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Cynthia Lin: Teaching Jazz Ukulele on Four Strings of Aloha

Arthur R George By

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Just the art of practicing is an achievement, no matter how it sounds, because you've taken the time to slow down and pay attention. —Cynthia Lin
"Aloha, everyone!" is Cynthia Lin's cheerful greeting to start her ukulele instructional videos which have compiled millions of views on YouTube. It is like a dear friend's individual welcoming. Her site mixes jazz classics: "Night and Day" by Cole Porter, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "Unforgettable," among ballads and Beatles songs, all on the instrument closely associated with the Hawaiian Islands.

Island-inspired jazz, bossa nova, and traditional Hawaiian music awaken new applications for the ukulele in a cross-cultural album In Waves due later this summer, with Lin on Oahu leading a trio, "U3," by virtual presence spread across the Pacific with collaborators Abe Lagrimas Jr. in Los Angeles and Lenny "Ukulenny" San Jose in the San Francisco Bay Area. Lin's online lessons have exploded, more than two million views for some of the more foundational lessons, hundreds of thousands for many others, approaching forty million views total, amid a renewed interest in the instrument that sometimes has been perceived as a just a toy. A six-pack of introductory lessons includes "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and the jazz-influenced "Brown Eyed Girl" of Van Morrison and Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry Be Happy." Jazz-specific tutorials use George Gershwin's "Summertime" and syncopated chord changes in "Fly Me to the Moon."

Lin says these classic songs are popular for teaching because of the strength of their writing: "when they're well-written they tell a story and people remember them." Lin considers herself a singer-songwriter first, but it is through her online instruction that she has attained prominence. Lin's singing at first seems only an accessory to the lesson, then it commands attention: ranging high and low in "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a sweet "Misty," a bluesy growl to start the refrain of the pop "Build Me Up, Buttercup."

Lin's beginner arrangements use just three or four chords, and apply them across ukulele's four strings to teach basic strum patterns. There are many other persons giving online ukulele instruction, with a variety of approaches to teaching and learning styles. Some are more chatty or loud, others more complicated or theoretical. Lin usually introduces all or part of a song, and then gets to work gently explaining, eyes focused on the student through the computer screen.

She breaks each song down into its elements, as slow as one strum per chord, and then reassembles them, just as she does with more advanced pieces. On-screen chord diagrams illustrate finger placements. Video allows progress at whatever suitable pace, and as many replays infinitely available as needed. She acknowledges the difficulties students encounter, and reminds that it will take more time and practice to connect the brain with muscle memory in newly-activated fingers. She mentions the stimulation is actually good for the brain as well as the soul; moving so slowly, one can feel the synapses strummed into order.

Finding A Path

Lin's musical beginnings were with piano and violin. She received a guitar as a high school graduation gift, which she took with her to college at Princeton. There she listened heavily to jazz and Joni Mitchell, majoring in economics and writing "bad love songs." After college came corporate work trading on that economics degree; a few of years of that established it was not to be her path.

She began writing songs again, presenting them in cafes and then college showcases. Her style became what she described as "acoustic jazz folk," based in guitar and arising from the jazz influences of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. From them she learned vocal interpretation, "making every word mean something."

Lin released her first EP of guitar songs in 2005, but it wasn't until 2015 when she began teaching ukulele classes in San Francisco that she started posting some tutorial videos for students to follow along. She also led a retro jazz swing band, and a lounge presentation of Latin swing, bossa nova, and blues with ukulele in front. Her album Ukulele Days charted at #15 among Billboard jazz albums in 2017; it was released on CD and light-green clear see-through vinyl, as if it were pressed onto beach seaglass.

Her lessons progress through intermediate and advanced levels, and she is not shy about referring students on to other sites and instructors. She modestly claims only moderate ukulele skills, forcing her to push herself and get creative with delivery. She committed to a plan of 100 days of posting a video each day of a different ukulele song. It was a way to build content, and improve her own skills, challenged to learn new songs and create new arrangements daily. Dr. Uke, an English site with many jazz-based links, was an important resource.

She only got as far as 63 programs in that project, but gained an empathy with the learning process of her students. She is presently making another run at the 100 day / 100 song target. Thus the cheerful encouragement in many of her instructional videos: "keep practicing," gently pointing the way past beginner frustration, keeping it fun. Day Four of the current project was a swing version of Gershwin's "Our Love Is Here To Stay." A parallel YouTube project offers 100 days of vocal training, in a method she calls "mindbodyvoice," integrating traditional techniques with the holistic breathing and mindful movement of yoga.

Lin sees learning as a process, requiring awareness and patience. Paying attention and slowing down are skills she seeks to hone for herself, and she encourages new players to practice slowly, even if for only five minutes a day. "Just the act of practicing is an achievement, no matter how it sounds, because you've taken time to slow down and pay attention."

The Happy Sound

Ukulele as a jazz instrument goes back to the 1920s, when its plinky sound fit in well with string bands, vaudeville, ragtime, and then swing. Later, it conveyed a beach balminess, from its Hawaiian connection, even if perceived as a novelty. The replacement of small groups by big bands pushed the little instrument aside, where it mostly remained amid the emergence of bebop, electric blues, and rock. Mattel sold 11 million plastic ukes as toys in the Baby Boom decade from 1947-1957, just one brand among many. The perceived absurdity of Tiny Tim in the late 1960s further exiled the ukulele from serious consideration.

