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Ukulele plucks at the heart strings

Inspired during a trip to Hawaii ten years ago, Janet Tripp bought her first ukulele after she returned home to St Albert. Then she saw a newspaper article about a ukulele circle starting at the St. Albert library, and promptly joined.

That simple act sprouted a circle of friendships and fellowship that just keeps growing. She is now part of three circles.

“I’ve met so many wonderful people and even reconnected with a childhood friend,” she said. “Everyone is so accepting of individuals who play at all levels.”

As a retired educator, Janet knows the physical and mental health benefits of taking up a new instrument – particularly for older adults – and ukulele fits the bill.

“It's great for lifelong learning,” she said. “It boosts your brain power, your fine motor skills and dexterity as well as giving a feeling of accomplishment.”

Maureen Rooney, who co-leads the St. Albert ukulele circle with Paul, her husband, agrees that as a medium for bringing people together, the ukulele has some ideal qualities.

“I was in my early 50s when I picked up the ukulele, and I thought – oh my gosh, I’m stretching, I’m learning something,” she said.

At that time, Rooney was regularly visiting her mother, who was suffering from dementia. The challenges to create connections grew as her mother’s health declined.

“It was a decade of finding ways to reach Mom,” said Maureen. “I first tried food, then magazines, then singing out loud, because she could read the words.”

That turned into group singing with other residents, which Maureen discovered was even better with accompaniment.

“My husband plays guitar and I picked up the ukulele. Before long I could play some songs, and we would gather together in Mom’s room. By the time we left, the whole place had danced and laughed and clapped.”

The couple now tours senior centres, though that is currently suspended in response to the pandemic. The St. Albert circle is also temporarily on hold. But others are going online.

The Heartland Ukulele Lovers Association (HULA) still meets in Sherwood Park twice a month using video conferencing. The group has found there are benefits to the virtual format.

“Now, on Zoom, just one person plays and sings while others listen,” said Ian Pregitzer, who co-leads the HULA circle with Lynne, his wife.

“And we allow time for socializing, sharing with kindred souls. It’s very important for a lot of our members.”

While all ages are welcome, the majority of HULA members are seniors. Lynn said video conferencing allows people to join without worry about winter travel, or fear around COVID-19.

“We’ve had people from Vancouver join us. We’ve even had new members sign on since using Zoom," she said, pointing to a successful virtual Uketober Fest held in October, and events planned for Family Day and Valentine's Day.

World Ukulele Day, started in 2011 and now a global celebration every February, attests to the ukulele’s popularity. 

“If a circle gets together in a public place like a park, people will end up singing along and clapping. It’s made for joining in," said Rooney.

She said a circle is not a performance group where people rehearse for a concert, though there are ukulele orchestras for those who want to go further.

“Most of us grew up in a world where professionally recorded music took over our homes, replacing wonderful, imperfect, humble, home-made music,” said Rooney. “This is our way of taking it back.”

For those who want to start learning, Rooney suggests spending a little more to get an instrument that sounds good. Books are available at music stores and tutorials are available online. There are also teachers in Edmonton and Calgary, and Metro Edmonton offers courses too.

But the most fun way to learn, she said, is to join one of the numerous ukulele circles that have sprouted up in Calgary, Edmonton and many communities in between.

“We love the people it attracts,” said Pregitzer. “Like us they’re not professionals, but the beauty of ukulele is we can play songs that are easy to pick up. We’ve met some wonderful friends."