking for the more "serious" music instruction tell me how much they have gotten out of the fun, social aspect of the classes.

I should also say there are some major differences between teaching adults and kids. Adult students have chosen to be there, unlike kids who are sometimes only there because it's their music class, or their parents want them to take music lessons. And that creates a very different dynamic in the classroom because you don't have to convince adult students that making music is rewarding – they already know that and that's why they are there. It takes a lot of pressure off the teacher! You can also place a lot of the discipline in the hands of the student. You can outline the techniques that assist in the learning process, show them how quickly improvement can come if they are willing to invest even a little bit of time on a regular basis, and then work at inspiring them to want to put the time in.

UY!: What do you do to keep your own ukulele playing growing and improving?

I feel like I need to be able to offer something for everyone along that spectrum when I'm teaching, and that's definitely the most challenging part of teaching for me.

EG: I tend to be a pretty organic learner, so it changes all the time. I learn a lot from watching other ukulele players and trying to figure out what they are doing. I pick a song out of thin air that I've never played before and try to figure out a few different ways of playing it. I try to go to the Corktown Jam as often as possible to learn from others there. I bring my ukulele to music jams with friends now instead of my guitar (so much easier to carry!) and I often challenge myself to play along in some different way than I'm used to. I'm working on understanding chord voicings and what works in different contexts. I pick up different instruction books. Anything to mix things up and keep it interesting for me.

UY!: Do you have suggestions for adult-oriented teachers who are just starting out? Little things that might make their classes more effective and their students more relaxed and receptive to new skills?

You'd be surprised how many adults really get into things like standing up and sitting down every time they change chords, or singing funny kids songs...

EG: I feel it's important to keep in mind that adult students, especially beginners, might have some anxiety or fear. The more you can do to create a supportive environment, the easier it will be for them to learn. Learning something new can feel uncomfortable, and adults are usually afraid of looking stupid (that's another difference between adults and kids!). Sometimes I like to address that by doing something stupid and silly together. You'd be surprised how many adults really get into things like standing up and sitting down every time they change chords, or singing funny kids songs, or playing the kazoo, or whatever. It seems to help people get over that adult mindset that can sometimes get in the way of learning.

I always make sure to talk about the importance of mistakes. Not just that mistakes are okay, but that they are actually really valuable learning tools if you can hear yourself making a mistake, that means you have a picture in your head of what you are trying to do but your fingers aren't there yet. And that's actually a pretty good place to be because you have to be able to picture what you are after before you can actually do it (not to mention the fact that many mistakes actually sound interesting and they can be stored away to be used later when you want that sound!).

Further to that idea of the picture in your head, I often use visualization as a learning tool – I get students to put down their instruments, close their eyes, and imagine their way through a piece imagine their fingers moving on the fretboard and plucking the strings. It is an incredibly powerful technique, and I recommend students use it as part of their practice. The great thing about it is you can practice while you are riding on the train, or before you fall asleep at night – any time that you have a couple of minutes, even if you don't have your instrument. That can be helpful for adult students who might be squeezing music into a very demanding schedule.

Students have a lot to teach each other, and a lot to teach us. My students know far more about their own experience than I will ever know...

I also try to check in with students as we are learning something to ask what they are noticing, or what the experience is like for them. "How was that? Did you notice anything different this time?" It sounds obvious, but adult students get a lot out of sharing their learning experience with each other, and they can reflect very articulately on what they are having trouble with, or the epiphany they just had. Students have a lot to teach each other, and a lot to teach us. My students know far more about their own experience than I will ever know, and engaging them in directing the learning process brings a richness into the classroom that is incredibly valuable.

UY!: You're an excellent and experienced community facilitator; how does ukulele lend itself to community development? If so, how?

EG: Anything that gets people singing and playing together, in my opinion, is good for building community. And ukulele is perfect for that– within a few minutes you can take a room of beginners and have them singing and playing a two-chord song together. It's like an instant portal to music-making– beam me up, Scotty! And I can't think of another instrument that sounds so beautiful when you have a roomful playing together – even though guitar is my first instrument, I have to admit that thirty guitars strumming away starts to sound pretty cacophonous. But thirty ukuleles – bliss!!

I think the potential is there for some really innovative and powerful work using the ukulele. We just have to go out there and do it!

There's also something in the inherent cuteness factor of the ukulele that is so inviting and friendly. I've noticed that when I'm carrying my ukulele case around I get into far more conversations with strangers - people are always asking about it. So even on a micro level, it's connecting me to more people. All these things make it a really good tool for bringing people together and empowering them to make music.

For several years I've been working with ArtsCan Circle, a wonderful group that brings artists and musicians into remote First Nations communities that have very little artistic resources. It's been really rewarding to use ukulele in that context and see kids who have so many challenges pick up a uke and have some instant success with it (see this Ukulele Report – Ed.). I've been thinking about how that could apply in different contexts – in working with homeless people, people with mental health issues, seniors, and so on.

I think the potential is there for some really innovative and powerful work using the ukulele. We just have to go out there and do it!

A favourite at festivals, folk clubs and concert series across Canada and the U.S, Eve Goldberg is also known for her teaching abilities. Eve, a certified Level 1 Teacher in the James Hill Ukulele Method, is the founder and leader of the Parkdale Ukulele Group in Toronto, ON. www.evegoldberg.com

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