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Interview: J. Chalmers Doane (Part I)

Often called "The Pied Piper of Halifax", Nova Scotia native J. Chalmers Doane has introduced thousands of students to the magic of music. The Doane ukulele program, with its beginnings in the Halifax elementary public schools, has touched the lives of over 50,000 school children and adults throughout Canada and the United States. In 2005 Chalmers was made a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his contributions to Canadian culture.

Read Part II of this interview here.

Ukulele Yes!: When did you come up with the idea of using the ukulele as a vehicle for teaching music?

Still got it: The ever-charismatic Doane conducts a rehearsal in Maitland, NS.

J. Chalmers Doane: Well, I started playing quite young... [learning] from my mother. When I was eleven I got myself a Dixie banjo uke and started showing it to my friends. By that Christmas I had at least four of them with ukes. I started working with my friends to form a little group to play. I had also by that time started playing a little bit of violin and I was completely in love with the violin but knew nothing about it. And so I was just scratching away trying to play some songs.

Anyway, we formed a little group and we played for the Kiwanis luncheon. That was the first gig. I mean, there were lots of times you played for family and things but this was dress up, go down there, play the thing and get fed. This was a real gig! Anyway, that was the first that I recall getting other people playing the ukulele.

UY: You were in Grade six?

JCD: That’s right. That’s when we did the first one that I remember, anyway.

UY: And once you became a school teacher how did you start your first ukulele group?

JCD: When I started teaching school I had taken a course at the Normal College and learned how to teach a little bit. I got a license to teach and they hired me to teach music. I was doing general music in one school and junior high music in another. And the the next year [Hants East Rural High] hired me to teach grades seven to twelve, every class, twice a week. It was amazing. And so I started a string group, a ukulele ensemble, and I planted the seeds for the first school band in Nova Scotia.

The ukulele group was very popular and I taught them to play chords and to sing; one of the acts even had two girls tap-dancing! There was a TV program called “High Society” and we were asked to do the show. They went to different schools [to tape the] program. We put on this show and it really got a whole lot of attention. I got an amazing amount of mail from across Nova Scotia.

The dramatic thing out of that story was the morning after this great success on television, this little guy was at school early as usual—about eight o’clock in the morning. He came up and I said, “well, Dwight, what did you think of that? Was that pretty good?” And he kind of half-smiled and said it was. And then he turned around with a real serious look and he said “yeah,” he said, “but when are you going to teach us to play the ukulele?” That was a horrendous moment in my life.

I had to change my whole approach and start thinking about a much broader sense of musicianship. This had the potential of being something really important and I started really thinking a whole different way.

I realized then... and as you can tell it was a horrendous moment because it affects me emotionally every time I even mention it... that was the moment that I had to decide: “are you foolin’ around or are you going to do something?” And that’s what the kid said to me, really. Although he didn’t realize the profundity of his remark, he was calling me, really. I said, “well, what do you mean?” And then we started to talk about it and what he meant was “when are you going to teach us to play melody?” And I realized that, yes, that’s what I had to do. I had to change my whole approach and start thinking about a much broader sense of musicianship. This had the potential of being something really important and I started really thinking a whole different way. I started really thinking about it, writing all kinds of melodies, scales, the same as one would do on a piano, really.

UY: So how did you generate a “buzz” about your ukulele program? How did you attract so many students?

JCD: You have to generate interest. And I found that the interest test is more significant than the music test.

UY: What do you mean by the “interest test”?

Now that's a ukulele group! Chalmers Doane conducting at the Halifax Metro Centre (c. 1980)

JCD: Well, have a meeting, for example, at an odd time when you’re competing with something else like a [sports] game or maybe something favourite that the kids wanted to do, maybe on a Saturday. I refined that greatly years later. When I taught in Halifax the interest test was very calculated and very heavy; I would have an interest meeting for the kids at eight o’clock in the morning. That was horrendous because school started at nine in those days. And if the parents didn’t come for the parents’ meeting—they had to go to an interest meeting as well—if the parents didn’t show up I told the kids just to expect to be on the waiting list because nobody was even being considered if their parents—or an appropriate representative—didn’t show up. And these things made a huge difference to the success of the program because you had in-depth interest being attempted right at the beginning. Whether it was really there or not, who knows? But they had to do something; they had to show some interest.

UY: You mentioned the waiting list. Tell me about the waiting list in the early days of your program.

JCD: (Laughs) Well, the waiting list in the real early days was, um, a very creative thing. It was largely in the imagination of the teacher. Which was myself. I remember knowing that I needed to have at least thirty kids in this group and I only had fourteen. I remember, in particular, one woman coming to me and saying, “can I get my child into this group?” And I said, “well, I think so. Is she interested and musical?” “Oh yes,” she said, “she’s had piano” and so on. And I said, “well, you know that there are a lot of people trying to get into this group so I have to put her on the waiting list and I’ll give you a call.”

I never took the attitude that I was on bended knee begging children—or anybody—to join my group. The attitude was: “I have a terrific thing here. It’s the best thing you’ve ever seen.”

