BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SPRING 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
For the five years that I served as editor of Classical Guitar magazine, I was constantly dealing with the French-Canadian music publishing company Les Productions d’Oz, the preeminent publisher of classical guitar music in North America. So imagine my surprise when, shortly after becoming the editor of Ukulele in the fall of 2019, a box arrived from d’Oz, and upon opening it I discovered a stack of music books for ukulele, all shepherded by a British guitarist-turned-ukulele virtuoso and advocate named Samantha Muir, a name that was completely new to me.
The nine-book collection included such volumes as The Classical Ukulele Method, 100 Arpeggio Exercises for Ukulele, 21 Studies for Ukulele, 12 Progressive Lessons from Op. 31 (by Fernando Sor, one of the first great classical guitar composers; arranged by Muir), plus volumes featuring Muir’s own compositions for ukulele, many influenced by classical forms and her deep love of folk music. I was, needless to say, intrigued!
Now, Muir is not the first person to play classical music on the ukulele, nor to publish music for the classical uke niche. John King famously published his book The Classical Ukulele in 2004 and is rightly regarded as the pioneer in the genre. Music books by Dick Sheridan, Andrea Gaudette, Paul Mansell, Jeff Peterson, and others have explored the broad terrain of classical ukulele, as well. But Muir’s headlong dive via Les Productions d’Oz’s beautifully produced series still rates as an amazing and important achievement in the field. She has also put out an acclaimed album featuring her own arrangements of classical pieces and traditional tunes—The Beauty of Uke, recorded in 2016. I recently interviewed her by email, me in California, she in England, to learn more.
Can you tell me a bit about your early life and how you wound up playing the ukulele?
I was born in England but my parents emigrated to Australia when I was seven. I started learning classical guitar when I was nine. My first lesson was a complete disaster and the teacher thought I had learning difficulties! But I was so determined to improve that I practiced every day as soon as I came home from school. Guitar became my passion. When I finished school I went to university, but decided to do a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature rather than music. After graduating, I traveled and while in London attended a masterclass with [classical guitar virtuoso] Carlos Bonell. That meeting led to me auditioning for the Royal College of Music in London. I was accepted to do a post-graduate diploma in Performance and awarded a scholarship.
After many years teaching and playing the guitar, I stumbled across the ukulele in 2012 when one of my guitar pupils asked me to teach her the ukulele. Initially I was quite horrified, because I considered the ukulele more of a toy than an instrument. Once I started playing the ukulele, however, I realized how wrong I had been; I am now dedicated to furthering the repertoire and promoting the ukulele as a serious instrument.
I understand that you are pursuing a PhD with the great classical guitar teacher and composer Stephen Goss, but with a focus on ukulele. What can you tell me about that?
I first met Steve at the International Guitar Research Centre at the University of Surrey [England]. At the inaugural event I was invited to give a presentation on John Tavener’s Chant for guitar. A couple of years later, as my interest in the ukulele was deepening, I gave a presentation on the machete, which of course is one of the forerunners of the ukulele. I’m fascinated with the unique 19th century repertoire for the machete by Candido Drumond and am one of the few people outside Madeira to play this music. In the 19th century the machete was accepted as both a folk instrument and a respectable society instrument. The machete was able to achieve this because it has both a folk repertoire and a unique concert repertoire.
When I first researched the repertoire for classical ukulele, what struck me was the lack of original material. Why didn’t classical ukulele have its own repertoire like the machete? Part of the answer is that classical ukulele is a relatively new concept. When I started playing the ukulele, my first instinct had been to adapt repertoire from the guitar and subsequently created my own series of arrangements of Carulli, Sor, Giuliani, Carcassi, and other guitar masters. Then, in 2015, Schott commissioned me to do a book/CD titled Scottish Folk Tunes forUkulele: 35 Traditional Pieces. Looking back, I appreciate how much I learned through the arranging process—both about music and how guitar techniques might be applied to the ukulele.
