The Virtual Ukulele Ensemble (VUE) was formed in April 2020 in response to the extraordinary circumstances brought about the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns across the globe. Travel restrictions meant the cancelation or postponement of all my upcoming ukulele events and festivals both in the UK and Australia. Like many other musicians I found myself reeling from the sudden shock of being cut off from both a vital source of income and the joy of making music with others.
Social media platforms became an essential source of support and guidance as colleagues exchanged ideas and technical guidance on how musicians could continue to work in this unknown world. Many musicians were turning to Zoom as a platform for teaching and I quickly followed suit. Getting set-up for Zoom music lessons was a steep, but thankfully short, learning curve. I tested my new found Zoom skills by Zooming in to a meeting of the Port Macquarie Ukestra in Australia. Despite latency issues and occasional wi-fi glitches the Zoom platform was a link to the outside world. My school quickly moved to online music lessons. Relieved and grateful to be able to continue working, I was also buoyed by the unique possibilities of online collaborations. I couldn’t go to Australia. Heck! I couldn’t even go to Gloucester. But I could bring my ukulele friends into my own home thanks to the wonders of the internet and Zoom!
I contacted Tom Armstrong, a composer and senior lecturer in music at the University of Surrey, to see if he would be interested in collaborating with a virtual ukulele ensemble. In 2019 I had commissioned Tom to compose a piece for ukulele ensemble. The resulting Shadow Variations was a series of nine variations based on my composition Variations on the Dowie Dens of Yarrow. Tom’s variations explore melodic and rhythmic motives for groups of two or more players. I had been planning to use Shadow Variations as the basis for workshop material over the summer but coronavirus put an end to that. Still keen to record and share Shadow Variations with other ukulele players and teachers I hatched a plan to form a virtual ukulele ensemble. When I put the idea to Tom he immediately said YES! That was a good start but, to be perfectly honest, I had no idea how a virtual ensemble was going to work! Realising that we were all in the same lockdown predicament I was confident, however, that if I chose the right people we would work together and figure it out.
The primary aim of The Virtual Ukulele Ensemble is to record Tom Armstrong’s Shadow Variations. The VUE brings together ukulele players from across the globe. Embracing the community spirit of the ukulele, the VUE includes professional performers, composers and teachers, as well as enthusiastic amateurs. The Virtual Ukulele Ensemble includes ukulele players from the UK, Australia, Germany and the US. The positive response to my invites was overwhelming and soon The VUE was a reality.
The first videos were launched on 20th June 2020. Click here to view the videos.
Composer in Residence: Tom Armstrong
Founder & Director: Samantha Muir
Here are our members:
Kevin Chennell is a retired veterinarian and an enthusiastic musician living in Kalamunda, in the Perth Hills, Western Australia. He leads Kalamunda Ukulele Collective (KUC) and plays in several other bands. KUC has about 40 members who play gigs at festivals, markets, licensed premises, community events and nursing homes. The Collective has a focus on learning and performing with the ukulele. KUC has also hosted international and Australian ukulele players (including Samantha Muir) to improve the skills of players in Perth. Kevin is currently a student of jazz improvisation at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. Australian Ukulele Festival website
Donald Bousted studied the guitar with Thomas Hartmann, Oliver Hunt and Antonio Albanes. He studied the lute with Christopher Wilson and early music with Peter Holman. He had a long-established duo with flutist Lucinda Bunce in the 1990s and together they gave recitals at St John’s Smith Square, St Martin’s in the Fields and live on Classic FM. In 1993 he began a PhD in musical composition at the University of Huddersfield where he later became a lecturer. His music has been performed in many countries around the world as well as broadcast on radio and television. He receives regular lecture invitations to talk about his specialist field which is tuning and microtonality. In 2001 he became Leverhulme Artist in Residence at the London Metropolitan University. In 2010, after some years of minimal playing due to tendonitis, Donald returned to regular practice on the guitar. In 2013 he started teaching the guitar and a few years later, he discovered the ukulele. He is now semi-retired and lives in Norfolk, UK where under more normal circumstances he can be heard as an occasional recitalist in some of the area’s historic venues. Although his musical tastes have always been inclined to the weird and experimental he loves everything on the ukulele: some say it’s even made him a nicer person. Donald was a Cobbett Prize winner at the Royal College of Music, holds a PhD from the University of Huddersfield and has a guitar teaching diploma from the Guildhall School of Music. Website.
Paul Mansell is a professional ukulele player and author from Northampton, UK and was the first ukulele player ever to grace to cover of BMG Magazine (the longest running magazine in the world for fretted instruments). Paul is signed as an author/songwriter to publishers Kevin Mayhew Ltd and has released three books: ‘Classical Uke’, ‘Ukulele School’ and 2Kulele (Co written with Tony Mizen). Paul is regularly featured in Uke Magazine and his ukulele Youtube channel has over 120K hits. His debut album ‘Me, My Ukulele & I’ was released in Dec 2017 on KM Records is a mix of classical and contemporary pieces all played on the solo ukulele. Uke Planet called the CD ‘exquisite’ giving it 5 stars. Website
As a community musician, literacy and creative arts educator and event organiser, Cathy Welsford has directed ukulele groups, community and conservatorium choirs and co-directed large ukulele, choral and arts events in NSW Australia including the Armidale International Women’s Comedy Festival and The Uralla YouthFest. She is one half of The Wild Women of Anywhere Beach performing original works and quirky covers (on their album Keep Laughing, Seriously), running ukulele-based team-building sessions and exciting ukulele workshops for local groups and festivals. She is currently teaching her local group, The Valla Beach Garage Band and Orchestra, via Zoom as well as running group Zoom courses for ukulele players who want to learn to read traditional notation and play melodies on their ukulele. Cathy is the co-founder and director of the successful Valla Beach Ukulele Camp and Beach Party. While working as a Project Officer for the New England Conservatorium of Music, she developed a music program for schools, Music, Literacy and Ukulele. Circle Songs on the Mat is a music and language project (in development stage) for pre-school teachers and kids. Cathy is an accredited Level 3 Ukulele teacher in the James Hill Ukulele Initiative and was a founding member and inaugural president of AUTLA, the Australian Ukulele Teachers and Leaders Association Inc. She runs Ukulele Music Australia, an online bookshop for ordering hard copies of a small variety of ukulele music which are classical and education focussed.
