Featured Artist Samantha Muir
Samantha Muir is one of the U.K's leading experts in classical ukulele. She has given solo recitals in England, Wales, Australia and Spain. We caught up with her most recently at this year's Grand Northern Ukulele Festival where she teamed up with classical guitarist Lara Taylor to give another breath-taking performance.
Photo credits: Josie Elias
How did you find this year's GNUF?
Bigger and better than last year! Which is really saying something because last year was my first GNUF and I thought that it would be impossible to better! But Mary and the GNUF team managed to create an outstanding showcase of everything ukulele. Aside from all of the artists, there were ukulele clubs and bands from all over the world. Everyone gets a chance to play and that is what makes GNUF super special. I met people from Australia, Canada, the USA, Spain, Finland and Austria, as well as people from all over the UK. I like the buzz, the love and the enthusiasm which permeates throughout GNUF. I guess that is why the readers of UKE Magazine voted GNUF as best ukulele festival.
You were originally classically trained in the guitar, can you tell us about your transformation to the ukulele?
I originally studied classical guitar at Sydney Conservatorium and then the Royal College of Music, London. I have had the opportunity to have lessons, masterclasses and workshops with some of the greatest classical guitarists of our time including John Williams, David Russell, Carlos Bonell, Leo Brouwer and Alirio Diaz. I have been very lucky! That experience has given me a solid technique and understanding of music. My transformation to the ukulele was quite smooth. I mean, what is a ukulele? It is a small chordophone with 4 strings. So, basically it’s a guitar. But, before I upset too many people, I hasten to add that the guitar is a chordophone with 6 strings. So, basically it’s a big ukulele with two extra strings. I don’t have a hang up about going from one instrument to the other. Call me a tart but I love them both!
The ukulele is, however, unique. It has it’s own technical and musical demands and idiosyncrasies. For example, I had to adjust my right hand position. When playing a ukulele my right hand is more side on as I use the flesh of my thumb rather than the nail. I like the boomy sound this produces. I call it the mock bass effect. That sound contrasts with the sound I get from my other fingers - index (i), middle (m), and ring finger (a) where I use a combination of nail and flesh. The nail / flesh combination enables good projection and a nice rounded tone. Once I’d worked out this technique I was off and running.
Regarding the left hand: I prefer to play a soprano so the fret work is very precise. More precise than on a guitar fingerboard and this is quite challenging.
But by far the biggest challenge in playing the ukulele has been how to hold the thing. When playing classical guitar the instrument is supported by the legs and the body enabling the hands to move freely. But the ukulele is so small it is hard to hold. It’s like wrestling a slippery fish. Originally, I tried using a guitar rest. But that didn’t work for me. Eventually I settled on using a strap with two buttons on the uke. One on the end in the normal position and the other under the heal. This really works for me. I use a heavy, padded strap which is bit incongruous but once the uke is in position the strap is not that noticeable. What matters is that the uke is really stable against my body and my hands are free to move. With the strap I can play standing up or sitting down. I’m comfortable with this set up and I can play for hours.
Do you ever collaborate with other artists, or do you just do solo work?
Yes! I love to collaborate with other artists. At GNUF I was collaborating with Lara Taylor. Lara is a young classical guitarist and ukulele player. She played the guitar accompaniments for the machete pieces at the start of my set at GNUF. We also played a guitar and ukulele duet in her main stage Young Artist’s spotlight and a ukulele duet on Mim’s side show stage. We’re working on a set of South American ukulele and guitar duets. We have performed together at various concerts and festivals and are continuing to build our repertoire.
You've spent a large part of your life so far living in Australia. How does the musical culture in Australia compare to here in the U.K?
I was born in England and brought up in Australia. But I’ve been living in the UK for the last five years. I also spend a bit of time in Spain. Australia has an excellent classical guitar scene and I was really lucky that when I was younger there were some truly inspirational teachers, performers and composers. One of the ‘problems’ with Australia is that it is such a huge country that it makes travelling expensive. So it is very difficult for musicians to tour.
What is your most memorable performance?
GNUF 2017! Partly because it is the most recent performance so I am still on a high but mostly because I took a gamble and played a piece I had composed. I’m not really a composer but the piece was well received and I’m actually very proud of it. It’s inspired me to do more composing. The other thing is that the GNUF main stage is really different from my usual venues. I’m used to playing in churches or small auditoriums. Using microphones is something alien to me! It’s also quite surreal to be playing on a stage that has monitors between you and the audience and things like amps and drum kits behind you. With all that going on it is quite hard to draw the audience in to my music - which is what I try to do. I really want people to focus on the music. For example, at GNUF I played some Renaissance pieces I’d arranged for ukulele. When I play this kind of music I am trying to connect back to the sixteenth century. I’m asking a lot of the audience because there are no visual aids. I guess I could wear tights and a cod piece but….! Trying to create a connection just through the music is a bit like trying to weave a spell or catch a dream. Both the audience and the performer have to be very still, very focused. In a church where it is a naturally quiet and reflective space this is easier to achieve. But at GNUF, with all the bands and craziness going on, I am a bit like a fish out of water. I wasn't sure if my classical stuff was going to work but it did. The GNUF audience are so open and accepting. They really listened and gave me their full attention. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and were so kind and enthusiastic. That made me happy. That made GNUF memorable!
Do you pursue any other interests other than music?
Everything is music! It’s my job. It’s my hobby. I love it! Music is life.
Finally, what advice do you have for anyone who wants to make playing the ukulele into more than just a hobby?
Practise, practise, practise… Get a good teacher. Learn theory. If you just want to play chords then fine but don't just learn to read chord boxes. Learn about harmony. Learn to think outside the box. Try composing, arranging, improvising, song writing. Become a musician. Be creative, innovative and daring. Get a good website to showcase your work and use social media to network. Be nice. Be respectful. Stick to what you are good at. Be prepared to teach. You may be a brilliant ukulele player but the reality is that teaching may be your bread and butter. There is no shame in teaching. On the contrary, it will make you a better, more confident player. A couple of times recently I’ve been asked, “Do you see yourself as a teacher or a performer?” I’m both. In fact, I see myself as a teacher, a performer, an arranger, a composer and an academic. Music is a holistic thing for me. It’s not just about feeding the ego, it’s a spiritual journey.
Here is a link to my website:
My ukulele Youtube channel: