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Interview: J. Chalmers Doane (Part II)

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.

Read Part I of this interview here.

Ukulele Yes!: You've talked about the idea of promotion and "selling" the program. You made good use of the media during your time in Halifax to publicize your message. What would you say to a new teacher about using the media and getting the message out there? Is that important?

J. Chalmers Doane (c.1979): "You can give children a major music education on the ukulele. No question about it."

J. Chalmers Doane: It is. The general public—and in this case the "general public" would be the parents and the grandparents and the friends of the school—have to be aware of what is going on. For example, if you're expecting the grandfather or grandmother to come up with a ukulele for Christmas for the kids then somebody's got to do some selling so that they realize that this isn't a waste of money, that this is something really valuable and good. And therefore the public has to be informed to some degree and sold on a package of goods. They have to believe that there's something good here, that there's something like apple pie and motherhood involved and, of course, I believe there is therefore I found it very easy to sell.

You just can't overemphasize the importance of the selling to the public. Now, this actually happened at a meeting one night in Halifax. A fella put up his hand and he said, "we're concerned that if we buy the violin—this was a string program—that after a year or so [our son] might give it up." And I said, in front of two or three hundred people, "if you even have the slightest doubt that your child is going to stay in this program then don't join. I don't want you to join. How can he be successful if you're starting off with that kind of negativity and feeling that way? Wait. Wait ‘til next year, ‘til you believe in it better. You don't believe in it enough right now. Wait until you think he can succeed because if there's anyone in the world who has to think he's gonna succeed, it's you. And so he won't succeed if you think he won't. He may not succeed even if you think he will but if you don't think he will he hasn't got a hope. So forget about it."

The public has to be sold on a package of goods. They have to believe that there's something good here and, of course, I believe there is therefore I [find] it very easy to sell.

Now, that made people panic and think that they weren't gonna get in the program. And it almost completely diffused any negative comments which really wasn't what I was trying to do in the first place but I suppose in a little way I was. I was trying to make them a little bit anxious to get into the program.

Anyway, this is selling. [If you're selling used cars] you say: "there are only three cars left. The last two went yesterday for half price and as soon as these three are gone, it's over!" (Laughs) You have to do something like that.

UY!: In recent years you've been working with a group of students in Maitland, NS. How has this experience been different from your experience with the Halifax ensembles?

JCD: Very different. Because we have no critical mass do deal with; we hardly have anybody! We started a program in a school that had a population of maybe a hundred when we started. It has diminished to something like forty-five or fifty students.

UY!: In the whole school?

JCD: In the whole school. Primary through grade six. So, in a group of sixty people—just general people off the street—to find a bunch of potential musicians is a real tough job. And now we have a ukulele ensemble playing at quite a high level which consists of fourteen people. Now, we trained another twenty or thirty over the last few years who fell by the wayside one way or another but we had classes and we're still running classes in the elementary school down there; my wife is teaching them.

The psychology with this thing was, "ok, if you join this group you can't quit. You have to stay ‘til you get through grade twelve." And it worked.

But it's a completely different thing because you have to have a different psychology. The psychology with this thing that I'm doing now was, "ok, if you join this group you can't quit. You have to stay ‘til you get through grade twelve." And it worked. We have a lot of kids that are in high school now—they're almost all in high school—and they've gone through and graduated and in one case gone to university and still stayed [in the group] for another year even while they were in university.

So it was a different mentality. I didn't have the psychology of everyone dying to get into group. I had to try to make the group interesting enough that we could keep the people who had some musical ability and try to give them performance opportunities. Very difficult to do that. But having done so many different things and having taught so many hundreds of kids all across Canada, in the United States and in Hawaii—I call those two different countries even though they're not really...

UY!: It depends who you ask.

JCD: Yes, it depends on who you ask.

UY!: But you felt successful both in a school system like Halifax and in an extreme situation with only fifty students at the school. You were still able to make it work?

JCD: Yes. Well, I found it more frustrating. But then I mellowed, you see, as I got older. I ran a tighter ship when I was young and I had the luxury of being able to do that because I had so many people. I had thousands of kids; I could pick and choose. I could get the best kids. And that doesn't mean that I didn't believe music was for everyone but when you're starting a group, the most important thing is to succeed.

Confusing social work and music education is disastrous. And many a music teacher has gone down the tubes because they did that.

