From the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY JIM D’VILLE
It’s an improbable tale. A self-described jazz-singing London girl immigrates to western Canada and in just over a decade, she’s the namesake of what may be the largest ukulele school in the world outside of Hawaii. Located in a vintage Gothic Revival building in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, Ruby’s Ukes attracts an incredible 350 students each term. So, how did this 5’2″ dynamo, with no stringed-instrument experience and a voice reminiscent of the great Billie Holiday, take a $25 blue ukulele and create Ruby’s Ukes?
Ruby is the nickname given to Daphne Roubini by her classmates as she was growing up in London, England. She moved to Vancouver in 2004 with her now-husband Andrew Smith to be closer to her aging parents. “When I moved to Vancouver, I wanted to focus more on music. Even though I was singing in London, I was primarily working at a very busy and successful practice as a massage therapist, healer, and personal coach. I was also taking jazz-piano lessons and I got to the point where I could play basic piano accompaniment.” On the rhythmic front, Daphne’s musical development also included the study of Argentinean tango and African hand drumming on the djembe.
But for Roubini, it was a Kodály musicianship-training course that instilled the underlying principles that would later become the musical underpinnings of Ruby’s Ukes. “Zoltan Kodály was a Hungarian composer who believed sound comes from within us and that the human voice is the first instrument,” says Roubini. “I was the only non-music teacher at the time taking the Kodály course. I’d never thought about teaching music, I was there for my own musical exploration. The program’s concept really influenced me in the Ruby’s Ukes approach to teaching, which is knowing that we all have an inner hearing for music.”
Enter the blue ukulele. “In 2004 I bought my nephew an inexpensive blue ukulele for his second birthday. I then asked my husband, Andy, who is a jazz and folk guitarist, to teach me to play ‘Happy Birthday,’ so when I showed the uke to my nephew he would see Auntie playing music. So Andy taught me to play the song and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love this so much!’ I just buried myself away for six or seven months and played every day. What I loved about the ukulele was that I could accompany myself. I’m pretty much self-taught, although I did take some lessons with Guido Heistek, a local teacher.”
But what Daphne really wanted to do was play in a group setting. “I couldn’t find a group ukulele class anywhere. So I thought of Guido and the idea came to me: Why don’t I run a school? I’ll start with one class and I’ll attend that class. I’d had a lot of one-to-one instruction with my singing and piano and now I really wanted to be in a group-learning environment. So when I first set up the school, I was still really learning. I’m still learning.”
Guido Heistek explains his role at the fledgling school. “I was the only teacher at Ruby’s Ukes at the start. When Daphne first approached me about teaching at the school, I was a little dubious that she would be able to get enough students to make it work. I said, ‘You find the students and I’ll teach them.’ I fully expected that she wouldn’t be able to find enough students. I had seen that happen with many group classes in the past, so I was a little skeptical. But, she did find the students, and the school has been growing ever since. I think it’s Daphne’s dynamism that’s behind the success of the school. She’s quite remarkable.”
In 2009, Ruby’s Ukes opened its doors at 525 Seymour Street in Vancouver’s bustling Central Business District. In the eight years since, the school has grown from that first class to a full-time endeavor for Roubini. The school now offers multiple classes throughout the week in four specific skill levels: Beginner I, Beginner II, Intermediate I, and Intermediate II. “One of the reasons the school is so successful is that the classes are big enough—around 30 students—that the students don’t feel exposed, which is a common experience with private lessons. Also, there is something about the dynamic energy of a group class that actually elevates the people in it.”
Backing up that observation, Roubini discovered the educational term “scaffolding.” “When you study in a group, the strongest person in the group will elevate the others, drawing them up to a higher level. The group setting helps the people who are less experienced while at the same time helping the stronger people who, by imparting their knowledge to others, consolidate that information for themselves.” Daphne points out that another important aspect of the group classes is the aural element of hearing more than just yourself playing. “When you’re in a group class you have the dynamic sound of the song, of the strumming, and you have the group energy. And, mistakes aren’t devastating. In fact, in the group classes, when everyone hits a difficult passage and stumbles, usually everyone starts laughing.”
After a year of programming the school’s course content, Daphne began to teach classes, and has never looked back. “I started teaching when I recognized the programming need for a complete, absolute-beginner foundation course taught by a teacher who deeply related to non-players and their process.”
A very important part of the Ruby’s Ukes teaching method is the use of accelerated learning techniques that engage all learners; with visual aids (white board, handouts, images around the teaching studio), auditory aids (the use of repetition, singing the chord changes or tablature numbers of a melody), and kinesthetic activities (the doing, experiencing, and feeling) like strumming on their own arms.
Teachers at Ruby’s Ukes now include Roubini, her husband Andrew Smith, and Tim Tweedale. Smith, who brings over four-decades of music teaching experience to the school, says, “As for my involvement, it’s a great joy to facilitate people coming into playing music when they’ve never had that opportunity before. Growing up, I always had music in my household. That was my norm, but a lot of people never had that experience. So what we’re doing with the school is creating a safe environment to explore that creative pathway that these students have committed themselves to come along.”
Mona Tsui says many students like herself, who have completed the entire school curriculum, continue to take classes at Ruby’s Ukes. “We enjoy it so much, and we continue learning. Ruby keeps adjusting the curriculum, adding more specialized classes that continue to challenge us musically. But at the same time, it’s a fun, no-pressure approach which is really nice.”
