Good God–I’m an Amateur!

What I’m playing on the ukulele right now:

Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses by Tommie Malie and Jimmy Steiger

You have to understand something: for the past 25 years—nearly half my life—I’ve been a professional musician. I have a degree in music from one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the world. I have studied with the best teachers and have shared the stage with Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo Yo Ma, James Galway and many, many others. I have performed as a classical double bassist in concert halls all over the world. I’ve spent periods of my life practicing 6+ hours per day. I’m used to a certain level of polished perfection.

Last week, all of that changed.

I videotaped myself playing and singing the 1920’s song Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses the other day. Those of you who know the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, it’s the song that opens the movie as the first girl is kidnapped. Despite that, it’s a lovely song and it’s really fun to sing and play.

The sheet music I have is from the 20s and has the ukulele tuned in D (ADF#B), so I used my old soprano uke for it. It’s a great instrument to get that Roaring 20’s sound. I couldn’t wait to hear the results of my video.

It was terrible.

Well, not really terrible, but certainly not up to the level of my other musical activities. I tried version after version with zero improvement. I even have a spectacular example of Aspie guttural noise as I RRRRRRRRR! through a particularly difficult (for me) chord change. It was pretty depressing.

Still, what did I expect—virtuosity after 4 months? The ukulele is considered one of the easiest instruments to play, but I have to remember that I’m still taking baby steps. Four months of uke-ing simply can’t stack up to 40 years of bass playing. It sounded amateurish.

In professional circles, “amateur” is an epithet. As in, [spoken in the worst possible classical music snob voice] “I heard the Philharmonic attempt to play Brahms’ 3rd Symphony and it was just dreadful! They sounded like AMATEURS!” Honestly, it’s one of the worst things you can say to a musician.

So let’s look at the word Amateur. It is French, comprised of 2 parts: ama and teur. Teur is a person, a being, a one; ama is to love. So amateur means “one who loves,” or put another way, “one who does what he or she does for love.”

So for as much fun as I’m having with the ukulele, I absolutely love it.

I guess that makes me an amateur.


My Path to the Ukulele

What I’m playing on the Ukulele right now:

Bidin’ My Time by George and Ira Gershwin 

I finally got my tenor ukulele back! The fine folks at RedZone Guitar Works in Pasadena, CA—love that place, by the way—exchanged my buzzy instrument with a nice new one. At the present time I have my old soprano uke and my new tenor, and I may be getting a nice, old baritone that’s been in our family for quite some time. I’m hoping to complete the collection by picking up a nice concert size uke when Linda and I finally go on our Hawaiian honeymoon in a few months. At some point in the near future, I’ll do a geek post about my instruments.


So what was my path to the ukulele?


Among the many challenges of being an Aspie, the chief is an extreme difficulty in reading social situations. If your brain is functioning normally—neurotypical, or NT for those of you playing the at-home game—you learn from a very early age to pick up on social cues—body language, facial expressions, verbal inflections, sarcasm and the like. In the case of someone with Asperger’s, this is missing or at least underdeveloped. Making things worse is an impaired ability to view oneself in relation to a social setting. I’ve learned to negotiate cocktail and dinner parties, and occasionally I can do a pretty damn good impression of someone who’s NT, but I come home absolutely exhausted.


Regardless of an Aspie’s age or place in life, finding and keeping friends is always a major challenge. Being unable to see how you relate to the everyone around them often causes Aspies to blurt out inappropriate remarks and say just plain odd things, usually at exactly the wrong time. Remember that weird kid in the back of the classroom who couldn’t stop talking about astronomy, bringing in the discovery of Pluto into discussions about the American Civil War?


That was me.


As a kid, it came as a shock to me that being weird on the playground or in the classroom was not the best way to be accepted by your peers. And of course the more normal I tried to act the weirder I became. Adult advice always centered around “being yourself.” Great. What no one seemed to realize was that the “real me” was far stranger than I was letting on. So what does a hopelessly odd kid to do?


Take it on stage!


I was always in the school plays, but the roles I played were far too, well, normal.  No—I had to find something truly unique. Something I could do that no one else would dare do. I became a magician, and I was GREAT! (Well, according to my mother I was more cute than competent, but that’s beside the point). I was the only magician at Baldwin-Stocker Elementary School and that suited me just fine. It even halted a bully in his tracks.