Oh, I'll throw this one in. This hasn't been mentioned yet. Confusing social work and music education is disastrous. And many a music teacher has gone down the tubes because they did that. Now, it doesn't mean that a music teacher can't be very interested in social programs or that you shouldn't do good things for kids. I can give you a list a mile long of good things that I tried to do for unfortunate kids. But when you make that the important thing instead of teaching them music you're failing. And you will fail. And if you start your program and you fail musically and it's supposed to be a music program, you're out of business and you'll never get the chance to do any social work or anything else.

I mean, some kid's got problems, the parents are unstable, the father's on dope, and all these kind of things, that's true, horrible, but irrelevant. That isn't the point. The point is: can that kid learn to play a musical instrument? And if that's what you're going to teach him, you've got to teach him that. And you've got to be good at teaching him that and if you can't do that, all the other nice stuff that you do is out the window.

UY!: But an awareness of the home situation must help in some way...

JCD: Absolutely. Yes, you need to know about the home situation, of course. [But you have to stay focused on] what you're doing: "who am I? I'm a music teacher." Ok, ask yourself that every day and say, "is what I'm doing got anything to do with teaching music? Or is it got to do with everything else?" And if it has to do with everything else instead of teaching music then you're in the wrong business. So change. Go into social work. And then you can teach somebody how to play the ukulele if you're that type of person... you'll think you're doing social work but you're really teaching music!

UY!: You did some work in some of the underprivileged areas in Halifax and there were particular challenges that came up there. Why did you choose to focus on those areas?

JCD: Because I believe that music education is for everyone. That's why. We started our program where we knew we could succeed and I promised that we would gradually expand to include every school in the system. And we would offer bona fide music education programs in every school and we did do that.

The problems in some schools are horrendous. We had one little girl who kept missing her practise and coming late. We found out that—she was only in grade 4 herself—she was babysitting two little ones. One wasn't in school and one went to school in the morning. This girl was going to school herself and looking after two kids out on the street and in behind the school while she was going to school and the parents were nowhere to be seen. This was actually happening, this kind of thing. This child had the most phenomenal interest in music. To go through that when she was only in grade four... things like that.

We made arrangements [so that everybody had an instrument] whether they could afford it or not. But we had parents who would hock the instruments on the weekend that we had provided for the kids.

UY!: These were ukuleles? Saxophones? Trumpets?

JCD: In this case they were brass and woodwind instruments and of course people see those as something you can get money for. Nobody tries to get money for a ukulele! (Laughs) But that's what they were doing: hocking them. So we had to fight that and get into the business of becoming connected with the pawn shops and all that kind of thing.

There are a lot of problems involved and you have to become involved but if you ever loose sight of the fact that you're teaching music then you're going to go down the tubes. And so that is 'number one' and you have to remember that. Every uke teacher has to remember—even if they're only part-time uke teachers—that when they're teaching ukulele that's what they're doing and that's the most important thing.

UY!: In Halifax you had a whole range of programs: strings, winds, small ensembles, large ensembles, and so on. What if you only have ukulele? Can the ukulele be the basis of a complete music curriculum?

JCD: I think you could build quite a respectable music program with the ukulele as the base. Now, I would use a few other instruments in a ukulele program; I would use string bass, percussion, often a piano. Those can be played by students as well. Sometimes a guitar... I've used a guitar—a guitar, not seventy-five—with a group of thirty ukes for certain purposes and it's very, very effective.

[The ukulele] is way more flexible than people think; it's one of the most flexible of all musical instruments.

Ok, here's the thing: you can teach—I'm breaking it down into a simple form—melody, harmony, and rhythm [which are] three very important things that are outlined in a music education. So, if you teach a student to sing and to be able to play melody—which assumes scales and all things that go with that so that key is understood—and you teach them to play harmony—chords—and you can have it part of a bona fide music ensemble you can give children a major music education on the ukulele. No question about it.

UY!: So is the ukulele an end in itself or as a springboard to other things?

JCD: That is in the eyes of the beholder. [The ukulele] is way more flexible than people think; it's one of the most flexible of all musical instruments.

UY!: Thanks for sharing so much valuable experience with our readers. Just one more question: in your view, what does it mean to "have fun" in music class?

JCD: I think being able to do something that others respect is fun. And being able to do something that you respect is fun. Therefore when you begin to understand something about standards and you realize that you fit somewhere in the scheme of things I think you're starting to have fun. Somebody once said to me, "well, that sounds like a lot of work. I thought the ukulele was supposed to be fun." And I said, "yes, and I take my fun very seriously!"

The pioneering music educator who founded the Canadian school ukulele program, J. Chalmers Doane was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2005 for his contributions to Canadian culture. Visit Chalmers online at

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