The phenomenal growth of Ruby’s Ukes is even more amazing when you consider Daphne has basically done no advertising other than the 100 fliers she posted around the city when she first started. Nationwide exposure, however, was not too far off in the future. “We had a CBC national radio documentary made on the school called Four Little Strings. Pamela Post wrote and produced the feature on the healing aspects of playing the ukulele and her eight-week journey through the school. After that feature aired in 2010, the school tripled in size.”
The ten-story Seymour Building, which houses Ruby’s Ukes, was built between 1912 and 1920. Its neo-Gothic edifices are considered some of the finest remaining in the city of Vancouver. Locating the school in such an iconic space adds a sense of permanence for the students. “We are very fortunate that we have an amazing physical location downtown that students love coming to. We have two classrooms. I can seat 50 students in one classroom, while upstairs I have a smaller room that seats 25. There is also a common area where people can mingle with each other during the tea break.”
Canadian ukulele legend Ralph Shaw, who for years ran the very successful Vancouver Ukulele Circle, says Ruby’s Ukes was a welcome addition to the uke scene in the city. “Soon after setting up her ukulele school, Daphne’s vision and drive made Ruby’s Ukes the primary place in Vancouver for getting started on the instrument. She has pulled together her social media, organizational, and business skills, and combined them with a willingness to innovate and act on ideas that have made Ruby’s Ukes a wonderful local resource.”
Roubini feels the primary reason Ruby’s Ukes has been so successful is her personal connection as an adult beginner. “I really deeply understand the process the student goes through in a way someone who’s been playing a stringed instrument from when they were five or ten years old can’t understand. So the freshness of learning the instrument is there for me. I developed the program based on building a solid foundation in the Beginner I and Beginner II courses. The students then progress through the Intermediate I and II courses and on to playing in the Ruby’s Ukulele Orchestra, where there are different parts for all levels of students.”
Daphne also feels her background in the healing arts gives her a unique insight into each student’s progress. “When someone would come for a massage, I would immediately begin to assess what was happening to them physically, and in speaking with them I could intuitively tell what was going on with them emotionally. I’m like that with my ukulele students. I very deeply feel what is going on in each class so the students feel they are seen as individuals. Many students have told me that even though they were in a group, they felt connected to me as a teacher.”
Roubini also feels that using conscious, positive language is an important tool in teaching the adult-beginner. “For example, we will say, ‘I invite you to play this at home,’ not ‘you have to.’ There are never commands, but always invitations to play. Some of these people have been wounded musically in their life. They’ve been told they can’t sing or some other rubbish. Ruby’s Ukes is not just a music school, it’s more like a community project that helps people reconnect with the music they’ve always wanted to play.”
The epitome of the Ruby’s Ukes community experience is playing in the 70-member Ruby’s Ukulele Orchestra. “I’ve had students that have come all the way through the school and now they’re in the orchestra together. They form these amazing bonds and friendships. I’d love for the day that we would have a big coach and we would all go on the road!”
Andeen Pitt, who started at Ruby’s Ukes in her 50s, says playing in the orchestra elevates her playing. “The orchestra is all about coordinating with others. In the orchestra there are four parts, and not only do you have to play your part, you have to play it in-sync with the other parts—so it’s all about how we make music together. It’s one thing just strumming and singing the same song, but in the orchestra it’s an entirely different level of musicianship.”
To further the involvement with the Vancouver community, Roubini formed the Ruby’s Ukes Ukulele Outreach Program. Elements of the outreach program include supporting health programs like the Callanish Cancer Retreats. The school has donated ukuleles to Sheway, a domestic violence support agency, and to a number of schools in the greater Vancouver area. Because Roubini believes “music is healing,” a percentage of ticket sales from each concert the school presents is also dedicated to the Outreach Program.
Back when she was setting up the school in 2009, Daphne also produced the first Vancouver Ukulele Festival. “It started as a one-day event, very small. And, just like the school, I grew it from grassroots. I have a patient approach to my visions. Next year’s festival will be a two-day event with 150 workshop attendees and up to 500 attending our Saturday night concert.”
And if her musical plate wasn’t full enough, Daphne, along with her husband Andy, have two professional musical projects, Black Gardenia, a vintage jazz band, and Ruby & Smith, a ukulele jazz-folk duo. Black Gardenia has released two CDs and performed at the prestigious Vancouver Jazz Festival, while Ruby & Smith have released a critically acclaimed CD, A Ukulele Album, and performed at Canada’s storied Winnipeg Folk Festival. In fact, all the instructors at Ruby’s Ukes are professional musicians. “The students love the fact that we are performers. They come to our concerts and I think it inspires them that someday, maybe they, too, can be performers.”
As amazing as the Ruby’s Ukes story is, Daphne Roubini is not surprised by the school’s success. You see, the entire experience came into her mind over a decade ago and she wrote it all down. “I was thinking about this idea of a school one day and it just came to me—‘I’m going to have this school. It’s going to be called Ruby’s Ukes. It’s going to have an outreach program helping people in hospitals and primary schools. It’s going to have an orchestra, we’re going to go on the road. I’m going to have a ukulele duo.’ Within ten minutes, my list was two pages. Now, ten years later, well, I feel a bit emotional that it has all come true.”
As well, she should.
Music educator and facilitator Jim D’Ville is the author of the Play Ukulele By Ear DVD series and hosts the popular Play Ukulele By Ear website www.PlayUkuleleByEar.com.