Ukulele trend spawn­ing feel-good strum ses­sions na­tion­wide

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - CAS­SAN­DRA SZKLARSKI

TORONTO — Af­ter eye­ing her son’s ukulele with a mix of cu­rios­ity and trep­i­da­tion, music lover Shelly Steele couldn’t re­sist the urge to pick it up.

It im­me­di­ately felt good in her small hands, and the nar­row neck, short frets and four strings were eas­ily cov­ered by her in­ex­pe­ri­enced fin­gers.

Things felt much dif­fer­ent than her clumsy at­tempts to han­dle a gui­tar, or even the flute she was as­signed in high school decades ago. At age 42, Steele fi­nally found the in­vig­o­rat­ing hobby that could un­leash the la­tent mu­si­cian in­side her.

This is no kitschy fad, the school teacher in­sists, point­ing to an ex­plo­sion of uke-fo­cused ac­tiv­ity in her home­town of Guelph, Ont., which in­cludes sin­ga­long pub jams and a ukulele fes­ti­val at the end of Septem­ber.

“Any­body that I know that is my age, they’re pick­ing up the ukulele. They’re not pick­ing up other in­stru­ments to learn as kind of their in­stru­ment of choice,” says Steele, wife to a drum­mer and mother to two mu­si­clov­ing kids.

In­deed, the ukulele craze is prov­ing to be an en­dur­ing phe­nom­e­non that’s here to stay, thanks in part to fa­mous devo­tees in­clud­ing Tay­lor Swift, Ed­die Ved­der, Train and Jason Mraz, whose re­cent re­leases have helped re­vamp the four-string’s im­age from twee nov­elty to bona fide mu­si­cal in­stru­ment.

Its embrace by school music pro­grams hasn’t hurt, nor has its rel­a­tively af­ford­able cost, with lower-end mod­els start­ing at around $40. Gui­tar sales­per­son Matt McKenna has seen the ukulele phe­nom­e­non trans­late into con­sis­tent sales at Toronto’s down­town Long & McQuade lo­ca­tion. He says a surge in in­ter­est about seven years ago “hasn’t dwin­dled at all,” with sales this past Christ­mas hov­er­ing around 600 ukes.

“Trends go up and down. We were ex­pect­ing at some point there would be a lit­tle less in­ter­est, but it seems to be gain­ing in­ter­est,” says McKenna, who adds his shop car­ries 50 to 60 va­ri­eties. “It’s al­most like it’s a cult, I guess. But a very a pos­i­tive one, be­cause peo­ple gen­er­ally have great fun play­ing it.”

To­day, a new­bie can find a slew of feel-good uke cir­cles across the coun­try where new­com­ers can learn chords and build a reper­toire with like-minded pals at a pub, se­niors’ cen­tre or com­mu­nity hall.

A big driver is the so­cial con­nec­tions that this quirky in­stru­ment can quickly forge, says Toronto uke fan Steve McNie, who launched a weekly pub gath­er­ing in Toronto eight years ago that has ex­panded to twice­weekly strum ses­sions in a cou­ple of venues.

“Peo­ple are look­ing for per­son-to-per­son hu­man en­gage­ment at a time when we’re so fixed on our screens and with our dig­i­tal lives,” says McNie, who is or­ga­niz­ing a uku­lenotes, le fes­ti­val in Toronto for mid-June. “Peo­ple crave op­por­tu­ni­ties to be­come part of a com­mu­nity that pro­vides hu­man in­ter­ac­tion.”

And for those of us look­ing to pick up an in­stru­ment later in life, a brightly coloured ukulele can cer­tainly seem less in­tim­i­dat­ing than the pi­ano, or even gui­tar.

Long­time music teacher Elaine Rusk of the Royal Con­ser­va­tory of Music is glad to see the trend, not­ing that adults who dive into music lessons give both their brains and their mood a pow­er­ful boost.

She says adult learn­ers have been a con­sis­tent co­hort in the con­ser­va­tory’s ex­am­i­na­tion pro­gram, al­though chil­dren still make up the vast ma­jor­ity at well over 90 per cent. The con­ser­va­tory does not have an exam pro­gram for the ukulele, but does of­fer classes.

“My own ex­pe­ri­ence teach­ing and work­ing with adult learn­ers at all lev­els is that they’ve made a choice to do this and they tend to be very passionate and com­mit­ted and re­ceive great joy out of even the small­est achieve­ments,” says Rusk.

But adult learn­ers can be im­pa­tient, she and many are ner­vous, es­pe­cially when they take ex­ams. Kids, in con­trast, are used to be­ing in a learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment and bounce back from mis­takes.

“(Adults) have very high ex­pec­ta­tions and you of­ten spend time re­mind­ing them that it’s a process,” says Rusk, whose adult stu­dents are most in­ter­ested in pi­ano, fol­lowed by voice, gui­tar, vi­o­lin, flute and cello.

“You have to train the fin­gers to work in­de­pen­dently in a way that they haven’t done be­fore, per­haps. Or not for a long time.”

Steele is largely self-taught, hav­ing gleaned some tech­niques from a plethora of on­line tu­to­ri­als. But she’s also taken ad­van­tage of the ukulele work­shops at a lo­cal bar and weekly jams at a friend’s house, where her hus­band builds on his bur­geon­ing banjo skills and an­other friend works on learn­ing to play at the fid­dle.

“Some­times they’re epic fails and some­times they’re won­der­ful mu­si­cal pieces that we can play to­gether. But it’s al­ways just fun.”


Rachelle Cooper gets ready to play her ukulele with friends dur­ing a weekly jam ses­sion in Guelph. The lit­tle four-stringed in­stru­ment, easy to learn at any age, has surged in pop­u­lar­ity.


Rachelle Cooper, left, Luke Bu­reau and Chantelle Boudreau strum their ukes dur­ing a jam ses­sion.

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