I was a failed child musician. Piano lessons felt way too disciplined for me, and I quickly begged my way out of them. I always loved the idea of guitar, but it was a stretch to reach my petite, girl fingers around the neck to hit the required chords. Even the obligatory elementary school recorder experience left me a bit befuddled, as I never truly grasped the whole “reading music” thing. Some people get it, others not so much.
Fortunately, as an adult I’ve made it a priority to nurture my inner child, so there’s still a chance. I had the marvelous experience of meeting and falling in love with my husband in the tropical paradise of Fiji, and during the weeks I spent there I also became enchanted with the island culture. Fijian evening social life consists of sitting around sipping kava with the locals. After a few bowls of kava are downed, typically the mood lightens, and the songs begin. The baritone voices of the Namara village men ring out in sweet harmony, their thick fingers strumming along on tiny ukuleles... my inner child perked up her ears and took note.
Fiji is a special place for us, and as honorary members of the Namara tribe, we will certainly be making return visits. Wouldn’t it be fun, I mused, to learn to play this little island guitar, and someday impress my Fijian pals when I effortlessly pick up a ukulele and play along? I also started to notice ukuleles popping up everywhere on my radar. It seems the ukulele has experienced a renaissance as of late, with the help of Jake Shimabukuro's amazing rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody (If you’ve not seen it, stop reading and watch immediately here. But do come back and continue reading afterward, promise?) Musicians such as Jack Johnson continued to popularize the instrument. Even Taylor Swift has used the uke onstage – hear that, teen demographic? Ukuleles have become, dare we say, trendy? This is no longer Tiny Tim’s goofy little toy.
My secret plan to become a ukuleleist suddenly got some major help when McGroarty Arts Center announced a Beginning Ukulele Class this summer. They mentioned that ukuleles would be available to rent for a very nominal free, but I of course ignored that part and told my husband that we were going ukulele shopping that weekend! I did some Internet research and learned that ukuleles come in four sizes; soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. There are fancy ukuleles and simple ukuleles, and plenty of very decent “not a toy” instruments available for under $100.
We headed off to Guitar Center and soon I was the proud owner of a gorgeous mahogany ukulele with an etched tattoo design – a nod to my Fijian inspiration. Just plucking my fingers across the strings produced a warm, lovely tone, and made me wish I already had the skills to do my uke justice. I couldn’t resist picking up a copy of Ukulele for Dummies. Careful not to acquire too many bad habits before I started under professional instruction, I nevertheless managed to teach myself a few basic, easy chords like C, F & G. Turns out, quite a few popular songs can be played with just these three chords alone. Also, thanks to simplified tablature written for ukuleles, one need not know how to read music. I was well on my way to finally learning to actually play a musical instrument!
The Saturday class at McGroarty provided a huge leap to the next level. Our wonderful instructor, Kate Friedricks, wisely kept the class to a small size as to allow for lots of individual attention. Our ages ranged from teens to grandparents, with varied levels of musical experience. Kate patiently walked us through the journey from ukulele newbies to being able to play along with others at a “jam.” Over four consecutive weeks we learned several songs, and even some basic music theory involving transposing music to a different key. The transformation from awkwardly learning how to hold and tune a ukulele, to being able to strum along to music, eventually without even needing to look at your fingers on the chord strings, was rewarding and fun. New friendships were made, and confidence was boosted.
I think what I looked forward to the most about my weekly ukulele class was the chance to immerse myself in the process of learning something entirely new. It can be very therapeutic, as it forces whatever constant worries that normally flood the adult mind away for a few precious hours. We always think to enroll kids in creative classes, but when is the last time you tried something new as a grown up? I firmly believe stretching our brains to learn new skills, especially for us left-brain folks, is a wonderful way to stay young and mentally flexible…. and it’s just plain fun!
Sadly, our beginning class has come to an end, but I will certainly continue strumming away at the uke, attending informal jams with my new mates and learning songs in preparation for my eventual Fijian debut.
I’m hoping that in the future there will be enough demand for a level two ukulele class, but in the meantime, the good news for you is that Kate Friedricks will be holding another beginning session at McGroarty beginning on September 22.
If you’ve ever had the hankering to play the ukulele, I highly recommend that you sign up. Your inner child will thank you!