A ukulele isn’t a hard thing to describe. Picture a guitar, but small. However, size can be misleading, as the shorthand for the cute and quirky in pop culture comes with its own set of challenges.
That’s where Dot Levine comes in. Levine, 34, is the founder/owner/instructor of The Philadelphia Uke Studio and also runs the West Philly Uke Club. Originally from northern New Jersey, Levine today resides in West Philadelphia and attends services at Kol Tzedek, teaches music at the Jewish Children’s Folkshul and performs gigs at various venues like bars, weddings and house parties.
How did you first start playing the ukulele?
So I was playing guitar since I was young and when I was in my early 20s I was living out in the Berkshires. I’d be walking around and having musical ideas and thinking, “How can I surreptitiously work on music while walking around?” And the ukulele became the clear option.
What do you like about the instrument?
I love that the ukulele is unassuming. I mean, there’s so much baggage around showing up to a place with a musical instrument. I like that it’s small and I can get a big sound out of it … It’s really good at keeping rhythm going. And it’s really great at supporting the voice and, in that way, it’s similar to guitar or banjo or what have you. But it doesn’t have any bass, no lower notes.
Any challenges to it?
Yeah, it’s tiny. It wants to fall. It wants to fly away. So people, especially with large chests, should just use straps. Using a strap to hold the thing still is such an alleviator of unnecessary difficulty in the ukulele. It’s this game of I’m both playing it and holding it still, and there’s not a lot of instruments that offer that struggle. That’s definitely the hardest, weirdest, unexpected part of the difficulty of playing the ukulele, but you get used to it.
What advice would you give to aspiring ukulele players?
If they really, earnestly want to learn ukulele, I’d say call me. I give sliding-scale lessons. It’s important to me that people find satisfaction, and if I can help in any way, I want to. I love doing it. The things that are important to me is that people find musical satisfaction and do that however they can.
Who are your typical students?
I love the demographics of people who play ukulele. I have a lot of professional guitarists as students or professional singers, and I’ll take them on. A lot of times adults who have never played an instrument before or haven’t played an instrument in a long time and they just want some personal satisfaction. They have little to no interest in playing with other people or playing on a stage, and it’s a beautiful exploration thing where I’m just contributing to somebody’s extracurricular happiness.
Can anyone join the uke club?
The club is for everybody. The slogan is “play what you can when you can.” When I make the sheet music for the charts, I do my best to very thoughtfully and carefully make sure that there are parts for everybody of all different levels. It’s a good way to learn to read and to build self-esteem around the instrument and to be inspired by people of higher levels, too.
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