Mark Jackson knew he was doing something right when a member from one of his nine Ukestras informed him that she was ‘too busy seeing friends’ to come and play.
“My number one ticket holder said, “Sorry I can’t come to Uke today, I’m playing cards with my new friends, you don’t know what you’ve done with the ukulele, it’s been fantastic.”
Helping people to make music, building community and sustainability are three significant keystones in the lives and business model of Mark and his partner, Jane Jelbart. The pair work together as ‘The Sum of Parts’, teaching Ukulele, running participatory groups, holding ‘Ukestras’ and developing and encouraging sustainable leadership using their very own, finely honed ‘Ukestra Method’1.
They do this so well that for the past nine years it has been their primary source of income and they have now written two books packed with insights about their work: The Ukestration Manual, about ‘creating music making communities with the Ukulele and the Ukestra Method’, and The Business of being a Community Musician‘ for people who want to make a living or run a small business as a community musician.’
A chief value underpinning what they do is the conviction that being active in our community is good for us and that a decline in the uptake and participation in socially focussed, group-activities such as sport, church or clubs is mirrored by a decline in the physical and mental health and wellbeing of the people within the community.
“Community is really good for us and I think It’s really good for the planet as well if we’re together. It’s almost like making music together was the first way that we came together, and which wasn’t about fighting or reproducing.”
Once you get a community music group up and running, there’s the question of how to sustain it and offer support and mentorship to emerging new leaders.
Being such an accessible and appealing little instrument, new people are drawn into the sphere of the ukulele all the time, which is fortunate when sustainability is so integral to making a living as a community musician. “You’ve got to constantly be introducing people into this environment and that’s what’s so fantastic about the ukulele. It’s an instrument that you can play really complex things on, but you don’t have to” says Mark.
“What you need is a system of teaching and leadership that is effective and sustainable. If we just relied on the people we started out working with nine years ago, we wouldn’t have a business, we wouldn’t be connecting people up. If it was all stale, then people wouldn’t be benefiting from our values or philosophies and we wouldn’t be meeting our goals.”
Ukestras were born of Mark’s desire to find a successful business model to sustain his community musicianship and the vision emerged when he sat down to write a business plan. Weighing up what he wanted against what he didn’t want, he was encouraged to consolidate his skills in a way which would permit him to combine his previous work experience, his passions and his skills into a single, profitable stream. Ukestras were go.
“I wanted to visit Melbourne regularly, and I wanted to go to the beach everyday. Going to the beach everyday meant I didn’t want to tour. I realised if I wanted to have a life living in my community as a musician, then my options were really quite limited, and to date making a living as a community musician has often been a struggle, but I don’t feel like we struggle, I feel like we do pretty well. I’m able to fulfil my purposes, and enable other people to fulfil theirs.”
Mark began his first Ukestra after moving back to Newcastle NSW following 12 years living in Bendigo. The inaugural Ukestra was inspired by the work of various Victorian community musicians and the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective. It was backed financially by a small business grant obtained through the NEIS program being run by the Australian Government back in 2009. At that point in time, there were no other community ukulele groups running in Newcastle, and Mark’s Ukestra flourished.
Three years and a whole lot of uking later, Jane and Mark entered a business partnership, and since 2013 have travelled nationally and internationally to promote and share their teaching model, earning enough from their work to support them both. They currently run no less than 9 Ukestras each week, and two community choirs.
There are illustrations throughout The Business of Being a Community Musician which detail clearly the idea that to add value to your role and your income as a community musician in a sustainable way, it’s important to price your time honestly and be clear that the point of delivery is only the tip of the iceberg. Mark is passionate about this need to be realistic:
“Don’t be ashamed of charging for what you do as a community musician and for doing this good work, and work it all out in a systematic manner. The key thing that people need to understand is admin takes a bloody long time. Work out how you should charge for it and how it should be valued.”
An anonymous quote in the opening pages of the book is forgiving about this:
“The value you give us is far more than the few $ we give to you. Please don’t underestimate your value to the community or agonise over taking a modest bit of filthy lucre from us. Uke on!”
The book stands as an encouraging testimony to the success Mark and Jane enjoy which has enabled them to support two full time incomes doing what they love most. It encourages other community music leaders to consider their own Unique Selling Point, work out what they are offering and then find a way to market this, with advice around how much to realistically charge and how to set your teaching rate. It’s packed with practical advice too about databases, staffing and how to keep in touch with your community using platforms such as Mailchimp, website and social media.
Mark sees The Ukestration Manual as essential pre-reading to The Business of Community Musicianship, and feels it has a broader appeal based on the detail it goes into around what constitutes good leadership skills and good teaching skills. These skills hinge around the values required to create a successful ‘third place’ in the community,2 a place which facilitates accepting and non-judgemental social interaction.
“I suppose I have an evangelical goal with The Ukestration Manual too and that’s based on a sometimes less than generous view of the ukulele community, which can be stuck on nostalgia and be less about progressing people’s musicianship…there’s a lot of latest hits and greatest memories …”
Using Mark and Jane’s tips on effective community leadership and taking a professional approach to guiding a Ukestra, the potential musical cul-de-sacs of nostalgia can be instead harnessed to explore the delights of the broader musical world, and all its glorious repertoire is your oyster to open up and explore including, sneakily, the occasional bit of musical theory.
Each of the books is immediately accessible because it’s written from the heart and is compiled from first hand experiences shared in a genuine way. The Ukestration Manual is analytical and descriptive about what Jane and Mark have done through their work as The Sum of Parts and yet the message isn’t really about the journey of Jane and Mark, it’s about encouraging the reader to harness and own their potential, as James Hill states in the introduction:
“This book isn’t a memoir, it’s a manual. It’s not about “look what we did” but rather “look what you can do”.”
Article by Deb Carveth, Online Editor for Community Music Victoria with Mark Jackson
1: Ukestra Method: ‘Teaching people to play ukulele in a social environment so it combines the structured learning of the teacher-led learning with a fun social vibe.’
2: Third Place: Where home and work are considered the first two places, a third place is somewhere which offers people an opportunity to congregate and connect.
The Ukestration Manual and The Business of Being a Community Musician are now available as e-books from the CMVic online store. $29 each ($23 to members of CMVic) or $49 for the two books. ($39 to members)