Though the ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, it is actually a modification of Portuguese stringed instruments brought by men from Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, who went to Hawaii in the late 1800s to labor on sugar plantations. After fulfilling their fieldwork contracts, they returned to their earlier skills as woodworkers and created the ukulele. The sound enchanted the king of Hawaii, and it became the sound of the islands.

The ukulele is bro'-and girlfriend-friendly, beach-friendly, tailgate-friendly, picnic-friendly. It's small enough to be taken on a day hike, or airplane carry-on. Its diminutive size makes it easier to pick up and play than most other instruments, and immediately produces a coherent and soothing sound. Even if regarded with humor, it draws a smile. Few can hate on the gentle, happy sound of a ukulele. The sweet and hopeful rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on the soundtrack of Shawshank Redemption by "Bruddah Iz," Israel Ka'ano'i Kamakawiwo'ole, inspired people to want to play it, and Cynthia Lin says it is the one song that most beginners first want to learn.

At high levels, the instrument can be played with great virtuosity. Jake Shimabukuro has gone on to be a popular star on the instrument, after demonstrating on YouTube what could be done with his intricate rendition of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Tamaine Gardner was mentored as a child by Don Ho and shreds on TED Talks. Lin moves smoothly over the fretboard as she builds from basic chords to finger-picking.

Lyle Ritz, who later played acoustic bass in the Wrecking Crew studio band of Phil Spector and the The Beach Boys, recorded two jazz ukulele albums for Verve on the invitation of guitarist and record executive Barney Kessel, in 1957 How About Uke? and two years later 50th State Jazz. Neither sold widely at the time, but have gained respect over the years. One of Hawaii's premier teachers, Roy Sakuma, sought Ritz out from obscurity and brought his music to the islands, for swing tempos and more complex melodic fingerings than had been known to players there. Ritz also made a series of smaller-label ukulele albums, and composed a half dozen jazz ukulele songbooks, all still available.

The Joy of Participation

The ukulele has acquired a new popularity as a way to participate in music, not just listen. In a recent year, more than 1.4 million ukuleles were sold in the U.S. Ukulele is used for grade school music instruction; therapeutic use in assisted living facilities; programs for teens, young professionals, and retirees. Ukulele is a bridge that connects people through its relatively accessible entry point and rewarding learning curve. There are uke circles and community bands; some people seek out camps and festivals that offer extended opportunities to learn and jam.

In Portland, for example, Marianne Brogan now organizes ukulele groups and has become a purveyor of the instrument. She first picked up the instrument as a lark, gathering a group of work friends, some of whom had no musical background whatsoever, in her living room with $20 ukes and laughing "at the ridiculousness of it all." Unexpectedly, she fell in love with playing, and it has since kept music education through ukulele in the forefront of her life.

In 2002, Brogan founded the Portland Ukulele Association, with fewer than a dozen people. The group expanded within just a couple of years to host its first ukulele festival in 2004. Now about 65 members meet once a month to play and sing together. She also founded the Port Townsend Uke Fest near Seattle, now approaching its ninth year, with events spread over five days, with a residential instructional program and performances by accomplished ukulele-ists.

Cynthia Lin also hosts play-along, sing-along uke jams and pop-up sessions, for audiences of up to 400 people. Concerts planned on both coasts for this spring were cancelled due to the corona virus, but Lin went online to put up an impromptu "Uke-pocalypse" jam to fill the void. Various "uke crews" inspired by Lin congregate around the country for their own sessions, and helped coordinate a subsequent series of interactive online jams. A multi-day uke fest is still planned for San Francisco in late July, covid-conditional.

Sharing the Playing

Lin was born in Chicago to Taiwanese parents, raised in New Jersey, and has lived in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco. Although not Hawaiian, she says she has a strong belief in sharing the Hawaiian concept of aloha. More than mere salutation of greeting or farewell, it means exchanging mutual regard, affection, and warmth. Other characteristics are harmony, pleasantness, patience, and perseverance, the same qualities Lin suggests to her students. Last year she moved to Hawaii, the home of aloha spirit.

"I love sharing the joy that comes from simply strumming, singing, and playing the uke," she has said. She believes everyone has an inner artist, and that ukulele is a tool to bring it out. "I believe anyone can learn to play and enjoy making music on this instrument, and there is nothing more magical than making music."

Lin claims not to be a marketing person, but she does have that economics degree, and those YouTube teaching videos provide demographic reach. Supporting material such as individual songsheets is available either free or by voluntary pay-through links under Lin's videos. A well-developed Patreon platform offers specialized lessons and jams by subscription, printed songbooks, seven CDs, and she has a signature line of ukes under the Ohana brand.

There is something affecting about watching Lin deconstruct a song, advise of its difficulty, and then see an advanced intermediate ensemble earnestly press through to completion and accomplishment. "I love teaching the ukulele because I can see that it makes a difference in peoples' lives," she says. "The joy and creative empowerment of making music can change the world for the better."

Thus she went online with the free jam and accompanying songbook amid the first days of the sweep of the Covid-19 virus in the United States. As lockdowns spread, Lin advanced the idea of maintaining community through playing, spreading aloha too, even if in isolation. Her gathering had more than 600 live viewers globally, and more than 6,000 visits to the archived site within a day. In a troubled time, she offered virtual togetherness, closing with Ben E. King's "Stand By Me."

After two weeks, she staged another online jam which drew three times as many live viewers and more than 20,000 visitors within days. It too went viral, and would replicate in another livestream jam a week later. More followed, spreading aloha, uke-ing in place.

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