Posts Tagged 'ukulele'

Living with Limitations

The New York Times recently ran a guest editorial about the French artist Henri Matisse. It was written by Nick Riggle, a relatively young man who has challenges adjusting to his new life after two debilitating accidents.

Matisse also suffered the impact of aging and its effect on his body. His early works were primarily focused on traditional painting methods, and he received great acclaim for those including Joy of Life and Woman with a Hat.

At 71, Matisse suffered a life-threatening illness. Treatment extended his life by 13 years but left him unable to hold brushes, effectively ending that phase of his artistry. Rather than give up his abiding desire to continue the production of fine art, Matisse adopted a collage approach to its creation. With assistance, he could paint a sheet of paper and then cut pieces from the sheet which then were glued together to produce an image. Some of the finished pieces were colossal in size. Blue Nude, and The Swimming Pool are two examples. These pieces done in his seventies and eighties are often described as the high points of his career.

As I read the editorial, I compared what Matisse had done with the challenges in my own life. I am not a great artist with assistants, nor do I yearn to leap tall buildings in a single bound. but over the years I have experienced changes that require adjustments to what I once thought were simple tasks.

I walk a bit slower, stare at sidewalk cracks, and scan for those partially embedded rocks whose tops seek to catch the front tips of my shoes. It may take me a little longer to reach my destination, but I’ve adjusted.

My night vision is poor, so I don’t drive at night. I can always get a ride and am grateful for friends.

Our dimly lit home presents challenges. Buying flashlights and putting them in various places solves most of the problem. I can buy a pack of 18 flashlights with batteries from Amazon but, like pens, they seem to find their own hiding places.

I began to lose my hearing about 10 years ago. At first, I nodded a lot at my companions and hoped that I had not just agreed to lend them money. The acquisition of overpriced hearing aids solved most of the problem. I don’t pretend I can hear you and find that most people are OK when I say could you repeat that?

Sub-titles are an essential component of watching Netflix. I have trained my brain to stare at the captions even if I can hear perfectly. I watched the comedian Tom Papa last night and tried to stop fixating on the written words as they crawled across the bottom of the Roku screen. A failure, I read the punchline before Papa could say it. He wasn’t that funny.

Like Matisse, I have been fortunate in finding new ways to entertain myself, like the ukulele. The instrument is relatively undemanding and, when I am with seven or eight other players, I can hold my own.

I like to think that had I adopted the uke at a much younger age, I would be a much better player. Wishful thinking, probably, since I’m sure my disdain for practicing would have held me back regardless of my age or the cussedness of any instrument.

Getting caught up reading the Matisse op-ed piece, I wrote a response to it…Dear EditorI have recently taken up the ukulele at the age of 83. My fingers aren’t agile enough to play chords that require four fingers or are spread over too many frets. So, I just skip those chords, but I keep on singing. And I have a good time even if my body isn’t as good as it used to be.

Attempts to address my physical limitations with devices and substitutes, are nothing when compared to the challenges facing others. This could not have been more evident than when we visited Saint John’s hospital in Camarillo just before Christmas.

Five of us brought our ukuleles and our voices to the extended care unit where a dozen largely silent patients awaited our presentation of holiday music. Unit residents were mainly in wheelchairs, and some had a special breathing apparatus. They had positioned themselves within ten feet of us and seemed anxious for us to start.

We began with A Holly Jolly Christmas. An upbeat song written by Mitch Gabler and first performed in 1964 by Burl Ives, the album also had Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. I was a little nervous as I sang the Holly Jolly lyrics…

Have a holly jolly Christmas
It’s the best time of the year
Now I don’t know if there’ll be snow
But have a cup of cheer

I had doubts about the audience reaction to the lyrics. Would they feel less than jolly, and would some be unable to have a cup of cheer? Would they agree with the song’s claim that this was the best time of the year?

I occasionally looked up from the sheet music and scanned the faces.  Nearly all were covered with masks and guessing what was going on under them was nearly impossible. We played on.

The song ended and there was applause. Not polite applause. Real appreciation.

I relaxed and so did my band members. We quickly launched into Love Potion #9 and Robert played the kazoo. And then Feliz Navidad followed by Jingle Bell Rock, My Favorite Things, and a dozen more. We became more animated. I sang a few lines acapella when the feeling took me. Maybe it was just me, but as we played on, I was sure the applause had increased in volume and duration. We did an encore. And then one more.

I imagined the faces under the masks. I was convinced they were smiling. For while their physical capability was limited, their capacity to enjoy the music was unlimited.

I forgot about the F# and Bb chords that were always too much for me. I played as if all the notes were nested in a single fret. I had overcome my feelings of insufficiency. I had made people happy despite my limitations. I rivalled Lady Gaga. 

We ended the hour by sharing cake, pastry, and other sugar laden treats. I thought it odd that the hospital would be serving stuff like that. And then I remembered that we were celebrating the holidays. A perfect time to cheat and enjoy the sweets before heading back to real life in the extended care unit.

