Our next interview guest is the Canadian ukulele educator Cynthia Kinnunen.
How would you introduce yourself in one sentence?
I’m a passionate music educator and advocate for music education and community music, using ukulele, piano and voice as my musical tools of choice. I’m also a wife and mother of three, which are my most important roles. I realize that’s two sentences.
Let's get into the middle: The Royal City Uke Festival just ended, how did it go?
The Festival went extremely well! We were sold out, as we have been each of the last three years. My goal is always a warm, friendly vibe but an event that offers strong learning experiences; entertaining and inspiring performances; and opportunities to connect with the beautiful ukulele community. I think this was our best festival yet with those goals in mind.
Organizing a uke fest is a huge amount of work, how did the idea come?
It is indeed a huge amount of work and we are entirely volunteer run. The idea had been percolating for some time as I saw so many other fantastic festivals around other parts of Canada, the U.S. and overseas. We had only a few other events going on around here in Ontario so I wanted to see some more opportunity to bring people together in my community. I’ve also had experience in event planning in the past so I felt comfortable setting things up. I really thought that Guelph was ready for it; so many ukulele players looking for something more. It’s great to have been able to make that a reality.
How big is the uke life in Guelph (when there is no festival)?
There’s a growing community here for sure. In the last seven years, I’ve personally been teaching lessons, classes, workshops, and of course, running my Royal City Ukulele Ensemble adult learning orchestra program, now in its sixth season. I see more people starting to teach private ukulele lessons and so many people tell me that they’re getting together in groups with family and friends and making music together on their ukes. It’s amazing to see it expanding!
When did you come across the ukulele?
I first learned ukulele back in grades five and six when my teacher brought them into our classroom. We were learning based on the Chalmers Doane Ukulele in the Classroom method that was taught back in the 70s and 80s here in Canada. I was fortunate that my teacher picked up on that curriculum and made that happen in our classroom. Though I adored the instrument, after those grades I didn’t hold another ukulele until about 9 years ago when I decided to pick one up again out of the blue. That is too many decades without a ukulele! But since then, I haven’t put the instrument down.
Are you a uke collector? (I've seen your studio, so don't sugar coat it)
*cough cough* Well. I suppose I am but don’t tell my husband. I do have a healthy number of ukuleles in my home studio and I love that when people come over, they can grab one and play too!
You play other instruments too? (Besides piano, to which I come in the next question).
Yes, growing up I also learned some bassoon, oboe, flute and did some studies in voice. I’ve also been trying to play more accordion and kantele but I don’t seem to have enough time to practice these days! I do gravitate to simpler percussion instruments too, as I am very drawn to rhythm.
Now to the piano. What I'm most interested in are the benefits of playing and teaching two so different instruments. Does knowing one help knowing the other better in any way?
Absolutely. This is my own experience but having learned piano growing up, I had a tough time initially wrapping my head around the fretboard. I had no problem with strumming and chords but once I began playing chord melody and fingerpicking and had to wrap my head around four strings each with chromatic notes, that was messing with my head!
But as I began learning and playing more on ukulele, it really began to strengthen my thinking around chord progressions and building complex chords which I brought back to the piano and it improved my piano playing. Of course, having been able to read music and understand theory from all of my years of Conservatory piano, that made a lot of aspects of the notation and musicality of playing ukulele easier.
So both instruments helped inform my playing and understanding of the other in different and complementary ways. It’s a win-win!
We were talking about it this summer that you are now a full-time ukulele person, what does that mean in detail?
Well, I’ll call myself a full time music educator . But much of my time does seem to be connected to ukulele! There are a lot of different things I’ve got going on in my portfolio of teaching and performing. I teach private ukulele and piano lessons from my home studio to about 15 students each week. I teach 4-week ukulele classes throughout the year at a local pub that I have a wonderful arrangement with. It’s a super place to introduce adults to learning this instrument. I run an adult learning ukulele orchestra program called the Royal City Ukulele Ensemble, which is now in its 6th season and has 35 members. It’s a lot of my time as I write about 20-30 arrangements each year for the ensemble and it’s a learning program so each week I teach them for 2 hours, working through music literacy, skill building, ensemble playing, and more. I teach a first year seminar class at the University of Guelph called The Mighty ‘Ukulele: Finding its place in education, medicine, culture and community. And I am part of James Hill’s Team, helping with a number of initiatives but most especially around the Ukulele in the Classroom methodology, which is an incredible curriculum for teaching music using ukulele as the instrument. I also travel around to teach workshops and perform at festivals around the world, too, which has been an incredible experience. Lastly, I’m also working on my Masters in Community Music at Laurier University on a part-time basis over two years. So, I teach, I play, and I also sell Ohana ukuleles from my home studio. I’m also a Friend of Ohana. Some day perhaps I’ll learn how to build one too!
You form a duo with your husband. Can you tell me about this formation?
Transit Lounge is the duo I have with my husband, Ben, who is a bass player. We play a mix of originals and covers. Our originals are folk/pop sort of genre and our covers run the gamut, everything from 40s swing to 70s punk to pop and rock tunes. We just enjoy getting to make music together as our life is pretty busy. Music making is a way we can have fun and connect. We try to get our kids into it as well. Two of the three of them are now teenagers so it’s a challenge! But we do have lots of instruments around the house and everyone plays around with them all here and there, and everyone definitely has a strong love for music.
Where did the name 'Transit Lounge' come from?
It comes from a Crowded House song. Ben and I first met because of New Zealand artist Neil Finn and he holds a special place in our hearts. We thought it was fun to choose one of his more obscure songs but it’s also been fun to take selfies of us in various transit lounges as we travel around to perform. It kind of reflects that we’re always on the move and that it’s finding time to relax and connect whenever possible, always in the Transit Lounge.
Where do you perform?
We’re quite busy with our day jobs (Ben is an engineer by day) but we’ve been able to perform at local events in and around Guelph, and also in such places as the Ukulele Festival of Scotland, Mighty Uke Day in Michigan, and Tropical Winter Ukulele Fest in Finland. We love to have the chance to play together. As a solo artist, I’ve also performed around locally and also at festivals like Marigold Ukulele Festival in Nova Scotia, Midland Uke Fest in Ontario, and Port Townsend Uke Fest in Washington State.
Any uke players that inspire you?
Of course. But I’m inspired by all kinds of musicians, not just ukulele players. I’m fortunate that I’ve been able to work and play alongside some wonderful musicians and educators who I really admire and feel grateful to know, to learn from and be inspired by.
If you had to pick one year of music history, which one would it be? (I know, this is mean).
Oooooo, that’s a really tough one. I really love so many kinds of music, from the baroque era, to early 20th century big band, to the 80s… I don’t think I can narrow it down so just one!
Any wise words to share?
Not my words, but one of my favourite phrases has been one that I first heard in The Mighty Uke film and that’s Music self-played is happiness self-made. I think that about says it all. Three cheers for the goodness of music and ukulele!