Scott had been tormenting me mercilessly since Kindergarten. I did all I could to stop Scott and his cronies from pummeling me, but nothing ever worked. After performing my magic act at one of the yearly talent shows Scott came up to me—sheet-white and trembling—and proclaimed, “My mom says magic is of the devil!” He didn’t bother me for a long time after that.


What performing magic taught me was that given the right set of controlled circumstances, it is possible for me to communicate what words cannot. On a stage the rules of engagement are clearly defined. Audiences willingly come to you to hear what you have to say, and the communications performers receive back from their audiences is equally powerful; an audience feeds off the performers’ energy and the performer feeds off the audience’ energy.


Ever since that time, performing has been a place where I can be as weird as I want to be. Even after over 40 years, I still approach each performance with the excitement of a 6 year-old magician. The communication between the audience and myself is palpable. So is this, then the straight line to the ukulele? No—you’ll have to wait for another post to get the rest of the story.


Ukulele Obsessions

Ah yes, Asperger’s obsessions.

 Some Aspies have a life-long special interest, such as the Titanic, baseball scores or Winnie-the-Pooh. Trains and astronomy are biggies. I’m one of those who tend to bounce from one special interest to the next. When I was a kid, it was astronomy, magic and Tchaikovsky. Later on it was marine biology, horticulture and bonsai. As an adult, it has been movies from the silent era, electronic music and John Cage. From my earliest memories to now, music has been a constant thread.

One thing I’ve been enjoying about discovering the ukulele is how easy it has been to learn, especially after spending so much time playing classical bass professionally for over 25 years.

The ukulele has seen a renaissance over the past few years, but it has continually held an important place in popular music. The ease of playing and its portability have had as much to do with its staying power as the warm, gentle tone. In fact, the ukulele got its start as Hawaiian versions of small Portuguese guitars. The legend is that native Hawaiians gravitated to the instrument because it could be easily carried into the fields and played on breaks. It was given its Hawaiian name “ukulele” by the field workers.

The ukulele made an off-island sensation debuting at the Hawaiian Pavilion at 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Tin Pan Alley composers cashed in on the whole Hawaiian craze that swept the nation by penning exotic island-sounding tunes. The uke caught on, becoming the go-to instrument throughout the first half of the 20th Century until it was knocked off its perch by the guitar in the late 50s. My primary interest is in songs of the 20s and 30s.

I’ve been playing the ukulele now for about 3 months and I love it. Frustration has been kept (so far) to a minimum, and I’m really happy with the results. I still have a lot to learn, but it’s been great fun discovering well-known and less-known Tin Pan Alley and Hawaiian gems. My tenor ukulele is in the shop, but when I get it back I’ll post a video of me playing.

Asperger’s and Ukuleles

Tom with Ukulele

My name is Tom Peters. I am a professional musician, composer and non-profit consultant. I’m 48 years old with a wonderful wife and son. I also have Asperger’s Syndrome.

So what is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome is a mild form of autism, characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. Those of us with Asperger’s—or Apies, as a term of endearment—tend to have few facial expressions and are apt to stare blankly at other people. It’s nothing personal; we really can’t help it.

Aspies are often accused of being “in their own world” and preoccupied with their own thoughts.  We are often clumsy with uncoordinated movements, are socially awkward, have repetitive routines or rituals, odd speech and language, and non-verbal communication problems. God knows, I qualify for all of those!

So why is this blog called Asperger’s Ukulele? One hallmark of Asperger’s Syndrome is an intense interest in one or two subjects, and we often torment those around us about our special interests. For me, one special interest led to another. I know, I know…I’m being all Aspie and not getting to the point, but bear with me—I’m getting there.

In addition to performing classical music, I compose and perform live film scores here in Los Angeles for films from the silent era. Last November I was working on a new score for the original film version of Chicago. I needed a jazz-era score, so I pressed my Grandfather’s banjo into service and blew the dust off my old ukulele. The ukulele stuck.

After playing classical bass for nearly 40 years, I’m now on an interesting journey in learning a new instrument. I hope you’ll join me on my voyage of self-discovery and music.