Aaron Canwell, from Portland, will be coming to Everett on Jan. 25 to lead two free classes on learning to play the ukulele. Canwell, 43, also is a member of Micah and Me, a band that performs children’s and family music.
Here, he talks about how riding mass transit with his son gave him the incentive to learn the ukulele and how, because of that, he now teaches drop-in beginner’s uke classes in which his students can strum a few songs at classes’ end.
Why has the ukulele rebounded in popularity over the past decade or so?
I think because the memory of Tiny Tim died out. I’m so grateful I didn’t know about Tiny Tim when I picked up the ukulele. There was no way I would have touched the ukulele. People like Jake Shimabukuro, he’s big time. There’s some other young guys and ladies, 21 Pilots, that rock pop duo that teens and young adults really get into. There’s several songs with the ukulele. Who else? Riptide does that.
What drew you to the instrument?
For me, I’m a stay-at-home dad. We were living in Portland. We had one car. My wife would take the car to work. I’d be doing gigs with my son and being a guitar player. A diaper bag, my son and a guitar bumping through a bus or light rail got to be a pain in the butt. And I realized that the ukulele was a hot thing. I thought I’ll pick it up. It was so much easier to transport around. That’s how it started. And I started buying ukuleles, and now I have 25.
How do you get your students — with no experience on the instrument — playing a tune by the end of the class?
Those over 10 years old can usually play four chords. Sometimes if we have an adult class, we can even get them playing “Over the Rainbow,” the song played on the ukulele by “IZ” (Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwoʻole), the Hawaiian dude. Pretty normal is three to four chords. If you just strum the ukulele, it’s an A minor 7th. Just strumming it, you have a chord. That’s kind of cool.
How do you teach the ukulele in these short sessions?
It’s an accompaniment instrument. It’s about singing together. I get everyone singing and I do rock ‘n’ roll at the end of each song. I jump in the air. By the end of the class, when I jump in the air and land, everyone stops at the same time. It’s pretty cool to see the progression over 45 to 60 minutes
What songs can your students learn?
We start with “You Put the Lime in the Coconut” — that’s a one-chord song, very easy on the ukulele. Next, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” — we get people used to strumming and singing together. We start out slow and get faster and faster. Then I start adding Hank Williams Jr. “Jambalaya.” That’s a good one for older people. It’s two chords and easy. And after that, it depends of the ages. We might do “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, an easy two-chord song. And what else? We get to “You Are My Sunshine,” three chords.
Who turns out for these events?
I never know. It’s like a library will say we’ll do a teen ukulele class, then one teen shows up and three retirees. Because people know me, know I do kids music, if it says adults only they still show up with their kids. It’s really all ages.
I get old people, young people. People show up with 3-year-old kids who last about 15 minutes. I bring scarves and shakers and I keep kids entertained as much as possible. Little ones are pretty active. In about 30 minutes, they’re done. Then I keep the adults interested by moving through the chords. The first 15 minutes maybe just two chords and getting people singing.
What’s the youngest age that children can participate and enjoy the session?
Every once in a while a 6-year-old or a 3-year-old pays attention the entire time. Parents come there thinking that their 4-year-old will learn how to play. The 4-year-old will have fun. I say if they’re under 10, don’t worry about where their fingers are going.
How long have you been doing drop-in classes?
Probably four years. Our band, Micah and Me, started six years ago. I started teaching beginner’s classes a few years after that.
What type of music does the band perform?
Children’s and family music. We do 1950s and ’60s, too.
What’s the most challenging song you like to play on the ukulele?
I enjoy playing The Champs “Tequila” — but we say “Tortilla!” That one’s fun.
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
The Everett Public Library will host two free all-ages ukulele classes on Jan. 25. Classes are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. at the Evergreen branch, 9512 Evergreen Way, Everett, and 2:30 p.m. at the main library, 2702 Hoyt Ave., Everett. The teacher is Aaron Canwell of the Oregon-based band Micah and Me. There will be 25 ukuleles available to play in each session. You’re welcome to bring your own ukulele. Call 425-257-8000 or go to tinyurl.com/PlayUkuleleEV.