The Zoom Boom

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This age of the coronavirus is becoming known as the “Zoom Boom.” With “safer at home” now top of mind, the cloud-based videoconferencing platform—initially used primarily by corporations for meetings and webinars—is now a valuable tool for distance learning. Despite its flaws, including security issues, many teachers view it as the next-best thing to conducting classes in person.

“The pandemic has made adaptability a must,” said Mililani ʻukulele virtuoso Bryan Tolentino. “Technology can facilitate that.”

For years, Tolentino taught ʻukulele lessons whenever his schedule permitted. After he retired as a postal clerk in 2015, he had more time to devote to teaching. Enrollment began increasing in March, when Hawaiʻi’s lockdown began.

“People were stuck at home, looking for something to do,” Tolentino said. “Learning to play the ʻukulele online was a fun and convenient option.”

Because many of his students live in Japan and on the Mainland, he was familiar teaching with Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts. Zoom is the most recent addition to his technical toolbox. In May, he taught a Zoom class for 20 members of an ʻukulele club in Switzerland. From August 14-19, he’ll be teaching and performing via Zoom at the 12th annual Strathmore UkeFest in Bethesda, Maryland, which will be entirely virtual this year.

Tolentino and 10 of his ʻukulele-playing pals—including Brittni Paiva, Jake Shimabukuro and Herb Ohta, Jr.—started Zooming in early April to keep in touch. That evolved into livestreamed meetups at 10 a.m. every Monday and Thursday, and everyone is invited to attend (go to ʻUkulele Friends Hawaiʻi’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/399644350211725).

Mondays are reserved for the ʻUkulele Friends to talk story. A special guest joins them on Thursdays to honor music greats who have influenced them.

“We’ve had Ocean Kaowili reminiscing about Eddie Kamae, Robert Cazimero sharing stories about Peter Moon, and Moon Kauakahi remembering the good times he had with Israel Kamakawiwoʻole,” Tolentino said. “That’s one positive thing that has come from the pandemic. Social distancing is important, but so is social connection. We can’t hug, but, thanks to Zoom, we can say, ʻHey, it’s been great seeing all of you; catch you next week!’”

Alan Akaka enjoys weekly sessions with his 85 bass, guitar, ʻukulele and steel guitar students, who, in addition to Hawaiʻi, hail from Japan, England, Switzerland, Canada and across the Mainland, from Alaska to Kansas to the Florida Keys

He is the founder and director of Ke Kula Mele Hawaiʻi, a school for Hawaiian music study based in Kailua, Oʻahu. Prior to the pandemic, he was teaching Oʻahu students in person at the school and using Skype to teach students who live off-island. Because of COVID-19 concerns, all instruction is now online.

“Skype still works fine for private lessons, but I use Zoom for classes to avoid close contact among multiple students,” Akaka said. “It has cool features like a pointer to direct attention to lyrics on a song sheet or an area on a map. With screen sharing, I can bring a song to life with slides showing people, places, flowers—anything that will help students understand it.”

Several factors affect the quality of the Zoom experience, including connectivity (high latency can result from an unreliable or indirect internet connection) and the device used (laptops, tablets and desktop computers have better audio and visual capabilities than smartphones). Nevertheless, sharing music online has been a boon to both Akaka and his students.

“During this time of chaos and uncertainty, music can reduce stress, ease pain, build strong bonds and provide hope and comfort,” he said. “With Zoom, we can meet even though we’re physically separated, and when our lessons end, it’s gratifying to see my students are relaxed, smiling and looking forward to the next class.”

With few exceptions, Kumu Hula Kehaulani Kekua of Hālau Palaihiwa O Kaipuwai on Kauaʻi has been teaching exclusively online since March, as alarming pandemic news began dominating headlines. “That precautionary measure was necessary, but it took a lot of effort,” said Kekua. “I had to figure out all the technical requirements—where to place my laptop and iPad, how to use the cameras and what mic settings were best to transmit my chanting and drumming.”

Kekua uses Zoom and Facebook Live (lessons are saved on a closed group page so her students in Japan, Canada, Indiana and California can access them at their convenience). Although she and her haumāna miss gathering in person, they haven’t deviated from their routines. Formal hula training involves respecting and adhering to rules, and that discipline has been helpful as they’ve adjusted to the new norms of living with the pandemic.

“We always begin class with traditional protocols, rituals and prayer chants to sharpen our focus and strengthen our dedication to our practices,” Kekua said. “The only difference is we’re not in the same physical space now.”

In between instruction segments, Kekua answers questions and reviews things that aren’t clear. Sometimes, one by one, she’ll ask haumāna to demonstrate the step, gesture or vocal pattern being discussed and correct them, as needed. Throughout the class, there’s constant interaction between teacher and students.

“Communication is vital, especially now so we don’t feel isolated,” Kekua said. “We must overcome the negative impacts of the pandemic through spiritual cleansing and healing. My kuleana is to inspire wellness through hula not only for our hālau, but for the larger community that we belong to. This is a time of great challenges—but also renewal.”


Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi has written 12 books and countless newspaper, magazine and website articles about Hawaiʻi’s history, culture, food and lifestyle.