Until a couple of months ago I had never really played a ukulele. Now it’s one of my favorite instruments to pick up and just noodle. I’ve also been enjoying playing in groups. I bought my first ukulele so that I could join my friends at Bring Your Own Instrument on ukulele night, but I wanted to see what other groups were out there. Over the last couple weeks I’ve visited three other active ukulele groups to see what they are like.
This quest started several weeks ago when we had a new member join us at Bring Your Own Ukulele. Charlie Drake is an accomplished ukulele player and said that he was very active with groups in Anacortes. He talked about how huge those groups could get, sometimes with as many as sixty players at a session. I was intrigued. Two weeks later Charlie came back to BYOU, this time bringing several of his Anacortes friends with him and I decided I needed to check out the Anacortes groups.
Actually, I really wanted to go as soon as Charlie told me about the Anacortes group. Those groups meet on Thursday, so I was ready to head over there the next day. Charlie said that I should hold off, though, and wait until the following week. I was confused. Apparently there are two groups that meet on alternating Thursdays. I needed more information.
When I did a quick search for Anacortes ukulele groups I found two that meet at the Senior Center. The upcoming group Charlie had recommended was listed as the “senior” group. That didn’t sound quite right. The following Thursday would be the Fidalgo Ukulele Network, or F. U. N. group. That sounded like more…fun, so I decided to wait another week.
Charlie said that this group doesn’t use a projector and that I’d need to have music. Fortunately they have all of their repertoire online. They also post a playlist for each session. I downloaded the tunes on the playlist and copied them over to my iPad. I was ready.
Fidalgo Ukulele Network (FUN)
I arrived at the Anacortes Senior Center and followed the ukulele cases into a large activity room. There were chairs set up in a semi-circle for at least sixty players. To my surprise there was also an upright bass that would be playing along.
Charlie came in and greeted me, as did Randy and Wendy from the previous night’s BYOU session in Mount Vernon. All of the folks were quite friendly.
Also joining us were my friend Anne Smock from BYOI and her parents, who are regular participants in both Anacortes uke groups.
Linda Zielinski is the group organizer and led the session. She went through her playlist, pretty much in order. There was no extended learning session, but we jumped right into the music. I liked the way the bass added depth to the ensemble, rounding out the overall tone.
Players came and went throughout the hour and a half session, but I would guess there were about fifty players at peak. Most seemed very accomplished. Most were my age or older. I guess if you’re going to have an event in the middle of the day at a senior center you should expect a particular clientele.
Overall it was a good experience. A few of the players would be staying for a smaller ensemble, the Ukadores. I headed on out with Anne and her family. Charlie may have recommended the other group, but I enjoyed this one just fine.
Mount Vernon Ukulele Fun and Song Circle
I had seen notices in the local newspaper about a ukulele group that meets every Wednesday at the Mount Vernon Senior Center. They don’t have a fancy acronym like the other groups, but I figured I needed to check them out, too.
The Mount Vernon group meets from 1:00 until 2:00. One again, the time and venue tend to determine the demographics. This was a smaller group, about the size of our BYOU group. I was surprised to see that the group organizer was Simme Bobrosky, who plays guitar with me at the Scottish music sessions. I didn’t recognize any of the other players.
This was a decidedly older group. There was one younger guy there with his great-grandmother, but he was the exception.
Simme led the group through a set of ukulele standards. She passed out printed sheet music for those that didn’t have it already. A good bit of that music turned out to be files and arrangements created by Linda Zielinski from the Anacortes FUN group. There was some instruction, but the emphasis was on playing and singing.
The music and playing were enjoyable, but the setting hit a bit close to home for me. I felt like I was back at Harbor Chase playing my banjo for the residents and for Laura’s mom. The younger man’s great-grandmother enjoyed the music, but she neither spoke nor played. It was too much like what we had been through over the last couple of years.
I stuck around in Mount Vernon for the rest of the day for our BYOG meeting that evening at Empire Ale. At the Anacortes FUN session there was a guy who brought his guitar, and I suggested that he come to BYOG. Harold was there that evening. I was glad he took me up on the invitation, but my first thought was that we were robbing members from another congregation.
Anacortes Senior Ukulele Ensemble (SUE)
This was the group that Charlie suggested. The name “senior” had thrown me off but since I had already been to two sessions in senior centers I figured another one would hurt. After all, I had to get a complete perspective of ukulele activity in the area if we were to combat it.
Once again I found myself at the Anacortes Senior Center for the Senior Ukulele Ensemble’s session. We were in the same room as last week, but it was arranged differently. There was a pull-down screen with a projector. Instead of one upright bass there was an electric upright as well as a bass guitar. Another guy was playing a regular six string guitar. They were going to for the full ensemble for accompaniment. Charlie was up front operating the computer to display the lyrics and chords.
