Skip to content

Welcome to the ukulele underground (3 photos)

This What’s Up Wednesday features music teacher and Royal City Uke Fest founder, Cynthia Kinnunen

Playing music was a central part of Cynthia Kinnunen’s early life but her career in arts administration and marketing drew her away for a while until she rediscovered her love for the ukulele.

“Nine years ago, out of the blue, I decided I wanted to get a ukulele again,” she said. “So, I went and picked one up and I haven’t put it down. It’s kind of snowballed and became this crazy thing.”

The “crazy thing” she referred to is Cynthia K Music and her uke-fueled efforts to teach the world to play the ukulele.

“That is what I find so beautiful about this whole ukulele world,” said Kinnunen. “Every time people finish the first four weeks of the beginner class I say ‘welcome to the ukulele underground’.”

Kinnunen was born in Thunder Bay where she was surrounded by musical influences.

“My dad was a rock promoter and he took me to see bands like Kiss, Alice Cooper, Rush and Blue Oyster Cult before I was age 2,” she said. “My Finnish grandfather played accordion and my uncles have a band. The classic rock comes out whenever we visit them in Thunder Bay.”

She learned to play piano by ear and was first introduced to the ukulele when she was in Grade 5.

“I had a couple of years of exposure to ukulele in the classroom with this method developed by Chalmers Doane,” she said. “He is from the east coast and he developed this whole ukulele method, which is known around the world.”

Doane’s Ukulele in the Classroom method is the basis for the courses Kinnunen teaches today at the University of Guelph, with her private students, the Royal City Ukulele Ensemble and for teaching teachers through the James Hill Ukulele Institute led by renowned Canadian ukulele player and educator James Hill.

“We travel around and go into schools to teach workshops with ukulele,” she said.

When Kinnunen graduated from Lakehead University in Thunder Bay with a degree in music and a diploma in arts administration and marketing she never imagined she would one day be traveling the world teaching ukulele lessons.

“When I first left university I didn’t see myself as a music teacher,” she said. “I had this dream of being a great arts administrator so, I ended up falling into marketing and fundraising.”

It was through a mutual love for the music of New Zealand pop star Neil Finn that she met her husband, Ben Coulson.

“We met in ’98,” said Kinnunen. “He was just finishing his masters’ at Waterloo and I was working for the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.”

Coulson plays bass and the couple collaborate musically with their duo Transit Lounge. They have three children Suvi, 16, Max, 13 and Finnegan, 11. The living room of their home has been transformed into a music studio and showroom for their collection of ukuleles and other instruments.

“It's a really magical little instrument and once you start playing you get ukulele acquisition syndrome and you start buying a bazillion ukuleles,” she said. “I think I have 12 of my own right now.”

Many of her students, like her, are rediscovering the ukulele and their love of playing music.

“A lot of the people who end up in my classes are those that played when they were young,” she said. “It is mostly people middle aged and older who have time and money to spend and this is a gateway to get back into music. There is a social aspect to it as well. It is a solo instrument but it really lends itself to socializing.”

Kinnunen brings in ukulele players and educators from all over the world to perform and teach workshops at the annual Royal City Uke Fest.

“I started my ukulele festival here in town because I wanted one,” she said. “I thought Canada could use a few more ukulele festivals. This fall we’re having our third annual and it is already sold out.”

Kinnunen has an exhausting schedule but she has no plans of giving up music again.

“Music is the soundtrack of our life,” she said. “It is so powerful and I am a believer that everyone is musical at some level. Music education and just the experience of making music is good for people. If they have something they can pick up for five minutes in the middle of a crappy day and it makes them feel better that is excellent.”