As we packed up and headed to the exit, I realized that we were not quite ready to bring our act to Carnegie Hall. But despite our limitations, we had found a way to bring a substitute to those who needed it. Matisse would have been proud of us.

One of the nurses reached out to me as I passed her. She grabbed my hand, thanked me, and wished me a merry Christmas. I promised her that it would be.

Ukulele Lady

Jackie’s daughter Sammy and I played our ukuleles last night.

I had picked up the uke only twice since moving from the big house on the hill eight months ago to the less grand tract house in mid-town. Prior to the move I had been more diligent, playing weekly with a pickup group at the library, and even marching in last year’s July 4th parade down Ojai Avenue.

Perhaps “playing with” is too strong a term. Most of the library group of six had more experience, more talent and just plain more everything than I did. Some members were kind and waited for me to catch up as their fingers danced slowly up and down the frets. Others were into themselves and left me in the dust wishing that the two-hour session would end before I collapsed from the pressure.

My favorite pieces, like the Banana Boat song made famous by Harry Belafonte, had no more than three chords, were slow apace and easy to sing. Fixated on learning the chords, I never realized that the uke had different strum patterns. I blissfully chose to ignore the prescribed ones and simply moved my right hand up and down as I wished, without regard to the proper strums selected by my more erudite companions.

Playing in the July 4th parade seemed like a good idea after I had carefully reviewed the two pieces that were to be repeated over and over as we marched a mile down the avenue. One of the tunes, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, made famous in the film with Jimmy Cagney, seemed like something I could handle. Only four chords and a melody, it was surely hard to screw up. Yet I did.

After three parade minutes of twisting my fingers into positions better suited to a Houdini escape act, I gave up. I spent the rest of the parade pretending I was strumming and, just to vary my act, occasionally waved the uke over my head as though it were a cheerleader’s pompom. None of the parade watchers knew the difference nor seemed to care. The crowd noise and horn blaring emitted by the fume belching antique car directly behind our merry group masked everything, especially the sounds emanating from our tiny ukes.

Ukulele is Hawaiian and means jumping flea. It is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay, not you-ka-lay-lee. Its origin is largely attributed to the efforts of three Portuguese guys who landed in Hawaii around 1880. With nothing better to do, they fashioned this lightweight four stringer and, as evidenced by the number of young people schlepping it through airports and clogging up overhead baggage compartments, it has become a staple of hoedowns, block parties and late evening campfires where it can be played even while under the influence of various socially acceptable drugs.

Although shunned by the likes of concert violinists Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman, the uke was embraced by Elvis Presley in his biggest movie, Blue Hawaii. The movie soundtrack that featured the uke was Number 1 on the Billboard Charts for twenty weeks in 1961. My personal uke favorite is Over the Rainbow, sweetly performed by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who, in physical appearance, might better have been a sumo wrestler.

Doing mother-daughter things in Santa Barbara, I was left alone at home to make dinner. Pasta ala Norma is one of Jackie’s favorites. Though uncomplicated, the recipe takes time. The star of the minimal list of ingredients is eggplant. It is finicky and must be treated with the same care given to a diva, to be sure it is neither over nor underdone.  I have made the dish several times and consider myself qualified to prepare it for important guests, like Sammy. Two packages of Southwestern Style chopped salad from Westridge topped with a tasty vinaigrette, matched with a loaf of bread from Lazy Acres, and a bottle of chardonnay gifted to us by friends, completed the menu.

It was 7:30 before we began our meal on the patio. It had cooled from the heat of the day and the setting was perfect. I thought the rigatoni pasta was a little large for the recipe, but the more appropriate ziti had been MIA from the Westridge shelves due undoubtedly to the limitations imposed by Covid-19. The ladies were effusive as they downed everything set before them. Satisfied with the accolades, I sat back as they cleared the table.

I was alone for some time while the noise in the kitchen abated. It finally grew quiet and I wondered where they were. Then I heard the quiet voice of Sammy’s ukulele as she cradled it and came onto the patio. Jackie followed unexpectedly with my uke and my lately abandoned song binder. “Oh, I’m not up to this. Another time. Soon. I promise.”

Jackie stayed on target. “Aw, come on. It’ll be fun. Do it for me. Please.”

Weakened by her charms, I opened the case and tuned the four strings. I flipped opened the binder.  All I Have to Do is Dream stared at me. I had practiced the poignant Everly Brothers tune a hundred times, especially when Jackie was away. I have never conquered the chorus that is maddeningly populated with too many E minor chords.

Samantha said, “Let’s try it.”

An hour later we had gone through a dozen songs. Samantha was kind, patient and made me feel welcome. She smiled real smiles, spoke heartfelt words, and had a good time.

Jackie proudly watched her daughter enjoy herself. It was reward enough and a respite from the struggle.

If I hadn’t worried about the neighbors calling the cops, we might still be there.

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.


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