Ukulele on my mind

While Hawaii is often thought of as the place that invented the ukulele, it actually has Portuguese roots. In 1879, a seafaring immigrant, Joao Fernandez, jumped ship in Hawaii along with his uke, then called a machete de braga. He strummed all over the place and is credited with starting the Elvis-like frenzy that continues to this day.  Right here in Ojai.

I spend Monday mornings in the ukulele club. Meeting at the Ojai Library, the group attracts a dozen uke players. We arrive before opening and line up in the library courtyard waiting for Sam to open the door in concert with the 10am ringing of the bells in the post office tower.

We each carry one or more instruments, a music stand that regularly collapses during my strumming, and a three-ring binder filled with dozens of songs, some well beyond my limited capabilities.

The library staff is very helpful, and we usually find that Sam has arranged the Walmart $5 green plastic chairs in a circle next to the ancient fireplace. I’m usually early and have, like the others, laid claim to my “regular” seat. Newcomers arrive periodically and must find or manufacture a position in the circle. A new player offended me greatly last Monday by selecting my coveted seat; it took me fifteen minutes to get my thoughts back in order.

New songs are regularly introduced by the players and photocopied on the library’s new copy machine. I rarely take on that responsibility since it requires asking for the copier key, inserting it in the proper hole, placing the document face up on the machine and entering the desired number of copies. My aging memory and inability to retain and perform those instructions often cause me to decline the task by averting my eyes from the copy requester. Wearing hearing aids often prompts the requester to simply ignore me altogether.  I try to atone for this sin of omission by returning lots of chairs to the storeroom at the end of the session.

I’ve been playing for nine months. I can play maybe ten basic chords and regularly screw up others. I am often unable to remember the fingering difference between E, E minor, and E7.  F, F# and F#-minor is another example of my ignorance that leads me to often consult the list of chords tucked away in my ballooning binder.

My 83-year-old fingers are woefully short (I blame that condition on my parents.) Neither are they as flexible as they once were when I could tie a fly to a trout line. I simply skip any chords that require four fingers or a span defying stretch of more than three frets. Or I cheat and only use three fingers, hoping the result will be masked by the other players who can do it correctly.

Adding to the challenge, the sheet music comes from different sources. The chord names and lyrics are often Lilliputian size and defy my bifocals as I struggle to read them. I look like that perpetual motion drinking bird that tilts forward and backyard looking for the sweet spot.

My college friend Harry in Livermore has taken up playing classical guitar. He’s done it before but put it aside for more important things including wood working, yanking on a rowing machine, and salmon fishing. Salmon season has just ended, so he can now doggedly pursue the classical guitar with gusto.

We compare notes every Monday evening. He’s anal about calling at 7:30 when I’m immersed in the latest Netflix offering, or asleep on the couch after a hard day in the ukulele pits. We both are intelligent; he has a PhD and I do crossword puzzles. Combining our abilities, we have determined that improving our skills on our chosen instruments is largely dependent on the time devoted to practice. I guess I already knew that when I gave up the trumpet in high school having failed to emulate Harry James after six weeks of intensive training.

I spend two hours with the ukulele group each week. I arrive home invigorated, promising that I will practice every other day for an hour. I remove my uke from its zippered case and place it on the table next to my music stand. And there it too often remains until the next Monday when I put it back in the case and take it to the library for another two-hour session. I’m sure that time is moving much faster than it used to, giving me less opportunity to practice…the thought makes me feel a bit better.

Members of the group have different skill levels. Many seem to have little trouble fingering an F#-minor. Others are less skillful, like me, and sweat profusely at the thought of a Bb-7. On the other hand, I’m good at tuning the uke and am often asked for help by those less fortunate. I’m also the oldest person in the group and am pleased to hum a melody or sing the lyrics to songs that were written prior to the advent of the Gutenberg printing press.

Two or three players take this whole thing to another level and seem to speak in tongues. Barre, alternative-strumming, bending, flee-and-fluke, inversion, and my favorite…hammer-on often fill the air while my eyes glaze over. Discussion of the instrument itself is unreal as terms like purfling, nut-slots and kerfling are spoken while experiencing high ecstasy. I learned that a ukulele maker is called a luthier, opening my eyes to what was previously hidden from me.

But maybe I’m just jealous. They are marvelous players who deserve to be heard. Playing simple background notes while they flee-and-fluke is enough for me. I enjoy a simple strum while singing the lyrics, occasionally with gusto. I hear myself and am happy with the sounds I make. I even enjoy replacing the Walmart green chairs since it puts me at the same level as that of the skilled players.

On those days when I rouse myself to practice, I am the master of my fate. I can’t always remember the melody, so I rely on my iPhone and Spotify to substitute for my library friends. I’m more casual about the instrumental solos and can stop anywhere I please to repeat the verse. I often sing loudly and will repeat the whole song if I really like it, maybe more than twice. The time flies and I am often surprised when the hour passes. Only the pain in my fingertips or the ache in my hands remind me of my limitations.

I take pleasure in noting that songs once impossible are now achievable. I feel more at ease in the group but also feel stagnant in mastering some of the tougher pieces. It’s at those times that I think of Harry and the magic that practice can bring. And then I hesitate and think, maybe I’ll never learn the difference between purfling and kerfling, but I will always remember what a luthier is.

4 Responses to “Ukulele on my mind”


  1. 1 Tina R October 21, 2022 at 12:53 pm

    Fred, I would love for you to play a bit, so you can get your ‘practice’ on.

    Like

  2. 2 Nancy R October 21, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    As long as it makes you happy, keep doing it!

    Like

  3. 3 Harry October 21, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    Fred,
    After reading your blog I felt obligated to go upstairs and practice. There is truth and humor in your blog.
    Harry

    Like

  4. 4 jackielakshmi October 21, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    I love coming home from a long day and hear you singing and playing the uke- you sound so happy and that is what counts!
    Keep it up!
    I love you❤️

    Like


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