Performing music for his country at the Pan American Games in Toronto last month is just one of many accomplishments James Hill has achieved this year.
The world-renowned ukulele player was also nominated for his first Juno award, released a new online video teaching system for his first-of-its-kind ukulele teacher certification program, and will have his first child this fall.
“This year has really been a peak for me,” Hill told The Times from his home in Nova Scotia.
But it isn’t just a big year for him. Hill says events like the Pan Am Games are a big deal for the world of the ukulele as well.
“It’s an honour for me personally, but it’s also an honour for the ukulele because it shows some of the recognition that the instrument is getting not just in Canada, but world-wide,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine that all of his success began in a fourth grade classroom at Belmont Elementary School.
Back in the 1980s when Hill first learned to play, the ukulele was largely an underground instrument. The mockery of Tiny Tim in the ‘70s had “torpedoed the ukulele,” Hill recalled, and helped it decline in popularity.
But for students in the Langley elementary school — where learning the uke was mandatory — it wasn’t something to feel ashamed of.
“You can’t really tease someone about something that you’re doing,” Hill said.
“In that sense it wasn’t really something for just the outcast kids.”
t was also difficult to dislike the ukulele when their teachers were so in love with it.
Hill attributes his passion for the instrument to his instructors — Jamie Thomas and Peter Luongo — who’s own passion inspired him push his music boundaries.
“They were really good at being authentic about the fact that it was a really great musical instrument,” he said.
“They didn’t let the public perception of the ukulele into the classroom.”
Hill also had the support and instruction from teachers at the Langley Community Music School, where he studied music from the age of three until Grade 12.
But there was something about the tiny four-stringed instrument that Hill identified with, more than the violin or any other instrument he learned to play.
“In a world that is moving so fast and in a world that is being so dominated by speed and mobile communications and this general disconnectedness through connectedness … the ukulele is the antidote to all of that,” Hill said.
“It sits people down, it quiets their mind, it brings them together in real spaces and gets them singing real songs together.
“They’re songs their grandparents would have sung and I think it grounds people in an age where pretty much nothing else does.”
And it isn’t just Hill who has discovered this. In recent years the ukulele has been making appearances in all forms of media.
“Since I started 25 years ago, I’ve seen it completely do a 180,” Hill said.
“People are now familiar with it, they like it, it’s approachable and friendly.
“It’s very much the instrument of the moment, and I think it’s very much a global instrument. Something that pretty much everyone around the world can relate to and can have access to.”
When asked why the uke is suddenly popular again, Hill said with a laugh, “If you ask my mom, she thinks I had a lot to do with it — I’m not so sure.
“I think it’s a lot bigger than one person or even a handful of people. I think it has stuck a nerve in this moment in history — It’s done that before.
“This isn’t the first time the ukulele has surged in popularity. It has something that people need at various times in their lives. And when enough people have that need at the same time the thing becomes a fad.”
Now, Hill is encouraging new generations of players through his ukulele teaching program.
Many professional musicians started out on the ukulele, he said, so he often tells young players “don’t be afraid.”
“You have to follow your heart when it comes to music,” he said.
“I say go there … If they have that spark and that love for music, which is a thing that the ukulele somehow brings out in people, I would say don’t be afraid to follow it. And if it’s not your thing, keep music in your life forever. It will make you a better person.”
To learn more about Hill’s ukulele teaching program and to listen to his Juno-nominated album The Old Silo for free, visit his website www.jameshillmusic.com.