Tracey Terada, aka Dr. Trey, picked up an ukulele at the age of five, and hasn't stopped playing. He sounds amazing: The music flows from his fingers; the ukulele, an extension of him.
He is a musician: a composer, an arranger, a producer, a performer, and above all, he says, a teacher. This year, he became my daughter's and my ukulele teacher.
Trey Terada. Courtesy: Leslie Kuba
It's amazing being in the presence of someone so skilled at their craft. While I struggle to move my fingers from chord to chord, he talks to me while he plays, fingers moving instinctually.
His playing is vibrant, fluid, emotional, and as second-nature as breathing. Obviously, what you'd expect from a music professional.
Mine is tenuous, irregular, milquetoast, and as awkward as walking on fire. Obviously, what you'd expect from a newbie who is not a prodigy.
Trey Terada. Courtesy: Leslie Kuba
What I appreciate is his ability to be a teacher. Not everyone is cut out for it.
He's excellent at explaining the chords, patient with children, good at pacing out lessons to provide the right amount of challenge, and encouraging with feedback.
Here's why he does it: "I love that the ukulele can transport you somewhere that you could otherwise never get. I love the way the wood resonates against your chest and the sound vibrates. I feel no inhibitions when I play, as if I can do what I want. Nothing is forbidden. I want to help other people find that!"
Trey & me
Terada cites an oft-quoted study of the neuroscience of jazz musicians' brains. A John's Hopkins University team measured the players' brain waves during improvisation and found it increased creativity while turning off self-censoring parts of the brain.
Trey Terada. Courtesy: Leslie Kuba
"It's a small, two-octave instrument, but I feel there are no limits, no rules when I play it. I'm free to do what I want. It's the greatest feeling in the world," he says.
His best known student is virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, just 17 years old when he asked Terada to teach him. Shimabukuro is today known around the world for his ukulele music, with appearances on most major US TV outlets as well as the esteemed National Public Radio. Shimabukuro is an international star, but way back when, he started his career as Terada's pupil.
Terada describes Shimabukuro as a one-in-a-million talent. "He's the best player in the world. Nobody can touch him. It's the way he touches the strings, not just the speed of his fingers. He has a certain caress."
What Terada likes most about him, though, is his character. "He's very responsible in carrying the burden of being the torchbearer. He shows the world what the ukulele can do, and he always reminds people it's Hawaiian. He brings it back home. He's brilliant."
Terada tells a story that illustrates Shimabukuro's gift: "The first day we met, I asked him to play Yesterday by the Beatles, but not focusing on the lead string. That's hard to do. I didn't think he could do it. He called the next day and played it perfectly for me over the phone. I was blown away."
Shimabukuro returns the compliment. "Trey is an amazing teacher. I learned so much from him over the years and still love chatting about the ukulele with him from time to time. He is a dear friend and I owe most of my accomplishments to Trey. He taught me how to feel the music and to not be afraid to try new things. Trey is an amazing ukulele player, and I miss the many jam sessions we would have back in the day."
Terada's musical career has taken many twists and turns in his life, probably not unlike the careers of many artists. His parents signed him up for lessons at the Richards St. YWCA when he was five, and he stayed for about two years.
He continued playing on his own, listening to music on the radio and copying what he heard. He tuned in to the Ukulele Festival on KCCN-FM religiously every year to expose himself to new styles of playing.
In seventh grade at Kawananakoa Intermediate, he played trumpet in the band. "That was big for me. I learned to appreciate different types of music and how chords worked. I realized I could translate the chords to the ukulele," he recalls.
At McKinley High School, he played the euphonium in the band and started arranging music. "I arranged Mozart for the brass quintet," he says.
Terada also learned to play the piano, bass, guitar, and the Baroque recorder. He ended both his intermediate and high school band stints with Outstanding Bandsman awards.
When he attended Arizona State University on a partial music scholarship, he intended to become a band director, though switched majors to music history after a year because he realized he was fascinated with Baroque and Renaissance styles.
After two years, he missed Hawaii and returned home. He wanted to become more deeply involved in the music industry, and took a couple jobs at music stores. That's where he met Peter Moon, legendary ukulele and slack-key guitar player.
