MUSIC LESSONS WITH AN ISLAND THEME
Californians have been sheltering at home for the last four months, which in quarantine time is equivalent to four years or 400 years depending on who you ask.
For as mundane as it might often seem, it has given many people the opportunity to get their creative juices flowing, finish up longstanding projects, try a new recipe or even learn a new instrument.
For kids in the Vacaville Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club’s summer program for the last few weeks, that instrument has been the ukulele, and they have received intimate lessons from a longtime musician.
Ramana Vieira, a keyboard instructor at School of Rock Vacaville and Portuguese folk singer, has been trading her piano for a different kind of instrument during her visits to the Boys & Girls Club.
Every Tuesday, youngsters have been immersed in the delicate plucking of the instrument that has become a favorite for beach gatherings and breaking the silence in college dorms.
Vieira first learned the instrument last summer when she attended one of George Kahumoku Jr.’s Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Workshops in Maui. Learning under the instruction of Canadian ukulele virtuoso James Hill, Vieira quickly adapted to the instrument.
“I love it,” she said. “I consider it still a new instrument to me. I”m nowhere near what the masters are doing, but I love the instrument. It’s so easy to port around.”
While learning how to play the ukulele, Vieira also learned about its origins. While the instrument is commonly associated with Hawaii, it actually has roots in Portugal. The country had a small, wooden stringed instrument called the machete which Portuguese immigrants brought to Hawaii in the late 19th century, with the machete being modified into the ukulele.
Vieira has put out four albums of fado, a form of Portuguese folk music, so this was a thrilling discovery for her.
“It came easy to me, I guess because of my Portuguese (background),” she said. “It must be in my DNA.”
Earlier this year, Vieira was hired as a piano and vocal instructor at School of Rock, which opened in February. Vieira said that the franchise’s owner, Leslie Silver, has been doing a lot of local outreach to give back to the community, so when the Boys & Girls Club reached out to Silver about bringing in instructors for music lessons, she referred Vieira.
“Working here at the Boys & Girls Club is very fulfilling for me to understand that I’m helping kids who probably never had access to an instrument before,” Vieira said. “It’s a good field job.”
Anna Eaton, the club’s executive director, said seven of its nine sites shut down at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and fewer children have been served as a result, although it had remained open for essential worker parents who had no other options. The club is now in the midst of its summer program and was the recipient of a Payroll Protection Program loan to continue to provide services during the summer.
“We received the PPP loan to support our operations and brainstormed bringing in specialty instructors for the children’s benefit instead of utilizing it to hire back the vacant positions,” she wrote in an email. “It wouldn’t make sense to do that with our reduced service.”
Eaton said one idea was to bring in a music instructor, and staff connected with Silver, which led to Vieira’s ukulele lessons. Vieira teaches two groups of students every Tuesday at the Willis Jepson Middle School clubhouse.
On Tuesday, Vieira taught a small cohort of students everything from how to hold a ukulele to the different chords to how to strum with a pick to the origin of the word, which is Hawaiian for “Jumping flea.” Vieira would walk over to each student individually to ensure the instruments were tuned and they were playing the right chords.
“I know it’s not easy,” she told the students. “The good news is you can learn this, and already we’re miles ahead.”
Vieira had the students play along to three of the five chords utilized by Jason Mraz in his 2008 hit “I’m Yours” and even taught them to tap on the back ok the ukuleles to provide a percussive element.
She said she hopes students can master the song and hopefully teach them some Hawaiian songs, such as Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” although this will be dependent on how far along the students get.
For now, her goal is to get them to master the Mraz song.
“If this is all they do by the time the quarter is up, they will have learned five chords,” she said. “There’s two-chord (and) three-chord ukulele songs, so if they can master a five-chord song, they’re doing really well.”
Vieira hopes students can take away ” a sense of accomplishment.”
“They are learning a really beautiful instrument,” she said. “It’s an easy instrument to handle, it has four strings and it’s a great starter instrument.”
Viera is honored to be a part of the community, imparting her music knowledge onto younger generations.
“I love that I’m continuously on a journey of growth and expansion,” she said. “I hope that that’s for the kids as well. They continue on a journey to grow and to expand and never stop learning.”