If you want to learn a musical instrument, it helps to wear a hat.
That's according to New Plymouth's Tony Hansen, who recently left his job of nine years to teach ukulele.
"It hasn't been researched but hats do make quite a difference in music.
"They put you in a different headspace.
"Woolly hats, fedoras, a fez, there's all sorts of options."
Hansen has played music for years; guitar, mandolin and ukulele.
Last year he went to the Auckland Ukulele Festival and caught up with some friends who teach ukulele in Australia.
"I was inspired."
Over the Christmas break he started putting together songs he liked and, thinking he could teach, got a bunch of friends together as guinea pigs.
After pondering their feedback and making a few adjustments he held his first introductory class in May.
Since then he's had a couple of groups going, like the one I've joined tonight.
It was a couple of weeks ago that Hansen left his job of nine years to teach uke full-time.
"I was leading a team of employment consultants who work in the mental health area supporting people to choose and keep a job," he says.
"It was time for a change."
Taking the plunge into self- employment in the creative arts was slightly nerve-racking, he says, but he's confident there are enough people out there wanting to pick up a ukulele.
"I know that people keep buying ukeleles, if you talk to the shops they're front and centre of their display windows.
"It's part of their bread and butter.
"I figured there's a lot of people with ukeleles out there who are tinkering along at home who probably would like to go further than you can on YouTube - because that's where you get into the social experience of learning and particularly with music in this form, doing it together makes it a lot of fun."
The group environment can relieve people of some of any worries they have about learning an instrument, he says.
In a way, his previous work relates to teaching the ukulele by assisting people to further themselves in a field.
"I jokingly call it musical recovery," he says.
"For people who have played music or who have always wanted to but never taken that step.
"Whenever you hear the word ukulele people usually light up, because of the associations of joy and children.
"I could have taught guitar but I love the accessibility of the ukulele. It's a musical doorway for all ages."
Although it's an easy instrument to start learning, it takes a bit of practice and dedication to get beyond 'ching-ka-chick' to a place where you can start having musical conversations with other players, he says. "When you pick up a new instrument and apply some of your musical knowledge it opens up different sounds and worlds and ways of interpreting music you already know."
A class comprises learning new chord groups and basic songs, printouts of which Hansen hands out to take home.
Students are encouraged to practise, but if you don't it's not the end of the world.
The environment is laid-back.
I'm handed a ukulele and join in to Sam Cooke's Wonderful World, which Hansen encourages those comfortable to sing along to.
I'd arrived with an inflated sense of confidence, thinking my years of guitar-playing would put me in good stead.
I bungle a few chords but at least my singing's OK, I reason to myself.
My bubble is burst later as we climb in the car and our tactful videographer informs me of a "funny sound" discernible from my side of the room.
Renae Lay used to work with Hansen and thought she'd support him by joining the first class.
"I went to Tony's introduction class for a laugh and found I quite enjoyed it.
"So I carried on coming."
She's been coming along for 12 weeks now.
"You wouldn't know," she giggles.
On one side of the circle Leonie Soffe and Karen Southall cackle at two men on the opposite side.
"Don't worry, it's just husband and wife rivalry," Leonie tells me.
The Soffes and Southalls have been friends for 30 years, since their kids were young.
A couple of months ago the wives made up their minds to knock another item off the bucket list.
"We decided we would learn, so we went to the music shop and bought our ukuleles, going within a reasonable budget," Karen says.
"What we found is when they were lying around at home, the husbands would pick them up and start playing," she explains in hushed tones, shooting glances across the room towards Bill and Rod.
"So they joined in - after purchasing their very, very expensive ukuleles. Ours weren't good enough because the frets were too small," she says.
The men's defence is that the women's ukuleles were too dainty for their larger, masculine hands.
"What they thought was going to happen when we came along was that they'd get an upgrade in their ukes and we'd get the old ones," Bill says.
"But because we needed more distance between the frets, we ended up with better ukes than they got."
As well as the healthy rivalry, it's added a musical dimension to their weekly game of cards.
"We do have jam sessions on a Friday night, just the four of us," Leonie says.
"It's a lot of fun."
Tony's students range from a grandfather who wants to play ukulele with his grandson to couples or groups of friends who want to play together.
"There's a couple of people who want to surprise people who don't know that they're learning. There's a guy who works on the oil rigs whose wife's joining him from overseas later in the year and he wants to learn so that he can surprise her.
"Whether he goes as far as singing a song and welcoming her at the airport I don't know, but we'll see."
For more information about Tony's ukulele lessons or to join up, call him on 022 184 0720 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Taranaki Daily News
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