Sunday, September 10, 2006

The Way of the Ukulele

Today there has been a little bit of progress on a writing project I've been working on. This is a competition for original radio scripts and there are cash prizes. If you, dear reader, would like to take a shot at it, click that link! You have until November 15 to postmark your entry.

At the moment I am a little bit fried working out my plot. (This is something I did not inherit from my father. He's good at plotting. I do the zany madcap satire stuff.) So let me come and tell you of my Friday evening.

On Friday, after a strange day at the office, I reported to the historic McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica to meet my ukulele teacher for the first time.

After checking in, I was sent upstairs into a dark hallway lined with photographs of famous musicians who have played at McCabe's. The air reeked of incense. The stillness was so intense it gave me a shiver. As directed, I sat in the seiza position and waited for sensei to hit a gong within his room.

I sat in the uncomfortable position for half an hour. This was a way of testing my mettle. It's known as a mettle-nettle, because a lot of nettling has a way of meddling with your mettle. So I sat on my feet and endured the mettle-nettle until, from within the master's chamber, I heard a small gong being struck three times.

Painfully, I regained my feet and stepped gingerly into the room, being sure to turn to the left and bow first to the altar dedicated to Ohta-san. There were also figures of Daniel Ho and his father, and there was Iz, as large and full of aloha as Hotei the laughing buddha.

The master, Steve Rose, regarded me coolly from the pillow on which he sat. He wore a lei of tiny skulls and his ukulele looked like it could put a serious dent in a lazy student's head.

I knew not to speak until spoken to. Eventually, sensei broke the silence with a command.
"Play an E-major."

Cripes! One of the most miserable chords to play on a uke! Keeping my face as neutral as possible, I willed my fingers to twist themselves to fret an 'E.' I strummed, and a weak, tinny 'E' rose from my Ukie.

The master's brow clouded ever so slightly, but he said, "Passable."

He motioned for me to sit down. I sat, again in seiza, with the ukulele laying down in front of me, parallel to his. The master asked me another question:

"What do you think of Jake Shimabukuro's cover of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' on the ukulele?"

He was referring to an astonishing performance that has been heard all over the world thanks to YouTube. I knew I had to choose my words carefully, and I studied his poker face as I spoke.
"He is of course an enormously skillful player. The arrangement is clever, yet perhaps a little showy. All that rock and roll flash. The ukulele has a personality all its own - it is not a rock guitar. Speaking as an unworthy beginning student, I wonder if this performance amounts to little more than a stunt. Yet perhaps it will attract 10,000 students more worthy than myself to explore the ukulele and discover its true character."

The master left several minutes of silence. I wondered if he would kick me out of the room.

Finally he said, "I agree. You may study with me."

I had passed the master's barrier gate! To celebrate, we sipped iced green tea - with little umbrellas adorning our cups - and then we began.

Ukie and I have a long way to go.

1 comment:

Ellen Bloom said...

I'm so glad I've inspired you to take up the ukulele! Steve is a wonderful teacher. Keep us apprised of your progress.

I'm waiting for the intermediate class at McCabe's.

Ellen B.
Los Angeles