- For those, who don't know the two of you, could you introduce yourself in a few words?
- Craig Chee and I (Sarah Maisel) are two American ‘Ukulele Players, educators and song writers. We love teaching and traveling the world, spreading the joy of music and ‘ukulele.
- Ukulele wasn't among the first instruments for either of you. Could you tell me about how you came across it?
Sarah: That is true- my first instrument was the violin. I never heard an ‘ukulele until I moved to California (2004). I had recently moved because of my job at the University of California San Diego. In 2006, a co-worker took me to a pizza place that was filled with ‘ukulele players and Hula Dancers. It was an amazing experience, and that group would gather EVERY Wednesday. After seeing the happiness and joy (I guess you could call it the Aloha Spirit), I had to be a part of it. I started taking group lessons right away.
Craig: Although I was raised in Hawaii, I grew up playing the piano and cello. It wasn’t until my high school years that I wanted to really tackle the ukulele. I was a part of a generation that was incredibly inspired by the Ka’au Krater Boys and Pure Heart, where the ukulele was featured as a lead instrument in this contemporary Hawaiian music boom.
- The first song I heard from you was Restless on HiSessions; your voices blended so nicely in that song that I had to listen to it over and over for days. What singing background do you have?
Sarah: Wow- thank you! Honestly, I don’t really have any formal training, regarding singing. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I did acting classes in High School, and performed in several musicals. I also participated in my Junior High Choir- but other than that, I have no training. Singing is something I’ve always done. I LOVE getting to sing with others, and seeing how I can fit with someone else. That’s part of what drew me to working with Craig in the first place.
Craig: Singing has always been a big part of my childhood. My mother enrolled us into her best friend’s children’s choir at a very young age. From there I got involved with some musical theater and joined my school’s choir.
- What styles of music do you prefer to play (on or off the uke)?
Sarah: I adore Jazz Standards, and have ever since I was little. I’d say that is my favorite style of music, although Classical is right up there. I prefer to listen to Classical, rather than play it, though. I also really enjoy mixing genres- which is part of why Craig and I work well together.
Craig: I love almost all kinds of music. I used every opportunity I had to play with others to learn more about different styles. When Sarah and I started working together, I loved fusing her jazz style with more contemporary and pop.
- And to listen to?
Sarah: For listening – I try to keep an open mind and listen to as many styles as possible. I feel it’s important to keep your ears open. You never know what will inspire you. Because I tend to listen to older music, stuff put out between the 1920’s -1970’s, I have to work hard to make sure I listen to modern music as well. I listen to a lot of Folk, Jazz, oldies, and classic rock.
Craig: Everything under the sun.
- Are there any musicians who inspire you?
Sarah: There are so many – but I’d say my ‘ukulele inspirations are Benny Chong & Byron Yasui. Both of them are such amazing musicians and people. I feel so incredibly lucky to have met them, and to have worked with them. They love sharing the knowledge, and are such a wealth of information. Another inspiration is Lyle Ritz, of course. I never had the pleasure of knowing him, but his record “How About Uke” moved me, when I first heard it in 2006. Non ‘ukulele inspirations come from Wes Montgomery & Joe Pass. Both musicians are amazing, and their talents are unparalleled.
Craig: Looking back at it now, there are so many performers that I have seen in my life that have shaped who I am today. Whether they were playing in a glorious music hall, or the late night sets at a bar or on the street for change… there was so much I took away from watching all of these people use music to enrich their lives or others. I think one of the biggest takeaways from watching all of these incredible musicians was to see how they balanced their love for their craft, the business side, and everything in-between. It made me think of what kind of balance I wanted and aspired to achieve.
- You started playing together in 2013, and you married in 2015. I guess love struck in between, can you tell me about it?
Sarah: We met in 2012, and ended up being at several ‘ukulele festivals together. Craig has always loved collaborating, so we started doing a few tunes together during our sets. Romance didn’t’ really set in until 2013, and that’s when we started performing more as a duo, instead of each having our own set. Music is so much more fun when you have someone to play with- and I think that is also what drew us together.
When I first started working with Craig, I enjoyed his willingness to work with others. He was always quick to share great ideas, and would rehearse and prepare, so that when it was time, we always sounded spot on. I also enjoyed his photography and filming skills – he’s an incredibly talented person. His generosity for sharing those skills is also incredible. Before we were even a couple, he offered to help me with my online video presence, and took some great headshots for me. Even to this day, he still does this for up and coming artists/friends.
Craig: The music was definitely the thing that united us but it was the laughter that kept us together.
- You also teach at workshops wherever you go. How do you align teaching and stage time at a festival?
Sarah: Most festivals hire us to do both – perform and teach. Usually, at an ‘ukulele festival, we will each teach up to 3 classes per weekend, and do a performance one evening. It’s a ton of fun, and teaching is really where Craig and I love to put our energy. It’s amazing to get the chance to show folks that they can play music, too. The ‘ukulele is not very intimidating- and we try to make the learning of music accessible to everyone.
