Remembering Ukulele Mike: A teacher for thousands

Mike Lynch was a familiar face to fans worldwide
By Brian Soergel | Jan 09, 2018
Courtesy of: Colleen Lynch Mike Lynch recorded many of his instructional videos from his backyard in Edmonds.

Mike Lynch, an esteemed music teacher whose compositions were played in local churches and heard on several PBS television specials, but who became best known as an ambassador of the ukulele, died Jan. 2.

Lynch, who lived in Edmonds’ Forest Glen neighborhood for more than 45 years with his wife Collene Sinclair Lynch, suffered a heart attack while visiting Leavenworth. He was 72.

Lynch had started dialysis treatment in Mountlake Terrace two-and-a-half years ago, had diabetes and was fighting a cold while in Leavenworth. “It all just kind of came together,” Collene said.

Thanks to his popular instructional videos on YouTube – he had six channels – “Ukulele Mike” is being mourned by fans worldwide, who are filling Lynch’s Facebook page with testimonials to his informative and good-natured instruction, which he always ended with “happy strumming.”

Lynch knew his way around the technical aspects of music – he also played piano and guitar – but made sure his videos were easy to pick up. He would typically play a full song and show chords and strumming patterns before playing the song again with chords flashing in the background.

“He didn’t consider himself a performer,” Collene said. “He considered himself a teacher.”

Thousands of strummers worldwide posted their own videos after watching Lynch’s instructions, but none gained more fame than that of a 6-year-old Japanese boy playing Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours.” It’s one of the cutest videos you’ll ever see.

The video went viral, CBS News did a segment on it, and Oprah Winfrey tried to book the boy on her show. But the boy’s mother did not want to expose her young son to the world. Lynch was able to get in touch with the boy, however, who called Lynch “Santa-san” because of his full white beard – through email.

“It was a term of endearment,” Collene said. “Like ‘uncle,’ but in a more personal way.”

Pastoral musician

Michael B. Lynch was born March 21, 1945, in Seattle, and graduated from Nathan Hale High School. In a 2014 interview I conducted with him, he said he was first and foremost a piano player. “I picked up my sister’s ukulele circa 1955 and taught myself some chords,” he told me. “I found it easy after having started with piano and then guitar in high school.”

Raised Catholic, he was taken early by pastoral music and earned a degree in music and education from St. Martin’s College in Lacey, where he studied under the Rev. Eugene Kellenbenz, a liturgical composer.

He earned a music composition degree from Cornish College of the Arts, where he studied with composer Lockrem Johnson, a runner-up to the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1952.

Lynch, a BMI music publishing company composer, was a member of the team of composers behind the PBS series "Wings Over America," produced by Jeff Gentes of KCTS in Seattle. Among the episodes that Michael worked on were "Washington, D.C. Our Nation's Capital" with narrator Jason Robards and "Over America" with narrator Tom Skerritt.

Lynch was a skilled synthesizer programmer, assisting Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer with sound textures for the 1992 movie “Toys” starring Robin Williams.

Lynch was lucky enough to share his personal life and accomplishments with another musician: his wife. One day, he walked into a Catholic supply store in Seattle where Collene stood behind the counter. Because there were lulls in business, she frequently took out her guitar and played while waiting for customers. When Lynch walked in, she stashed her guitar behind the counter, but not before he spied it.

“He leaned over the counter and said, ‘Oh, you sell guitars, too?’” Collene recalled. “That was his corny sense of humor. He asked me where I played, but I didn’t want to tell him I played in church because that wasn’t cool, you know?”

But she did, which led to a prolonged back and forth and, ultimately, marriage.

“There were rays coming out of the clouds,” Collene said. “It was meant to be.”

In the early 1970s, the Lynches joined fellow composer Ron Ellis, his wife Nancy and flautist Mary Lowney at St. Patrick's Parish in Seattle to form the liturgical performing and recording group Ellis and Lynch. They toured nationwide for a decade, releasing numerous albums and music books.

The couple formed C&M Productions and continued to record and publish songbooks. Just a few of the songs that Lynch composed, that are still performed in churches, are “New Life, New Creation,” “Father of Peace,” “We Stand in Need” and “In the Land There Is a Hunger.”

Lynch was a longtime music minister at Christ the King Parish and School in Seattle.

"The first principal I worked with was Mildred Nunes,” he told me four years ago. “She was born and raised in Hawaii and explained to me that her Portuguese grandfather, Manuel Nunes, was responsible for the creation of the ukulele and its popularity in Hawaii. Later, after doing some research on that story, I discovered the truth of it.

“I was amazed. I guess I just always thought the ukulele was indigenous to the people of Hawaii. Ultimately, I figured it was preordained that I carry on Manuel's legacy, and so was born my ukulele program at the school. Since it began I have seen numerous graduates of the school go on to carry on the legacy of the uke. It's so gratifying to see children of all ages embrace the uke."

Collene said her husband, who also taught piano and guitar, started teaching ukulele to fourth-graders and convinced Kennelly Keys to order quality ukuleles for his students. Most schools, meanwhile, still use the recorder.

“The recorder’s OK for teaching notes, because you have to learn to read music, but it doesn’t carry on,” Collene said. “With a uke, it’s something they can always pick up again and play with other people. It’s social. By the time he was through teaching there, everybody knew how to play ukulele. So it was really fun for their concerts. They had a big ukulele band.”

YouTube fame

One day, in the early YouTube era, someone posted a Christ the King school concert.

“Mike goes, ‘What’s that?’” Collene recalled. “He said he wanted to post extra lessons, because his students only met once a week.”

Lynch told me he thought only his students would be interested.

One day, though, a fan from Virginia posted that he’d loved Lynch’s video. Then another one from Poland. Then Czech Republic. Poland. Finland. England. Something clicked, and Lynch quickly loaded dozens of instructional videos.

“When he realized the scope of it, he just kind of went to town,” Collene said with a laugh. “He got on fire, and was obsessed with teaching and posting as much as he could. It was sometimes a challenge, because he’d do it in our yard, and there would be a dog barking or a plane going overhead.”

His six YouTube channels include one devoted to the songs of the Beatles, a favorite group of his. He also posted videos to his Facebook and official website,

It’s on the website where you can find links to instructional e-books, DVDs and paper books published by the prestigious Hal Leonard Corp. You can even purchase a special ukulele created by the Oscar Schmidt musical instrument company.

“They made one to his specifications,” Colleen said. “He wanted to have a nice, affordable ukulele with a wider fingerboard. He always said he had fat, chubby fingers, so he wanted something for people with bigger hands.”

Lynch played the special ukulele when he and Colleen led two ukulele-themed cruises to Hawaii in 2014 and 2015. Indeed, he continued to play regularly after his health declined.

“He did his darndest, up until recently, about posting new videos,” Collene said. “People would make requests for arrangements of their favorite songs. Mike was always there for people.”

Viewing and visitation is 5-7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11, at Hoffner, Fisher and Harvey, 508 N. 36th St., Seattle. Funeral mass is 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, at Christ the King Catholic Church, 401 N. 117th St., Seattle. Reception with hootenanny to follow.


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