Interview with Matt Stead – original ukulele opportunities

1. How did you become interested in playing and teaching the ukulele?
It was kind of purely an ergonomic thing at first and for two reasons. Firstly I was in an indie-pop band called A Fine Day for Sailing and used to do solo shows. Lugging an acoustic guitar around on busy tubes to get to shows was no fun so I used to stick a little Mahalo uke in my rucksack and use that on stage. I found it went well with the melancholy nature of my songs anyway. Secondly, I was a librarian and use to run storytime sessions. You’ve not lived until you’ve heard 40 toddler singing ‘Bear Hunt’ accompanied by uke! It didn’t take long until I was hooked and got myself my first ‘proper’ uke; a Mainland concert (which I still have.) Then I found the Ukulele Underground and UAS kicked in big time.

2. What inspired you to create the Ukulele Retreat?
I wanted to run a truly immersive learning experience, where the emphasis was on learning, rather than simply performing or being entertained. Sure, there will be an element of that (the students get to play on stage with their mentors at a grand finale concert) but people will come away with more knowledge, inspiration and enthusiasm. I’ve purposefully chosen tutors that either has a wealth of experience or bring something completely new to the table.
I’d been thinking about doing this for a while and when Steven Sproat and I looked into opening a ukulele school, it was at the forefront of our minds. Matt Warnes is important here too as we were looking into the possibility of a castle weekend down this way but then I got distracted by other things. I still really want to do this with Matt in the near future; a stately castle study weekend! Then I got talking to Phil Doleman about Sore Fingers, the Bluegrass retreat and that got me even more enthused about doing something similar just for ukes.

3. How did you decide on choosing these specific teachers for the retreat?
It was really important to me that each tutor brought something new. For example, blues and roots from Phil Doleman, melody style from Peter Moss, Formby and strumming from Steven and campenella style and arranging from Samantha. It was also important to choose tutors with experience in teaching and/or academia. Teaching is a skill in itself and is often taken for granted. Thankfully for me, they’re not only great teachers, but they’re also amazing players.

4. What’s the teaching format for the event?
We’ve got three distinct approaches across the three days. Friday night is for relaxing and getting to know each other. We have welcome drinks and open mic; all very relaxed. On Saturday small groups of students will rotate around four teachers, so each student gets a lesson with all four tutors. The groups are small so the tutors can give them their full attention to best relay their skills. For a bit of relaxation in the middle, we have a ukulele picnic. Yum! In the evening students can see how it is done as the tutors all perform. Sunday is where things get really interesting. Each tutor will coach a group through two songs, teaching them all kinds of techniques and building up their confidence in playing. Students then get to perform it on stage in a group, with their tutor, at the student concert. We’re all in it together so there is no pressure and it’s going to be a supportive and warm atmosphere.

5. What’s different about this event to the standard workshops in festivals
The big thing for me is that this weekend is entirely about learning. Students will come away with so much more than they went in with. It’s going to be special and heaps of fun. There’s nothing wrong with standard workshops at festivals though; they’re an excellent way to dip your toes into different teaching styles and learn new things. There’s a place for every approach.

6. What qualities make for a really good teacher and/or teaching experience
Being a good music tutor takes a whole set of different skills to being a good musician. The obvious skills are patience, communication, attention to detail and musical knowledge. For me, the key skill is to be able to strike a balance between what a student enjoys and what it is they need to learn (even if they don’t realise it at that point.) To build those skills takes time and experience.

7. What other music related projects are you currently involved in?
I’m so busy with The Uke Room project that my performing side has hit the backburner for a little while. I’m investing all my time and energy into teaching and workshops. Hopefully, that will bear fruit in giving people an amazing learning experience.
I have been writing songs for a new album. It’s 75% finished I’d say, but it’s going to take a while this time. Last year we recorded two albums in just a few weeks!


8. How in your view is the ukulele seen by the wider public?
It has changed entirely. I started playing almost twenty years ago. There wasn’t a ‘uke scene’ like there is now. Though, being a technophobe until recently, I did apparently miss the emergence of ‘the scene.’ Whilst I was strumming away in my band I didn’t realise how popular the instrument was becoming until the last few years. When I started most people would refer to it as a mandolin or banjo. Now pretty much everyone knows what a uke is. I still think in the UK there is still a perception amongst the wider public that it is a bit of a novelty instrument but that’s slowly changing.

9. If you could change one misconception people have about the uke, what would it be
I would like people to see it as a serious instrument in its own right, rather than a novelty. Listen to James Hill, Kimo Hussey or Jake Shimabukuro play. There’s nothing novelty about it. One thing I would love to see would be ukulele artists to break out into mainstream festivals. When we see a Jake Shimabukuro or James Hill perform at Glastonbury, then we’ll know that the ukulele has finally gained acceptance amongst the wider music world.

10. Which musicians alive or dead inspire you the most?
For me, my main musical hero is Brian Wilson. When I was a teenager my friend played The Beach Boys song Wendy to me and then isolated the vocals in the speakers for me. The blend of harmonies really changed the way I thought about music. For me, it’s all about harmony and melody and nobody commanded the two quite like Brian. I once wrote and released an album called Sandbox, named after the sandbox in which his piano sat in his living room so Brian felt like he was on the beach when he wrote. I put every conceivable harmonic line I could possibly cram into one album on that one.

In terms of the ukulele world, it was the Hawaiian players (not just uke but guitar too) that inspired me most. Gabby Pahinui, Eddie Kamae and Sonny Chillingworth are amongst my favourite. Again, with them, it’s all about the melody. In terms or modern ukulele, I love Corey Fujimoto, Abe Lagrimas Jr, Jake Shimabukuro, Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel. James Hill is undeniably the modern master though. His approach to not just playing, but teaching has had more influence on me than any other.

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