Craig: I feel that if it wasn’t for the huge teaching presence at these ukulele events, I wouldn’t have pursued a career in music. As much as I love performing, showing people that they can have just as much fun as us on stage is just as fulfilling. There is something magical about being able to break down and show how to master the the things they see us do on stage!
- How is teaching at ArtistWorks different to in-person teaching?
Sarah: We LOVE our online school with ArtistWorks. It really gives you the best of two worlds . You have the pre-recorded lessons you can watch over and over again, pause, or play along with. Then, if you have any questions, or just want to show us your progress, you can upload a video (regarding the lesson in question), and we watch and give you a video answer. It’s not quite the same as an in person lesson, but it’s very close.
I think one of the things I enjoy about it, the most, is seeing our students progress and gain confidence. As a student, you get this great catalogue of your progress – you can watch your first video, months later, and really see that you HAVE improved. It’s quite exciting.
Craig: I absolutely love our students. As Sarah mentioned, it really is the video exchanges that make all of the difference in the world. I wish I had more documentation of my growth as a musician and someone to chat with when I had uke questions.
- Is there a difference, when you teach together and when separately?
Sarah: Most of the time we teach separately – however, our classes tend to dove tail with one another, because of how we teach. Since we spend so much time teaching, we take a lot of consideration into how our classes fit together.
When we teach together, usually one of us is the main teacher, and the other one helps out in class. However, we have taught arranging and duet classes that have us both focusing on getting the class to perform different parts. This is something that is a bit unique, since there are not as many duo teachers.
Craig: I’ve been loving workshops recently that feature multiple teachers. We always tell students that you will never learn all you need to know from just one teacher. Everyone has different styles, experience and personalities to add to the mix. Having a panel of teachers showcases how we tackled things from different angles.
- You both own more ukuleles. Do you have one that you particularly like?
Sarah: We have been playing Kanile’a ‘Ukuleles since 2014. Not only do we love their sound, but we also love what the company does for the environment. Our current custom ukes were given to us as our wedding gifts, in 2015. We adore those instruments, and they were really built with our custom tuning in mind. One instrument is standard tuning – and the other is D,G,B,E (Baritone), but re-entrant tuning, meant for a Tenor scale. This is who we get more depth and harmonies in our playing. Our custom strings are made by GHS Strings.
As far as what Kanile’a does for the environment – they run a nonprofit called Reforest Hawai’i. Their goal is, for every Koa ‘Ukulele they build, they plant a Koa Tree. These trees will never be used for instruments, however. This project was created to reforest a section of the Big Island, and for many generations of people to enjoy. Because Joe Souza (one of the owners of Kanile’a) is always innovating- he open to new ideas, and always looks for ways to have a positive impact on the environment.
- Sarah, you offer a range of ukulele straps; I unterstand you make them yourself? Does this come from your costume designer past?
Sarah: I do make them myself! I love sewing, and always have. My degree is in pattern making for clothing. I used to make a lot of my own dresses, but now I don’t have as much time. When Craig and I were looking at creating more merchandise, I realized that I was missing sewing. I saw there was a lack of really “classy” looking ‘ukulele straps. Guitar players had so many more options, and I wanted something that wasn’t as wide, and had a smaller scale. This lead me to make my own strap- but so many people wanted to know where I had gotten my personal strap... SO I started making them!
I usually will sit at my sewing machine at night – an hour or two before bed, and relax and sew. It’s a great way to unwind. It’s also a great time to practice vocal techniques, or lyrics memorization as well!
- Are there any new projects you are working on?
Sarah: We are currently prepping for our Holiday Album – that we hope to have out by November, 2019. This is a project that folks have been asking for, for a long time- and we finally have time to do it! We’ll be starting pre-sales for that album, hopefully in September. We want to get a few tracks recorded, so we can show folks a bit of what they will be receiving.
Craig: There is also a big new original album that we’re slowly writing for. So many things to do!
- Any wise words you want to share?
Sarah: In many ways, my life has come full circle. When I was little, I wanted to be a musician. I quit playing music to go to University, and didn’t’ realize how much I missed it, until going to that Uke Jam in 2006. Now, unbelievably, I am not only a musician, but I found my husband through music. Together we get to travel the world and experience so much because of the sweet little ‘ukulele. Never give up on a dream – you never know if you’ll get that 2nd chance. I’m so grateful, and will continue to share music for as long as I can.
Craig: Music is powerful. The tiny ukulele is just as tremendous. After traveling the world, we’ve seen the ukulele become a symbol of hope. It has lead people out of despair. It has inspired the young and old, connecting generations in the process. It has brought music back to the living room. The ukulele has connected millions of people all around the world, all wanting to share their joy and song. It has made me a better person and led me to my now wife. Long live the ukulele.