Archive for the 'ukulele' Category

That’s Show Biz

The last time I performed for an audience was in my senior year at Von Steuben High School in Chicago’s Albany Park. That was 1956 and I was 17.

Me and my buddies Alan, Larry, and Russell wrote the class song. Sadly, I had little to do with it since it was clear which of my friends had a talent for composing, and it wasn’t me. I have little memory of how we did it, but it got done and we were assigned the job of presenting it to our fellow graduates.

We stole the melody from the Georgia Tech fight song…

I’m a Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech, and a hell of an engineer—
A helluva, helluva, helluva, helluva, hell of an engineer.

Here we were, four Jewish kids in a predominately Jewish neighborhood. I grew up thinking that we were in the majority and that everyone living in, or emigrating from Russia like my parents, was also Jewish. Why we picked Ramblin Wreck escapes me, but it was certainly out of character. Ha Tikvah maybe, but not the Georgia fight song.

I occasionally, 66 years later, still sing some of the lyrics we wrote…

We’re the class of pride and destiny and we’re shouting out our name

Cause we are proud of what are and put to song our fame.

And then I forget the rest and switch back to Ramblin Wreck.

That was pretty much the end of my career until I picked up the ukulele six months ago and after 66 years, was again primed for stardom. I learned enough chords to be respectable, and to be mute when appropriate. I have a small, soprano ukulele that minds its lilliputian manners and lets others grab the limelight.

In November, the Ojai Music Festival invited our ukulele group to play background music at the Holiday Home Look In. The music keeps the atmosphere lively while paying guests prowl the insides and outsides of the four private homes.

Guests come and go, are polite, quiet, and respectful. The festival docents are well trained and restrain guests from leaping into the swimming pools, raiding the hosts’ refrigerators, and stopping them from relieving themselves in the outdoor shrubbery. Our dozen ukulele players at times outnumbered the guests on the premises. We played for two hours, received kudos for our performance, and agreed we would do it again if asked.

Gina and Anna, the festival folks who make everything happen at the Look-In, asked us if we’d like to do background music for the docent appreciation party in December. Reflecting on our experience at the Look-In, we quickly fell in line and agreed to participate.

The event was at the Women’s Club located in the center of town. A building that was once threatened by destruction because of general malaise, wood rot and lack of funds, it has gained new life and is likely to be hosting events well after my own demise from rot.

I’ve been to the Club many times, mostly for musical acts that were once ubiquitous but now have decreased in frequency. I miss them, especially the one that featured the singing cowboy, Sourdough Slim. I have no idea how old Slim is since Google failed to produce the answer after an in-depth ten second search. It’s a well-kept secret that lets Slim cavort without the audience worrying about this probable septuagenarian falling over his guitar and accordion and strangling on the harmonica that hangs like a pendulum under his oversized ten-gallon hat.

Always an observer, I had never been on-stage at the Women’s Club until the ukulele showed up and allowed me to resurrect my musical career. Arriving just before show time, ten of us filed onto the stage defying the five dark narrow wooden steps, and the floor to ceiling drapes that forced an entry perilously close to the edge of things. I felt like an elderly Tom Cruise of Mission Impossible fame, avoiding a five-foot fall into the unknown abyss. In retrospect, I got some idea about how Sourdough must have felt and a new appreciation for performers.

The event was sponsored by the Festival in return for the work done by volunteer docents, florists, and others. We were asked to play for about 30 minutes, then break for a dinner that featured soup and bread, just like they fed to the political prisoner Ivan Denisovich in the book The Gulag Archipelago.

In contrast to our sublime performance at the Look-In, the Women’s Club show was more like the bar scene from the film The Blues Brother starring John Belushi of Animal House fame and Dan Aykroyd. Suffering beer bottles thrown by the boozers at Bob’s Country Bunker, the Brothers learn to accommodate to the will of the people and give them what they want. The chicken wire screen that blocked most of the bottles helped a lot.

We played for thirty minutes while the crowd got louder. I’m sure it was in part due to the age of the guests and their pervasive hearing aids. Since we were hardly able to hear ourselves, in part due to our own hearing aids, we could enjoy ourselves by skipping the finger challenging chords, yell at the audience, laugh with them, and accommodate.

Taking advantage of elderly, unpaid musicians, Anna and Gina urged us to play again following soup time and thank-yous. The wine that accompanied the soup had increased and amplified the audience chatter which gave us further license to do pretty much anything we wanted to.

Bedtime for many guests finally brought a steady exodus onto Ojai Avenue. Oblivious to the declining population, we played on and finally realized that the only people left were those who were cleaning up the place. We had shut it down with our ukuleles, gaining another show biz learning experience.

Next time I will drink the wine instead of worrying about its impact on my musical skills. I probably could even substitute the Ramblin Wreck for Jingle Bells. No one will notice.

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.


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