This seems a bit ridiculous in a sense but, you see, I never took the attitude that I was on bended knee begging children—or anybody—to join my group. The attitude was: “I have a terrific thing here. It’s the best thing you’ve ever seen. And if you jump through the right hoops you can get in.” And that was basically the psychology and it never changed and it wasn’t long before we had hundreds wanting into these groups; hundreds of children. At the peak of it I think we had 2200 in Halifax; a lot of kids.

But I didn’t start by saying, “oh, please join my group, you know, I’m just a beginning teacher and I’m hoping that we can have a success here if you will please come in and please behave so that everything will look good.” Anybody didn’t behave in my group they were warned once [and then] they were out of there. As a result, they realized that I was serious and we got along really well.

Now, you have to understand a little bit about psychology when you’re starting the group but the moment that the students are running the show which, today, unfortunately, is the case in a lot of places... I see it all over the place. I see young people—little kids—running their families. And I see school teachers and others trying to be friends with the kids... it’s completely ridiculous. It’s absurd. Kids don’t want any more friends; they’ve got enough friends now.

You’ve got to take a serious approach. The person leading the program has to have enough self-confidence that somebody would want to follow them someplace. And if the person doing the program can’t do anything—can’t play, can’t sing, doesn’t have good rhythm, doesn’t have a good instrument and hasn’t learned to play pieces which are convincing—why would anyone join the group? You have to ask that question. And I did ask that question over and over and over again because there were a few people who didn’t play the ukulele who were successful [teachers] and I was very, very interested [in this]. How they could be successful when they didn’t play? And what I discovered was that they were musicians, they just weren’t ukulele players. They understood melody, harmony, and rhythm very well... therefore, [their success] was more about what they permitted to happen in the class and what they wouldn't permit to happen in the class than what they taught.

UY: Which brings me to my next question: can the ukulele be taught by a non-music specialist?

JCD: If a person’s a real teacher, yes. They can do it. But I’ve seen just a few, just a very few, and they had super skills in other areas, in other disciplines.

UY: What about starting an adult ukulele ensemble which is something you have a lot of experience with. How is that different than starting an ensemble for younger students?

JCD: Well, first of all—again—you have to have leadership. In my case, I played the ukulele for people in order to get their attention. And then I told them that they could play, too, if they wanted to, that this wasn’t all that hard if they were willing to put some time in and if they were willing to practise. Teaching adults is a matter of convincing them that they can do it.

...people learn more in class from each other than they ever learn from the teacher.

I’ll just say one more thing here about [beginners]: people learn more in class from each other than they ever learn from the teacher. And what you have to remember is that it’s your job to motivate, keep order, try to get a place where they can practise that doesn’t leak so that that they’re in out of the cold, be consistent, make it regular, make it fun, and give them opportunities to play. Those things are all just as important as the musical things, especially at the beginning.

You gotta set up all those things for their creature comforts: music stands, the proper chairs, the proper instruments, the proper accompanying instruments, the proper ukuleles, the proper strings, the proper music. All that stuff has got to be dealt with and if you’re not willing to do that then you’re not going to have much of a program.

UY: How did you deal with skeptics and what advice to you have for people dealing with skeptics today?

JCD: Well, um, I rather enjoyed skeptics. Most of the time. There were people who were downright against the ukulele; they probably even thought it was a force for evil because everything they had learned in their training was about discipline and extremely repetitive work. There was nothing easy about it and it was painful—certainly with the violin, for example.

The thing about it was that I had studied enough music with enough different instruments that I understood all this. I studied with Bornoff and I studied with Suzanne LeCarpentier on cello, I studied with Gary Carr on bass, and I studied with Cecil Carter on viola and I knew how hard those things were. The violin is, without question in my opinion, the most difficult instrument on earth. Until I heard an erhu I would have said that there is nothing that could compete with it in [that regard]. On the other hand, trying to play an erhu is probably even worse! (Laughs)

I never took the attitude that what I was doing with the ukulele was better; that wasn’t it. I was getting people started in music who would never have had a door open to music.

Most of the skeptics were people who had a classical background. And they saw [my ukulele program] as somebody cutting all the corners and trying to promote themselves to the top of the mountain without actually going through all the things that you’re supposed to go through. When someone else studied for eight years before going on stage to perform and these kids were getting to play before an audience perhaps after they had studied in a class for a year... some people thought that was a terrible thing. It was mostly musicians who thought that was a terrible thing.

I used to talk to these people about that fact that there are many different facets of music. I never for a second said, “well, classical music isn’t all that good.” I don’t think that. I think classical music is that good. I never took the attitude that what I was doing with the ukulele was better; that wasn’t it. I was getting people started in music who would never have had a door open to music. Now, if they decided because of what they heard on the ukulele that they [wanted to pursue music further], the world was open to them. The door had been opened. Then they could do other things, and many did. This is one way I dealt with the skeptics who were musicians.

Read Part II of this interview here.

Look for Part II of this interview in the Spring 2009 edition of Ukulele Yes! For more information about J. Chalmers Doane please visit

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