There was a commotion before things got started, though. A doe and fawn were in the small yard behind the building. The doe wanted the fawn to follow her over the fence, but the fawn couldn’t yet jump that high. The doe jumped back and forth over the fence several times throughout the afternoon session, trying to get the fawn to follow.
The leader of today’s session, Kathleen Wolff, came over and introduced herself. This was another large group, about 40-50 players. These seemed more like aging hippies than senior citizens. My first impression that this would be a great group. However, first impressions can be very, very wrong.
As with the FUN group, Kathleen had a playlist and led us through the songs at a brisk pace. We didn’t stop to analyze, learn, or discuss much at all. It was one song right after another. There were some very good players and singers in the group and the ensemble up front rounded out the sound nicely. Even at that pace I was able to keep up with no problem.
That doesn’t mean I was having fun. I wasn’t. No one was talking to me. No one was sitting next to me. I’m sure these are nice folks, but apart from the leader no one introduced themselves or welcomed me to the group at all. It was weird. Part of what I love about these sessions is the banter and chatting between the songs. I soon got tired of just playing chords over and over. It got boring and I was losing interest quickly. It made me not want to come back.
About half way through the session a large group got up and left. They were headed to a beginners class, NEWkuleles, taught by Linda Zielinski from the other group. I detected noticeable scowls from some of the players. Both Charlie and Anne said that there was a bit of animosity between the Anacortes groups. There are some, like Charlie and like Anne’s parents, who just want to play and attend both sessions. However, some don’t get along with the other groups. Perhaps that’s why I was not welcomed into the group. I was a possible infiltrator.
I found out a bit more by piecing together snippets of conversations and what I read online. At first there was only one group founded by the late Richard Mitlyng. It met every other week at the Senior Center. Linda Zielinski was very active in the group at that time. According to what I’ve read and heard, Linda, was concerned that many of the players actually knew very little about playing, so she started a beginners group on the alternating weeks. That grew into the FUN group. Anne told me that some still refer to the SUE group as “Richard’s group” even though he is now deceased. Those in that camp think of SUE as the original, and FUN as the upstarts.
To me it just proves that people will argue over anything, including ukuleles. This could get out of hand. I had visions of dangerous uke gangs tagging the neighborhood with treble clefs and other symbols. I can only imagine what a rumble would be like. At least it would sound happy.
Visiting four different ukulele groups in two weeks was a bit intense. There are other community ukulele groups in Bellingham and the surrounding towns, but I think I’m done with the visiting. I was able to piece together some observations…
1. Ukuleles are the perfect starter instrument.
First, ukes are super simple to play. The chords often need only one or two fingers and the light nylon strings make it easy to press the strings to the frets and strum. With the abundance of three-chord songs out there one can build up a repertoire quickly.
Secondly, there is a low entry point for purchase. You can get an OK instrument for as little as $30 and a nice one for $100. You could probably pick up one for even less at a yard sale or thrift store.
The instruments are small so they are easy to handle, just the right size for kids or for seniors who would have difficulty playing something larger. The repertoire tends toward nostalgia, so it’s no surprise that there are so many senior ukulele groups in this area.
2. Everything sounds happy on a ukulele.
It’s such a bright instrument that even things played in a minor key sound…maybe not cheerful, but at least hopeful.
3. The ukulele is often an instrument of irony.
Since it is so bright and happy there seems to be an catalog of music arranged for ukuleles that probably shouldn’t be played on the instrument. Think Iron Butterfly’s “Ina-godda-davida” or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” I’ve played Bad Romance on a uke, as well as AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
4. The ukulele lends itself to cringe-worthy portmanteaus and acronyms.
Just look at the title of this blog post and tell me you didn’t cringe when you read it. Others I’ve heard include NEWkuleles, YesterUkes and Ukadores. Then there are the acronyms…the Fidalgo Ukulele Network (FUN), the Bellingham Ukulele Group (BUG), the Hollywood Ukulele Group (HUG), and a Saturday Morning Ukulele Group (SMUG). In Seattle you’ve got the Seattle Ukulele Players Association (SUPA) and Seattle’s Totally Relaxed Ukulele Musicians (STRUM). I don’t think there is a Greenville Ukulele Network but GUN would probably be appropriate for our city.
5. I am far too young to be playing ukuleles in a senior center
…unless I’m there to entertain seniors.
Yeah, I’m reaching up toward 60. I’m retired. I have white hair and a white beard, and I don’t mind getting the senior discount at movies. However, I am NOT a senior citizen…yet. I’ll stick to playing in informal settings and in bars. I’ll still play the ukulele ironically. (I’m currently working on an arrangement of the Cantina Band from Star Wars.) I’ll play a few songs that were already decades old before I came along, but that won’t be my exclusive repertoire. I’ll take the Sicilian’s advice – I refuse to get involved in either a land war in Asia or a ukulele spat. Most importantly, I’m going to have fun.