Terada started taking lessons from Moon in the early 1990s. "It was like the Karate Kid. I would show up at his house, vacuum, bring him dinner, and after all the work was done, we'd sit and play," he laughs.
Sadly, Moon suffered a stroke and is unable to contribute to this interview, but his guitarist Dwight Kanae remembers the period well. "Trey was around frequently and sometimes Peter would hang out with Trey more than with me!"
Terada describes it as "old school." "Peter expected me to hear it and repeat it. He wouldn't explain the chords."
Kanae agrees. "Trey hit the nail on the head. That's exactly Peter's teaching style."
One day, Moon commanded Terada to play him a song. Terada played Ahi Wela.
"Then he said, 'Now play it in ten different styles.' I was like, 'What?!'" Terada recounts.
"Peter said, 'What music do you listen to? Latin, classical, what?' So I went home and only came up with three styles: jazz, bossa nova, and Hawaiian. I played it for him at my next visit, and he approved. Only then, he started teaching me!" elaborates Terada.
One day, though, the teacher became the student. "Trey taught Peter a few songs. He played The Devil Went Down To Georgia by Charlie Daniels and Peter thought that was so cool. We almost used it on one of our recordings."
Today, Kanae says he absolutely hears Moon's influence on Terada's playing style - and he likes it. "On a scale of one to ten? Trey's an 11. I love the way that little bulldog plays!"
Of their year together as teacher and student, Terada says, "It feels so good to have learned from Peter. He oozes music. I see nobody playing like him. Through Peter, I learned the ukulele has so much more potential than I realized."
Terada's next formative experience came from a year of training with classical guitarist Lisa Smith, herself a former student of the iconic flamenco guitarist Pepe Romero. "I realized I could make the ukulele sound like a classical guitar," he says.
In his early 30s, Terada finally felt ready to act on a decade-old goal of opening a music school. He hung his shingle as Four Strings Ukulele Studio and used his stage name, Dr. Trey (a joking play on rapper Dr. Dre's name; the joke stuck.)
One of Terada's learning techniques included recording his students in the studio to give them the full experience of hearing themselves. He invited Shimabukuro to record with the students to enhance the illusion of being professional.
"Jake wanted his band at the time, Pure Heart, to come in with him. When I heard them, I was blown away. They filled a niche in the Hawaiian music genre that had been empty since the Ka`au Crater Boys broke up. I thought they were so amazing, I decided I would represent them. That's when Four Strings became a record label," recaps Terada.
This collaboration earned Pure Heart a Na Hoku Hanohano Award in 1999 for Best Album of the Year; Terada was listed as Pure Heart's producer. He's also recorded two albums and toured with singer/ songwriter Mailani.
"I'll never forget that experience. Girls ran up to me after the shows and just wanted to touch my hand! I'd seen that when I toured with Jake, but I never thought that'd be me! What a trip!" he laughs.
For colleagues watching his career, Terada's turn as a producer and teacher was expected. "Trey went exactly where we thought he would go: to become instrumental in other people's lives," Kanae had predicted.
It was a surprise for me to learn Terada doesn't actually like to perform. "It makes me nervous!" he admits. "I will still do it on occasion with singer/ songwriter Johnny Helm, but my focus now is on teaching."
Helm says he's flattered by the revelation. "Trey adds a level of energy that's infectious when he plays. He turns heads with all his positive energy. But what I think makes him so special is how he's taken his skills and taught others to play. I'm inspired by that."
Trey Terada and Kanile`a GM Joe Souza
Terada hopes to write an instructional book on how to play ukulele, and he continues a years-long partnership with Kanile`a Ukulele in Kaneohe to represent its brand.
"I wanted to sponsor Trey because he's undeniably a master. He's dynamic when he plays, and his students become dynamic," says general manager and owner Joe Souza. "I've known him for a long time, and he's honest, professional, and sincere. I like that his philosophy and ours line up: to spread aloha through music. Trey is the epitome of that."
Teaching, though, remains Terada's passion. He says, "While I love spreading the joy of ukulele to anybody, I really love teaching children. When I see that 'aha' moment when kids get it, I think, Wow, that's something special. That could change the world."
Dr. Trey can be reached at email@example.com or at (808) 721-7248. Facebook: doctortreymusic. Twitter @doctrey.
Watch some snippets of Terada at: