J.K. Simmons in his Academy Award winning role as the meanie-teacher in Whiplash.

Maybe you saw the movie Whiplash? About a mercurial music teacher who thrashes his young protégé into a drum-thumping master? I left the theater feeling like I’d been pummeled too.

Chocolate please…

Suzuki Roshi
Suzuki Roshi


I’m not sure what you would call this bombastic style of “getting your point across” but I prefer teaching with, shall we say, kindness. Love, even. Not gushy, but honest. The great Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, told his students “all of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.”

The music teacher in Whiplash bullies his students, humiliates them. He sucks their spirits so dry their eyes go dead. Well that’s how it looks from my seat. In the mega-decibel finale his student performs an inspired drum solo, seemingly reaching the pinnacle of perfection and transcendence. One might conclude that the teacher, in all his mean-spirited bluster, is vindicated.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain

We’ve all had teachers. They stretch across the big bell curve of competence—from exceptional to “you-have-got-to-be-kidding.” Nobody has a corner on the truth, the immensity that is music or that is anything. “You’re just one little dot in the painting that is the music of the universe,” says Tabla master Zakir Hussain.

I tell my ukulele students that I am sharing my experience, the stuff I’ve learned first-hand as a working musician. My little “dot” in the painting. But they have to connect their own dots…

For years I studied with three teachers who were extraordinary mentors. They planted seeds, they cajoled, they got testy, they made me listen to songs and singers and music that were way outside my comfort zone. They lent me books and tapes that were subversive. They changed the trajectory of my life and for that I am deeply grateful.

I love them still. But there were “issues.” News Flash! There are always issues. Human beings are a roiling stew of pop-up emotions and contradictions. Eventually a sense of possession seeped into the teaching relationship. It was time for me to go. To take what I had learned and live it. To stand on my own two feet. When I finally left, it was messy and terribly sad. But I had to. I had to find my own way.

And I had to take a long hard look in the mirror.  Music continues to teach me. About a whole lot more than music…

Seymour Bernstein, from the documentary "Seymour: An Introduction"
Seymour Bernstein, from the documentary “Seymour: An Introduction”

88-year-old pianist Seymour Bernstein tells his students that music, like life, is about dissonances, harmonies and resolution. And then he adds “I never dreamt that with my own two hands, I could touch the sky.”

It’s a dance, this teacher thing. Always changing, always in motion. Each of us teacher AND student. I am honored that Ukulele Magazine has published my essay about teaching and “Why I Uke” in their Spring 2016 Issue.

Now go forth, teach something to somebody…and touch the sky.

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From Ukulele Magazine, Spring 2016, page 24

When I stand in front of one of my ukulele classes and see people who have never played an instrument before or have been told they can’t sing and here they are, strumming and singing and making music, I say to myself, “it doesn’t get any better than this…”

I began my career as a professional musician just after I bought my first car, a funky old VW Bug. I jettisoned the front passenger seat so there was room for my PA system. My musician friends and I learned early to “cobble” together a career, hustling for gigs, networking and practicing, practicing, practicing.

Working in piano bars taught me to be a good entertainer and to engage the audience so they feel like they are part of the show. Night after night I saw how music brings people together. Then a few years ago my husband, Craig Brandau, purchased a tenor Fluke and it changed the air pressure in our house. We both got real serious about learning to play.

I put the piano, guitar and banjo on hold and began my romance with the ukulele. It’s friendly and portable and turns spectators into participants. But I never expected to be a teacher. To LOVE teaching the ukulele and leading a group. I never realized that the skills I learned as a working musician and entertainer would come in so handy. But it’s all show biz, right? Learning to play the uke is not always easy but hey, let’s have a good time doing it.

Here’s what happened: On a whim I offered an eight-week beginners uke class at my local senior center in Culver City, California. Eight weeks has turned into five years. We named ourselves The CC Strummers and play together every Thursday morning. They challenge and inspire me to be a better teacher. I started another eight-week beginners class on Mondays and the same thing happened.

Suddenly I had two huge classes and we were sounding good so we decided to “take it to the streets” because we love sharing the music that makes us happy. One of my mentors said that the audience won’t remember what you play, but they will remember how you made them feel.

Today my “cobbling” continues. It’s a laundry list by golly. I teach four uke classes a week, lead The CC Strummers and do my own arrangements for our songbook. I teach private students, tool around Los Angeles doing gigs and music therapy with dementia patients. I perform at ukulele festivals and do workshops. I have two ukulele albums, write songs and blogs and of course, practice, practice, practice. I don’t cook. Or sleep much…

Maybe a few people get their “fifteen minutes” of fame and fortune, but I’m grateful that, after all these years, I’m still making a living doing what I love to do.