Arrangements are great, but they can also feel like wearing borrowed clothes. The one thing I had really come to appreciate through arranging is that the uke deserves its own voice. Creating a contemporary repertoire for the ukulele seemed like a natural—and necessary—progression. That’s when I got in contact with Steve and we discussed the possibility of my doing a PhD on the ukulele. My aim is to extend the boundaries of the ukulele by creating a contemporary repertoire—one that is informed by both my own knowledge of the guitar and the ukulele’s history. My portfolio includes my own compositions plus collaborations with other composers. Steve is a calm and unassuming person, but his knowledge, not just about the guitar but about music, is phenomenal. The fact that he accepted my proposal demonstrates he also sees the potential of the ukulele. My second supervisor is Milton Mermikides, who is a brilliant guitarist and composer.
Has it been difficult to get the ukulele to be taken seriously as an instrument suitable to play classical repertoire?
My answer is both yes and no! When I was first invited to play at ukulele festivals in the UK, I was really worried about the reception I would receive playing pieces by Bach, Carulli, and some of my own compositions. But everywhere I’ve performed, both in the UK and Australia, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. This is also reflected in the number of people who have attended my classical ukulele workshops. In the last three years, literally hundreds of players have attended workshops on classical and fingerstyle playing. So, within the ukulele scene, I’d say classical ukulele is thriving.
More ukulele players are commissioning new works and more non-ukulele playing composers are writing for the instrument. This is such an exciting time. Having said that, getting the ukulele accepted as a serious instrument outside the ukulele scene is more problematic. Many concert promoters and concertgoers have difficulty seeing beyond the stereotypical view that the ukulele is a toy, a comedy prop, or only ever strummed. My way around this has been to covertly introduce ukulele pieces into my guitar concerts. I first did this at the Sherborne Abbey Music Festival, and the audience was both surprised and delighted when I played a piece by Bach on the uke. The following year the music director was happy to include a program of music for guitar, machete, and ukulele. So while there are barriers, there are ways around them. I just feel blessed that I am able to play a small part in this journey.
Can you talk about the strengths and limitations of the uke in playing that sort of repertoire? As an accomplished guitarist, how have you approached translating your knowledge of that instrument onto what I love to call “the little four-string”?
The limited register of the ukulele, particularly the lack of a bass, is certainly a challenge. Arranging for the ukulele is largely a process of reduction. While it is possible to play many pieces from the guitar repertoire on the ukulele, I often have to leave out notes or put notes up an octave. However—and this is what I love about reentrant tuning—once you start thinking in a non-linear, non-guitarist way, a whole new world of possibilities opens up. I think this is why John King was so excited about campanella style. He was able to combine the elegance of his guitar technique with the idiosyncratic tuning of the ukulele to create something extraordinary. I’m specifically talking about his Bach CD.
Coming from a guitar background it would be very easy to see the ukulele as a small guitar. But that would be limiting. The key is to use the tool kit I have—in other words my technique and musical knowledge—to find ways of unlocking some of the mysteries of the ukulele. Finding the unique possibilities of the instrument is endless. The ukulele is minimalistic, but like a haiku, sometimes less is more.
I think a lot of intermediate-level musicians, no matter what their instrument, believe that works by Bach or Mozart or others are somehow beyond their abilities. What can you say that would encourage them to branch out and go down that road? Is it a big leap for most players, or is there a logical progression of accessible techniques that open the door to that repertoire?
This is a really good question. One of the biggest hurdles is the mindset that the ukulele is easy to play; something that is constantly being proliferated by the media. Well, the C major chord is easy, but pieces by Bach and Mozart are very complex. Before you can run you have to learn to walk. I would encourage anyone interested in playing classical repertoire to begin by developing good fingerpicking habits. I have some books and YouTube tutorials that focus on developing fingerpicking techniques, and there are a couple of excellent books by Daniel Ward. But it’s not just about technique, so I would also encourage players to start with easier repertoire in order to understand how classical music works.
How does your Classical Ukulele Method differ from a traditional, non-classical approach to teaching ukulele?