Matt Stead is an ukulele teacher and performer based in The Forest of Dean. He is also the proprietor or The Uke Room – one of Europe’s biggest ukulele stores. Matt has performed at ukulele festivals around the globe and has released two albums with his bassist friend Rob Ash. Their filmic instrumental music has been played on BBC Radio One and they have toured extensively together. Matt is also proud to be the Musical Director of The London Youth Ukulele Orchestra and enjoys composing pieces for the LCM Ukulele grades.
Ian Porter studied for his BMus at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in the early 1980s, but as a classical trumpet performer, conductor and arranger. After a brief period teaching Ian spent the next 30 years as an executive in commerce and industry. He came back to music in 2010 and chose ukulele as his preferred instrument. He has subsequently completed the 3-year James Hill Teaching certification, founded the Outlaws Ukulele Band, The North Shore Strummers, The Willoughby Ukestars and is the teacher in-residence at the Dougherty Centre in Sydney’s Northern Suburbs. Ian is a prolific music arranger, particularly for ukulele ensembles and takes every opportunity to take his students to the edge of their comfort-zone in the pursuit of a unique sound. In 2019 Ian published a number of Ukulele Duets based on classical piano pieces. In the same year Ian started his annual Willoughby Ukulele Orchestra Workshop, now in its second year, where students learn multi-part arrangements of well-known repertoire from classical to pop music. Then after 1-day they come together to play as a structured ukulele orchestrated record their performance. For more details see: Ian Porter Music. Ian was one of the founders of the Australian Ukulele Teachers and Leaders Association, now in its fourth year, and is a regular performer at festivals in Australia.
Alastair and Tricia Fraser
Like many in the ʻUkulele playing Community, we have discovered the joy of playing an instrument later in life. The experience started in 2015 with an advert for beginners’ classes in a local Garden Centre. Membership of a local Uke Group has followed, along
with attendances at festivals, concerts and workshops. We have even found ourselves sitting Grade 5 Music Theory exams in the company of school children. Over the last 5 years we have made many new friends and discovered a wealth of talented musicians who perform in all sorts of styles and genres of music. We met Sam when we attended a course for “ʻUkulele Ensemble Playing” at Benslow Music Trust. Ever since, we have been enthusiastic fans of Classical Ukulele. We feel honoured to be part of the Virtual ʻUkulele Ensemble.
Called a “bright wom[a]n with big ideas” (Souls in Action), Denver-based composer Loretta K. Notareschi (b. 1977) seeks to create “compassion” (303 Magazine) and connection through her “powerful” (The Denver Post) and “deeply personal” (5280 Magazine) music. Whether writing for string quartet or symphony orchestra, church congregations or classical ukulele, she seeks to “connec[t] with the audience” (303 Magazine) and move listeners with music of meaning. Loretta has published a number of works for solo ukulele which can be viewed here
Janine Shearer is a community music therapist, educator and event organiser. She holds a BMus (Therapy) from the University of Melbourne and is classically trained on flute and piano. Janine has performed, toured and recorded nationally and internationally with a variety of semi-professional groups including The Brass Machine Big Band, The Northern Beaches Orchestra and The Northern Beaches Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Janine is a certified Level 3 Ukulele Teacher with the James Hill Ukulele Initiative and has accreditation as a drum facilitator with Arthur Hill (Village Music Circles) and Kalani Das (Developmental Community Music), as well as music and movement qualifications in Dalcroze Eurhythmics. In 2005, Janine developed her business Making Music 4 Life (after a 10 year corporate tax career ) to reflect her passionate advocacy for music education across the lifespan. Over the past decade, Janine’s focus has shifted from delivering early childhood programs and corporate drumming events to teaching ukulele courses and workshops to adults who may never have had the opportunity to learn an instrument before. Based on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, her uke programs include a vibrant 60+ performance ukulele ensemble, The Lightly Strung Orchestra which performs regularly at festivals in Australia. She is a member of the Australian Ukulele Orchestra (founded by musical director Ian Porter) and is also on the Executive Committee of the Australian Ukulele Teachers & Leaders Association.
Todd Fiegel is a retired music professor living in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA. Still an active conductor and arranger, while teaching he served as Director of University Bands and was professor of conducting, trumpet, and music education. Dr. Fiegel has conducted the Salt Lake Symphony and was the Artistic Director of The Utah Premiere Brass and the founding conductor of the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra. An author and historian in the area of film music, Todd has conducted and lectured over 200 times with his Celluloid Tubas and Celluloid Brass Shows, which comprise live performances of Hollywood film and cartoon scores with the projected film. He has been invited seven times to present the shows at international music conferences.
Choosing to learn the ukulele only in the years since retirement, Todd participates in two ukulele groups in Salt Lake City. Long before VUE, he was honored to be invited to write about his experiences with ukulele master Kimo Hussey for VUE co-member Paul Mansell’s blog. The article can be found here
Special thanks to Josie Elias for providing extra photos, assisting with the recordings, helping with the admin and coping with the odd melt down!