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Interview: Felipe Sequeira

Felipe Sequeria learned to play ukulele from his father, Vince Sequeira, director of the Pacifica Ukes ensemble. Since moving to Korea a decade ago, Felipe has used the ukulele as a tool for teaching both music and English-language skills.

Ukulele Yes!: How did you get started with the ukulele?

Felipe Sequeria

Felipe Sequeira: Well, my dad has been teaching ukulele since he moved to Campbell River, BC, Canada close to 30 years ago. Being the son of an ukulele teacher I was bound to learn at some point! In grade two I joined his ukulele group which was then called "Ukuleles Anonymous"; we played at music festivals up and down Vancouver Island. That's where I got my start.

When I graduated high school I left my dad's group which was by then called "Pacifica Ukes" and went to the University of Victoria. At the University of Victoria I was a music major but I also had connections to the Island Ukuleles group in Victoria so I went there and helped as a assistant teacher and director. That's where I started teaching. From there I finished my four-year degree and took off to Korea.

UY!: Why did you come to Korea initially and how long did it take before you were teaching music locally?

FS: Well, I didn't come here to teach music; I came here for an adventure. I was just looking to see the world a little more, especially Asia. I ended up meeting my now-wife which made me stay! At the time I had no musical outlets, no way to practise or play the ukulele. At first I didn't even bring my ukulele with me but eventually I ordered one online and shipped it to Korea.

I taught at a Korean preschool and we used a lot of songs to teach English skills so I started bringing my ukulele to class and using it as accompaniment. As I got seniority and respect from the owner of the school I convinced him to buy a set of 15 ukuleles so that I could teach them as part of our class. That way the students would get some singing and music and they'd learn English as well. We started at the preschool level; that's where the Korean part of my ukulele instruction began.

UY!: Many young people from English-speaking countries travel to Korea to teach English. Would you recommend that they all bring ukuleles with them? Is it that useful?

Live music-making is much more interactive and fun for the kids. It's a distraction from the learning; they're all singing along and they don't realize that they're learning.

FS: For me, playing the ukulele and having a love for ukulele, yes, it's very useful for me. Although, I don't teach the really young students anymore, it's more conversation and writing with an older age-group. But when I was teaching preschool and doing lots of nursery rhymes and things it was great. Ukulele is an instrument that Korean kids aren't too familiar with yet; they say, "oh, what's that? A little guitar?" I say, "no it's an ukulele, you wanna try it?". It's small enough for them to hold it and play a song; it's more fun to strum and sing a song than to play the instructional tape and say, "listen and repeat." Live music-making is much more interactive and fun for the kids. It's a distraction from the learning; you know, they're all singing along and they don't realize that they're learning. If you put on that instructional tape they know that they have to just listen and repeat.

UY!: Growing up in Canada, did you learn in D tuning when you were young and at some point make a transition to C tuning?

FS: Yes, I learned in D tuning. When I came here and started teaching I taught in D tuning. But then when I met up with the company that I'm associated with now – Bambell Music in Seoul – I realized that in Korea, everything ukulele was C-tuning based. For the first year it was really difficult. Now it's easy enough to go back and forth to either one.

UY!: I'm told that there are many Korean ukulele students in Canada – specifically in Langley, BC – who do particularly well with the ukulele. What do you think about that? I mean, given your experience, is there something about the Korean culture that might explain why these Korean students do so well with the instrument?

FS: It has a lot to do with the culture. You're well aware of the "back to basics" trend in Canada and the U.S.: "lets cut out all the fine arts and 'frilly' things and focus on math and science." In Korea there's a lot of music, a lot of singing, a lot of really interesting traditional instruments. Nobody is going to cut out music yet and hopefully it continues that way. Koreans love to sing; they love to make music. It's a very vibrant culture. When you combine that with the work ethic of most Asian countries where the students are used to going to school or private institutions 10-12 hours a day, they're studying machines! Competition is extremely fierce here.

UY!: Does the hard work, practise and competition take some of the fun out of music making?

Practising music is a lot different from going home and getting math and english drilled into your head. For many students music is an outlet.

FS: That depends on the teacher. If a teacher is really harsh on the students then the students are going to loose their motivation and it will be more like a homework drill. But if the teacher is exciting and interesting and can play things that the students want to play then the students tend to go home and practise without even being told to. They'll come back with questions: "Can we play this piece? How do I play this chord?" It's fun for them. Practising music is a lot different from going home and getting math and english drilled into your head for three hours a day. For many students music is an outlet.

UY!: So, what kinds of things – repertoire, skills, and so on – are you students interested in? What motivates them?

FS: Well, there's the real catch. What they want to play and what I want them to play is not always the same! I've tried various styles. Classic pop tunes go over well but of course in Korea they don't know these songs like they might in North America. But they're fun and they're easy to play. I've also tried bringing in pop tunes that the students request and I've had mixed results with that. The students who want to sing love it and it's easy but for the students who don't want to sing it's pretty much useless.

Many people ... only teach what the student can handle "right now." So the student goes home doing exactly what they already know how to do.

Classical songs have been a hit for my students. They like to play things like William Tell Overture and Minuet in G. They like to be able to pick melodies and once they get a little bit better I can teach them things like hammering and pulling or arpeggio strums and they take to it quickly.

Many people teach to the level of the student. What I mean by that is they only teach what the student can handle "right now." So the student goes home doing exactly what they already know how to do. I always try to give them a little more; if they're a level one I try to teach at a level one-and-a-half. I always give them a little challenge, a little push. I find if I give them stuff that they can already do they get bored really quickly.

You think, "of course, that's a given; of course that's what you have to do." But when you look at what most people are teaching they're teaching the easiest thing; the thing that their students can 'get' right away. But you find that the students have a lot of potential; you push them a little bit and they take off! Always giving the students a challenge is very important.

UY!: That might work in many of the Asian countries but do you think that approach can be successful in North American schools as well?

We all need challenges to make life interesting. Nobody wants to sit down and do the same boring 9-to-5 job for the rest of their life. If there's something interesting, some chance of promotion or improvement we work harder in regular life; that includes North American life. It's the same with the ukulele.

UY!: What does the future hold for ukulele in Korea?

FS: I think the future for ukulele in Korea is bright. It's still very young here; it's not nearly as developed as it is in North America, Japan or Europe. There are only a few companies that are involved in promoting and teaching ukulele but I think it will grow really quickly. They're really interested in music here; it's an important part of the culture and as soon as people catch on to the infinite versatility of the ukulele... I think it'll explode.

Felipe Sequeria is based in Sokcho, South Korea, where he teaches music and English. Click here to read his Ukulele Yes! report on the rise of the ukulele in Korea.

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