‘Ukulele Strikes a Chord with San Jose Japantown Music Instructor

JAMMIN’ — Rodney Takahashi is the instructor at Ukulele Jams, a store in San Jose’s Japantown. photo by Erin Yasuda Soto/Nichi Bei Weekly

Originally trained as a computer hardware programmer, Rodney Takahashi has turned his passion for the ‘ukulele into a successful career as a music instructor.

Takahashi teaches lessons at his store, Ukulele Jams, at 565 North Sixth Street in San Jose’s Japantown. The classes cover ‘ukulele picking, strumming and music theory.

Takahashi, who originally operated his business out of his condo, opened his studio in January upstairs from Ukulele Source, which sells both the instrument and accessories. The businesses are located at the former site of Soko Hardware.

“The ‘ukulele is my passion,” said Takahashi, a native of Hawai‘i.

Takahashi said he developed his “passion” for playing the ‘ukulele as a child growing up in Oahu.

Over the years, Takahashi had many ‘ukulele teachers, one of whom was Ray Sakuma, a prominent teacher.

Takahashi previously taught ‘ukulele lessons in Hawai‘i. He quit temporarily when he moved to California in 1999. He subsequently went to school to train as a computer hardware programmer, which he did not find to be satisfying work.

“I took up the ‘ukulele lessons again because (computer programming) was not fulfilling me,” Takahashi said.

Takahashi teaches students of all ages. His youngest student is four years old and the oldest is 82. He teaches beginning to advanced classes.

He has been attracting students through word-of-mouth since his studio opened. Takahashi began with 30 students and currently has some 100 pupils, he said

Takahashi said he often refers customers to Ukulele Source to purchase instruments and tuners.

Likewise, Smiley Kai, who opened the store with wife Janet in September 2008, said he also refers customers to Takahashi’s studio.

“It’s been a good arrangement for both of us,” said Kai. “Smiley has a passion for the ‘ukulele. I have a passion for the music area. It goes hand in hand,” Takahashi said, adding that the Kais were among his first students when he taught from his condo.

Takahashi added that Japantown has been an ideal location for his studio. “The Hawaiian culture is centered around here,” he said, adding that Nikkei Traditions, which sells contemporary Japanese American handcrafted art, gifts and designs, is among the stores in Japantown that sell Hawaiian merchandise. There are also multiple hula halau (hula schools) in San Jose.

Takahashi said the most fulfilling aspect of his job as a music instructor is seeing the progress his students make.

One of those students is Meilani Villamor, who is also his assistant.

“Performing is fun and exciting,” said Villamor, who assists Takahashi by reviewing songs with the beginning classes and helping out with paperwork.

She has taken lessons from Takahashi for close to five years.

Takahashi said his ‘ukulele students perform in many community events around Japantown, such as the Spirit of Japantown festival. They have also participated in benefits for the Nisei Memorial and the Japanese American Museum of San Jose.

“We will play in retirement homes for Christmas,” Takahashi said.

He said it is especially rewarding to watch the progress of the children and teenagers he teaches, as they become accomplished ‘ukulele players.

“We have a bunch of advanced players who love performing. When you see the kids play, it’s an indescribable feeling. That’s what makes it worthwhile,” he said.

For more information about Ukulele Jams, contact (408) 603-8222 or visit www.ukulelejams.com.

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