The Power of The Uke

A few months ago I was asked by the very fabulous Rebecca Gross Deniff if I would run some ukulele workshops as part of the National Street Choir Festival, I put the date in my diary and then got on with the business of getting on with life. There was work, holidays, house moves and all manner of things to be getting on with before July … I mean that was MONTHS away.

A few days before the festival I thought I should plan something, ya know, prepare, so I wouldn’t look like a complete jerk in front of all those musicians. They’re singers thinks I, so they’ll be expecting singing … I worked out simple uke arrangements for a few songs and some lovely harmonies. I wrote charts, I printed out lyric sheets and that’s it, I was ready.

The first session was scheduled for 9.15am on a Sunday morning, I mean come on, how many folks are gonna get up THAT early on a Sunday morning when they’re on an away day or at a festival??? It’s the dead zone at just about every festival I have ever been to … so I anticipated that I’d be eased into the day with maybe half a dozen takers for what now had been billed as ‘Ukulele Choir’ . I arrived, I set up the room (with the aid of the very wonderful staff at Whitby Pavilion) and I waited … slowly they came up the stairs, with trepidation at first ‘Is this the ukulele workshop?’, yes yes, come in, my name’s Jacqui, ‘Is it ok if you can’t really play’ Oh yes yes it’ll be fine, you’ll soon pick it up, ‘Are you going to show us how to tune our ukuleles’ Oooh well errr, I kind of assumed you’d be able to do that, but yes, those that need help tuning form an orderly queue, and still they kept coming ‘I’ve borrowed this from a friend, no idea how to play it but your workshop sounded FAB’ excellent, come on it, take a seat, ‘This is my sons, he’s lent it to me for today’ ….

A picture was beginning to emerge, I had a room full of giddy happy potential ukeists, most of whom had never actually picked up a uke before, some of whom were just taking their uke out of the packaging it was delivered in. I imagined and hoped that my friends dad who runs the Folk Devils music shop in Whitby had done a roaring trade on beginners ukes the day before.

By 9.30am I had about 20 excited tuned up ukers of middle age and maximum excitement. I looked at my carefully prepared charts and decided to abandon my planning, what we needed to do was get everyone playing something … and quick.

There’s a greater willingness to participate in a group, you can hide a bit behind the others until you get the hang of something. I sang in a Philharmonic Choir for 5 years, everyone was a genius sight-reader, every time a new work came out for us to sing, every one else in my section would just pick it up and read it and I’d be desperately using my ear, a pico-second behind the others until I’d got the tune and could just follow it in the books. Over the years my sight reading did improve but like everything, ability diminishes without practise.

In my formative Ukulele Choir, there was timidity at first, we tuned up, we learnt a chord, C, it’s not demanding, one finger and a boat load of attitude and you’re off . By 9.45am the massed voices of The National Street Choir Ukulele Section were giving it Frere Jacques at some volume. If, by the way, anyone knows any other songs with one chord I would be pleased to know, one chord wonders are always useful for getting things going. I have to rely on Frere Jacques and Froggy Went A Courting … I know!!!!

I don’t actually think I’ve smiled that much in a long time, the joy in peoples expression to find that they could play an instrument so quickly, was wonderful. We learnt a few more chords and then got down to singing Bobby McFerrin’s ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ then I could hand out my charts and lyric sheets and really quickly the principle of how to play was understood.

There were a few wonderful souls in the group that were not beginners and I thank them enormously for sticking with us and sharing the love, their voices and their playing. One chap, I never got to know his  name was ornamenting our simple chord playing with some lovely improvisations.

Having got the chords under their belts we tried being less timid, stood up to play, improvised on harmonies,  added in some call and response, shook our booties a little and it looked and sounded like we’d been doing it for years.  I have seldom encountered such willingness and lack of inhibition in a group and it was exhilarating.

By the second session, the numbers had swelled, some came back for a second go but I had about 25 this time, we progressed quickly and learnt ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ and ‘Three Little Birds’ complete with slide technique which astoundingly some beginners mastered really quickly.

I came away from the day euphoric, my experience of teaching is that I can only get out of it what the participants are prepared to give … it’s so much easier when there is a willingness to learn and a lack of peer pressure. The collective sound of both ukulele and voices was heartwarming and spirit lifting and I sincerely hope that those brand new ukes will stay out of their boxes and be played with love.

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