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Improvising in Music & Life

Improvisation is key not only to good music making, but well-being, says ukulele virtuoso and Grammy-nominated multi-instrumentalist Stuart Fuchs. Best of all, anyone can do it, he says.

Omega: When did you first start playing music?

Stuart: Music for me began when I listened to my father play classical guitar. One of my earliest memories is listening to him play. I was about four or five years old. He taught me how to play the guitar in a very simple way by showing me how to play one note. It was an unintentional mindfulness exercise because, upon listening to it and feeling the vibrations of the string against my finger and the vibrations of the box of wood against my body, I just fell in love with it. It made me feel very excited and peaceful. 

My music journey began when I took my dad’s old guitar, which I still have, into the woods. I wasn't even trying to play music; I just liked that feeling of deep listening. I would listen to the sounds of the wind and try to mimic it on my guitar. I would listen to the birds and try to mimic them on the guitar. It wasn't till some years later that I got “serious” with the guitar, in my teenage years.

Omega: What strategies or practices help you feel at ease when teaching and performing?

Stuart: My mother was an English teacher in New York City, so I came from a line of teachers.

I also went very deep into a training program with David Darling and his organization Music for People. It's about improvisation, that spirit path, and how stepping into the moment and being okay with the mystery of not knowing what's coming next can not only bring forth profound music but also a profound sense of well-being. My main takeaway was that improvisation is a means of meditating.

The program is also about learning how to transmit these teachings and how to lead workshops that have content, but the content is driven by those who have gathered.

When I teach, I like to say I lead from behind. I always try to serve who is there and be willing to drop my plans to be with them.

When yoga found me, or when I stumbled into the path of taking a deep breath, it changed my life and my music forever. It added depth because my body felt better as I played, from being nourished by prana, but also from being grounded in the moment. Listening and breathing is really central to what I do.

Omega: What is something unique about your method of teaching?

Stuart: I love what happens when we consciously “get out of the way” so the music can play itself.

By sharing simple yet profound practices from mindfulness, qigong, yoga, and Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village Tradition of Buddhism, we cultivate a detached witnessing presence. 

When witnessing our music making in the present moment, we can experience what a wonder it is to play with sound. That’s really the essence of what so many spiritual and music teachers share, and I delight in leading others in the direction of an access point to effortless music making.

For many, making music with others in this way allows them to feel like they are being “heard” for the first time.

Omega: What is something most people don’t know about the ukulele?

Stuart: It was a Portuguese instrument called the machete or the cavaquinho that came to Hawaii in 1897. When the immigrants were coming off the boat, playing their instruments, the locals said, “ukulele,” which translates as “jumping fleas.” They thought that the fingers of the players looked like jumping fleas.

For the last 15 years, there's been this resurgence of interest in the ukulele. People are finding that it is an accessible, affordable, and easy-to-learn instrument.

The ukulele offers people a chance to make music quickly and easily. Within an hour or so, I can teach them a handful of chords, and because of the size of the instrument and the ease of it (sometimes the chords can be played with just one or two fingers), we can be playing songs in one hour.

Omega: What’s your favorite cover song to play on the ukulele?

Stuart: It's hard for me to pick one song, but I do love to try to put an entire band in a little bitty instrument with a small range. For example, I will take a Beatles song or a Bob Marley song and put the melody, the chords, and the rhythm all in one, to try to treat this small two-and-a-half octave instrument like it's a piano. I love the challenge of that. It's pretty fun for me.

Omega: You also like to play a variety of styles of music, such as folk, classical, jazz, rock, experimental, sacred, and world music. How did you discover these various genres and learn how to play them?

Stuart: I think in order to work in music, you have to diversify. For instance. If I only played one style of music, well, what if a wedding planner calls and they want to hear bluegrass? I feel like there are different seasons in life and there are times when you pick up a certain style or a certain artist speaks to you.

Omega: Along with acoustic guitar and ukulele, you play Latin percussion, Bolivian charango, Australian didgeridoo, Native American flute, Tibetan singing bowls, and even hunting calls and amplified toys. Are you self-taught or did you have teachers that helped or inspired your musical journey?

Stuart: I learned by listening and mimicking. I'm not attached to doing it just right. The "folk" process that Pete Seeger talked about gives everyone the freedom to do it their way.

I love teaching the didgeridoo because it's also a pranayama (yogic breathing) exercise. It's an instrument with a different purpose than entertainment. It's literally for connecting with the spirit realms. The didgeridoo is an instrument that teaches you how to play. The more you sit with it, the more it will teach you.

So it can become a more intuitive way of learning rather than trying to do something prescriptively. You can give yourself the freedom to experiment and try it on.

Improvisation is something I share in all my workshops and retreats. There's a letting go of expectation. Just being in the awe and the mystery will often reveal the next step toward learning things in an efficient way, and we also make ourselves feel really good in the process.