Oh dear. I know my semi-regular blogs have been, well, not… What can I say? It’s busy-busy here in Culver City. But then something happens that I  just have to write about.

I go to Costco for gas.

And my whole psychological spooky house loses a couple walls…


It’s early, before the big store rolls up the corrugated steel doors and a knot of eager shoppers push in with their giant carts. It’s when the gasoline station is usually, shall we say, mellow.

All the years I’ve been driving my Saturn (yes a Saturn…), I still have to look at the dash to remind myself which side the fuel tank is on. Oh yeah…the right. Plenty of times I pull into the “other” lane and have to thread the gasoline thingy behind the rear antenna across the trunk to reach the hole. As I stand there, babysitting the handle, making sure a passing car doesn’t squash my bottom, it’s obvious to me that I could have thought this through a little better.

So here I am one more time carefully weighing my options, remembering which side is which and divining which line of cars is the shortest. So I hesitate a little before taking aim at the “leftist” lane. JUST AS A GUY IN A BIG BLACK TRUCK RIPS OUT OF NOWHERE AND CUTS IN FRONT OF ME.

Yes in the scheme of things, in a world that is rife with despair and people doing awful things to each other, this burst of mean-spiritedness is a non-starter. But at the picnic of life, it’s not so much the bears that get me. It’s the ants…

Almost immediately he pulls up to a pump. MY PUMP. As I wait MY turn. I glare at him. I want to burn him up with my eyes. I am on fricking fire.

And he is glaring at me too. At ME! I watch him open his door…glare…walk to the pump…glare…do the credit card dance and gas up…glare. I watch my angry mind question his worthiness as a human being. His right to breathe air. But mostly I smash into the wall of my own psychology. My M.O. When I feel wronged, when I feel like someone has treated me in a rude, snarky way, I feel terrible. Terrible, terrible, terrible.

But here’s what usually happens: I back off. I want to make nice. I want everyone to get along. This is my M.O. too. I swallow that mouthful of anger and stuff it into my gut. As if getting it out of my face is my ticket to Happy Land.

Not this time…

I look the guy straight in the eyes and say “you cut in front of me and that was very unkind.”

“I disagree.” He retorts.


Uh-oh… Was he the star on his college debate team? Was he from a big family where it was dinnertime sport to argue your case over mom’s pot roast and mashed potatoes?

And he’s not done… Now he makes it about me. That I was hesitating and didn’t know which lane I was going to, so of course he drove around me. In other words, it is my fault.

Oh, he’s a spin doctor too? He’s off the hook, by golly, because I made him do it. By now my rational mind is missing in action. My head has turned into a drunk party.

One voice says “yeah, it’s all your fault…bad girl.”
Another interrupts “nuh-uh, he’s a jerk.”
Another chimes in “but the guy has a point.”
“Yeah…maybe…but he won’t even say ‘I’m sorry’.’”
“Shut up.”
“No, YOU shut up…”

The conversation blares on.

If it was possible to lean a microphone against our heads and broadcast the internal conversations we have with ourselves, I think most of us would all be in jail.

At least overnight…

I say nothing more to this man. Continuing our “discussion” would be an exercise in futility but I’m sure my face registers utter dismay. A poker player I am not. I watch him roar out of the parking lot and tear down the street. Maybe he’s late for work. Maybe his kid is in the hospital. Maybe he’s a horse’s ass. His left brake light is out and maybe he’ll get pulled over by a cop and get a ticket. A really expensive ticket…

Maybe today I am taking things too personally.

Towards the end of his life, philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote, “It’s a little embarrassing that after forty-five years of research & study, the best advice I can give people is to be a little kinder to each other.”

Mr. Huxley died in Los Angeles. In 1963. B.C. Before Costco.

How do I respond to this moment…and this one…and this one? How can I know until it happens? How can I know if the answer is kindness? Or fire? Or both? If only I can remember to check in with my heart FIRST.

If only I can remember where the fuel tank is…


PROGRAM NOTE for our California friends:

My husband Craig and I are doing a mini-ukulele tour (and mini-vacation) through Central California in mid-July:

Friday, July 17, 2015: Morning workshop with the super fun Funstrummers in Modesto. Everyone is welcome.


Saturday, July 18, 2015: Workshop and concert at the house of ukulele love,The Strum Shop, in Roseville.


Monday, July 20, 2015: Workshop and concert in San Jose at Atria Willow Glen. Workshop is 2:00 to 3:00 and Concert from 3:30 to 4:30 P.M. Everyone is welcome (Email me for details).

Please join us. We would LOVE to see you and make music together.


So I happen to glance at my horoscope for Wednesday, June 24, 2015 in the Los Angeles Times, just as I’m composing this blog and it’s like…really? The comedy just writes itself…








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