Shimabukuro Wows at Ukulele Workshop


“The ukulele has always fascinated me because it doesn’t intimidate other people,” ukulele player and composer Jake Shimabukuro said during his workshop on March 26. My borrowed ukulele reaffirmed his statement. Hardly as long as my arm and with four strings to pluck, the miniature instrument appeared inviting. The piano has 88 keys; the guitar, six strings; the violin, the added difficulty of manipulating strings with the bow. Comparatively, the ukulele appears manageable. As the afternoon went on, however, my assumptions proved wrong.

The workshop, presented by the Office for the Arts at Harvard's Learning From Performers program, packed Cambridge Queen’s Head with scores of people: some college students and many adults carrying ukuleles in cases. The excitement in the room was palpable. Shimabukuro is renowned for his work, having been declared a musical “hero” by Rolling Stone and having topped the Billboard World Charts for his 2011 album, “Peace, Love, Ukulele.” When Shimabukuro entered sporting a lei, a testament to his Hawaiian roots, silence fell across the rows of people. Everybody knew what to expect, but I, never having touched a ukulele or viewed it as a serious instrument, didn’t. Then Shimabukuro struck his first chord. Deft strokes resonated as he vacillated between a soft melody and sudden harsh pangs. The song reached a quiet conclusion as he brushed the strings for a fading effect. The applause resounded.

This precise technique, which created a range of emotions and melodies, was evident in all of Shimabukuro’s other pieces. His performance of the Japanese folk song “Sakura Sakura” was replete with slight trills that expertly evoked the sound of traditional Asian instruments. “This song is about space and silence and learning how to perform the things that are happening in between the notes you play,” Shimabukuro said before he performed it, and while I listened, there was little doubt he knew how to capture the song’s intricacies. Though little flourishes within the tune gave the song variation, an overarching melody held the piece together. “I was a horrible singer,” he said jokingly, explaining that while the ukulele typically serves as an accompaniment, he uses it as his voice’s replacement. The result, evident in his rendition of “Ave Maria,” sounded like he was playing a piano—one hand moved to drive the song forward, while the other gave variation to the beat. The crescendos, placed during climactic moments, revealed the measure of control he possessed. My excitement grew as I listened, along with my respect; I wanted to try playing the ukulele.

Shimabukuro began his lesson by teaching beginners to pluck the string. He compared the act to placing a foot on the edge of a curb. Similar to how our feet first slowly sink and then jarringly hit the road, our thumb had to exert pressure onto the string until they slid off to create a crisp note. The execution was delicate and natural instead of forceful, a peaceful relationship between the fingers and the instrument.

As we learned chords and practiced “Lean on Me,” I became aware of the difficulties involved in mastering the ukulele. My left hand’s stubby fingers contorted into uncomfortable positions along the neck as I struggled to follow the tempo and press down on one fret after another. My 10-plus years of piano training had not prepared me for the dexterity required to play the ukulele. On the piano, I could stretch my hand to hit octaves and play scales in rapid succession, but at Shimabukuro’s workshop, jumping from the C to G to F and back to G proved too complicated. While I struggled to even keep up with the rest of the workshop, Shimabukuro performed his rendition of the song with flair by including a rock-style bridge between the verses. My sense of awe increased when he explained he had only used the chords we learned; the variation was a result of experimenting with the notes, something he always did to his music. “When I was a kid, I would take a chord and I would exploit it,” he said. “You learn how to make it fun.”

“Every time I discover something new, I feel like a little kid again,” Shimabukuro said. The sentiment resonated within me. Though I struggled in the workshop, I ended with a growing appreciation for an art. I, too, felt like a child, with wide eyes taking in all the beauty around her. Shimabukuro imparted more than his knowledge of playing an instrument to me; his workshop exemplified music’s power and impact on others by proving the emotions it expresses could be packed into anything—even a tiny instrument. As he said, “People say music is the universal language, but I like to say it’s the language of the universe.”