When I teach people to play classical ukulele, I teach them the p-i-m-a fingerpicking system used by guitarists. In other words I fingerpick using the thumb (p), index (i), middle (m), and ring (a) fingers. Chords are often plucked, rather than strummed, or rolled with the fingers so that the notes are sounded in rapid succession one after the other. The most important thing with classical ukulele, however, is the sound. Work on producing a clean, pure tone.
What can you say about your original pieces? Are they written in what we broadly call “classical” styles?
I would describe my original pieces as contemporary. The word “classical” is a bit of a misnomer and should be used in the broadest possible way. It’s a guide rather than a condition. I play pieces by Bach and Carulli, as well as folk tunes and pop arrangements. My aim is to extend the boundaries of the ukulele, not create more. My d’Oz publications include two books of studies and a book of arpeggio exercises. These are intended as resources to help players learn the pima system and develop the techniques needed for playing classical ukulele. My more advanced pieces, including A Conspiracy of Ravens, Variations on the Dowie Dens of Yarrow, and The Falling Rain, seek to extend the boundaries of the ukulele by using advanced techniques such as tremolo, artificial harmonics, and alternate tunings.
What ukes do you play, and is one size better for mastering classical repertoire than others?
I mostly play long-neck sopranos using reentrant tuning. I love the sound of the soprano, but I like the extra range on the extended fingerboard. I like to support individual luthiers and have commissioned instruments from several makers. At the moment I have two sopranos made by DJ Morgan Ukuleles—one koa and one made of spruce and rosewood. I also have a very elegant long-neck soprano made by Beau Hannam, which has a Stauffer scroll headstock and wedge fingerboard. Another favorite instrument, also made by Dave Morgan, is a five-string tenor which has both low-G and high-G. This is a particularly good instrument for playing Renaissance music and folk music.
I’d say that classical repertoire can be played on any size ukulele. But campanella is certainly more suited to the smaller scale length of the soprano, as there are often leaps up and down the fingerboard. The most important thing, however, is to feel comfortable with the instrument—and have plenty to choose from!
Review: 3 Classical Ukulele Books By Samantha Muir
By Jim D’Ville
When the title of a PhD dissertation is In Search of the Classical Ukulele, you can bet the author is a serious student and player. Such is clearly the case with Samantha Muir. Bitten by the ukulele bug in 2012, Muir has published 11 books based on the classical repertoire and style of playing the ukulele. Here are some thoughts on three of her recent books for Les Productions d’Oz.
The first and most substantial is Muir’s The Classical Ukulele Method.This 60-page work is a comprehensive study guide for learning the classical and campanella styles. Each song example and exercise is written in both tablature and standard music notation. Muir’s method is a two-pronged approach—teaching both sight-reading and the technical elements derived from classical guitar. The method starts with a series of beginning exercises and simple songs. By the middle of the book, the student is playing exercises in multiple keys and pieces by classical composers, including Schubert and Bartok. Muir has included several appendix pages as a “Practice and Progress” log so students may record their advancement throughout the method.
Muir has also published repertoire books for those wishing to dive deeper into the world of classical ukulele. One is 12 Progressive Lessons from Opus 31 by Fernando Sor. Muir has taken these classic Sor guitar studies from the early 19th century and arranged them for ukulele. Although there is no accompanying CD or online access to hear Muir play the selections, I have included a YouTube video (below) to a guitar student named Michael Bemmels, which provides an excellent idea of how each piece should sound (if not precisely the ukulele arrangement).
The other Samantha Muir book I checked out is another repertoire book entitled 12 Traditional Tunes for Fingerstyle Ukulele. Familiar tunes in this collection include “Greensleeves,” “The Rakes of Mallow,” “Down by the Sally Gardens,” and “Sugar in the Gourd.” Although arranged for classical ukulele, you’ll be exposed to several fingerstyle techniques, including chord melody, arpeggios, and campanella.
This series of books by Samatha Muir is a must-have for anyone interested in the beautiful sound of the classical ukulele, presenting a comprehensive approach for learning to play in that style.