By Ed Mickens
“The ukelele is an awesome instrument,” says Larry Ferrara. “It’s easy to learn and play, even for absolute beginners. In just a few lessons, I can introduce people to a new art form—making music—and know that they’ll take that experience home with them, maybe even explore more. I find that very satisfying.”


Ferrara is talking about the week-long course he’ll be teaching again at the Feather River Art Camp, June 18-25, 2017. Ferrara is, in fact, a highly accomplished performer and teacher of guitar in the Bay Area, with posts on the faculty at San Francisco State and City College of San Francisco, as well as at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His guitar students range from beginners to respected, concert-grade professionals. Yet, unlike some masters of the guitar who might look down on the ukelele as a mere toy, Ferrara embraces the opportunity to teach it with enthusiasm.


“The ukelele has a lot in common with the guitar: it’s tuned almost like a guitar, a bit higher in pitch, but it only has four strings,” he explains. “That allows more space in between, more room to fret. I can teach chords in 20 minutes.” That also allows him to teach the class an entire song in just one morning session—about as close to instant gratification any instrument might offer.


The songs Ferrara chooses in the class repertoire can range from classics like “Greensleaves” and “Amazing Grace” to more modern folk music from Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, or a blues standard or two, like “House of the Rising Sun.” There are even ukelele arrangements of the Argentine tango master, Astor Piazzola. And, of course, there’s a requisite sampling from the traditional Hawaiian.


While the class is designed specifically with beginners in mind, Ferrara quickly tailors his approach to accommodate students with more experience in playing the ukelele, or those who just pick up the knack more quickly. Every level is welcome. The goal: to create a fully functional ukelele orchestra by the end of the week.


“I want everyone to find their comfort level,” Ferrara emphasizes, “whether it’s strumming chords in the chorus, as accompaniment, or in a star solo role. The real fun is in learning to perform as part of a group.”


Further, in his Feather River Art Camp class, Ferrara will be working in collaboration with singing teacher Keren Gaiser to incorporate the voices of his players into the orchestra—something he feels is essential to the experience and history of the ukelele.


“The ukelele is a very social instrument, much more so than the guitar,” he observes. “It’s easy to play, and it’s small, so it’s easy to travel with. And it works so well with the voice, especially in groups. ” It’s widely believed that the modern ukelele evolved from an older instrument with metal strings (today’s version has nylon) that was carried by Portuguese mariners centuries ago as they explored the globe. Not hard to imagine a group of sailors, finally on shore, relaxing around a bonfire for an evening of strumming and song.


Native Hawaiians took enthusiastically to the instrument, making it a notable part of their culture. (Ferrara points out that the correct pronounciation in the Hawaiian tongue is OO–ka–lay–lay, rather than the common English YOU–ka–lay–lee.) But the instrument has been long popular around the world, sometimes in ensembles of 30 or more. (Ferrara’s class at Feather River is limited to 15.)


Ferrara notes the difference between the ukelele and his own signature instrument, the guitar. “The appeal of the ukelele is so much more universal,” he says. “Maybe it’s the association of the guitar with great, virtuoso players. Or maybe it’s the deep stylistic divisions between how the guitar is played in different genres—electric guitar, or folk, or classical. Makes the guitar seem so much more exclusive. Whereas the ukelele can adapt to any genre of music: it’s just pick a song, learn a few chords, and let’s play.”


Because of the ease beginners usually have in learning the ukelele, Ferrara sees the instrument—and his class—as a potential gateway to the world of musical performance.

“What I want my students to take away,” he says, “is a positive experience and a positive outlook to learning music. To meet new people, to have fun, and maybe begin a lifelong journey in music, all music.”


photo of Larry teaching a guitar class a few years ago at Feather River Art Camp

 Ed Mickens is a writer and arts administrator.