In a typical group of 70 musicians playing together, each player would bring a decade or more of musical experience to the group, playing difficult classical pieces in a stuffy concert hall.
The musicians playing together on a mall stage last Tuesday evening, however, did not make up a typical group. Instead, they gathered in West Edmonton Mall to play some classic pop tunes, most with four simple chords.
And the atmosphere was anything but stuffy.
Members of ukulele circles from all around the Edmonton region, including St. Albert, gathered for a fitting celebration of World Ukulele Day on Feb. 2. Seventy musicians, old and young, skilled and less-skilled, gathered for an informal jam session.
The 70 ukulele players were joined by a handful of other musicians, including a cellist and a percussionist, to help round out the sound. But the ukulele was, far and away, the star of the show.
The popularity of the simple instrument has continued to grow all across the world, and St. Albert is no exception. Although still relatively young, the St. Albert Ukulele Circle, which meets monthly at the St. Albert Public Library, has had no fewer than two dozen players at each of its meetings since starting up last September.
“There were quite a few people from our circle there, and it was really gratifying to see so many of them show up,” said Heather Dolman, the library’s public services manager who organized the St. Albert circle. They had nearly 40 people during the first session and the numbers continue to be strong.
She explained after reading an article in the St. Albert Gazette about the fact there was no ukulele circle in town, she felt the library was the right organization to step in and meet that need.
“To me, it just really spoke to community building and sharing, and that’s one of our objectives aside from literacy and lifelong learning,” she said. “It really spoke to bringing people together to share, play together and have fun together.”
Dolman only began playing the instrument in September, so she is still very much a beginner, but said she had not worries about getting together in a giant group and playing in public – something that appeals to many about playing the ukulele.
Nonetheless, seeing what others are capable of served to inspire her to keep practising and developing her own skills. But while she has learned a lot through the ukulele circle, she emphasized it’s not a replacement for taking lessons or learning on one’s own.
“We just want it to be clear you’re going to learn things from other people in this circle, and you can learn on your own, but we’re not here to provide the lessons.”
Easy to learn
St. Albert music teacher Gary Glewinski, who teaches ukulele among a handful of other stringed instruments, said there’s as much benefit for more seasoned musicians to take part in a big ukulele jam as for beginners.
And while he shows up to play rather than to teach, the process of playing together invariably involves a lot of teaching learning as well.
“It’s neat because you can help each other out in the circle,” he said. “It’s a cool way of learning together.”
Glewinski said he has seen interest in the ukulele increase among his nearly four-dozen students, in part because it seems to be becoming more popular elsewhere as well.
“When Mumford & Sons got popular, they had the banjo and the mandolin and I was teaching a lot of those lessons,” he said. With that band’s most recent album being electric instead of acoustic in nature, he said the emphasis has switched to ukulele for many of his younger students.
And as for why it’s so popular and appealing, he points to several reasons. As a guitar player, he likes the portability of the instrument. As a teacher, he appreciates how it’s relatively easy to get started compared to other instruments.
You don’t need a lot of hand strength or dexterity to be able to get a decent sound out of it, especially when compared to the more traditional guitar.
“The most common complaint with a guitar is people don’t have the dexterity at first to reach the chords, and barre chords and things are tricky for them,” Glewinski explained.
But most significantly, the ukulele has a sound that most everyone describes as being happy and joyful.
“It’s an instrument that makes people smile,” he said. “I bought one on Whyte Avenue, then walked around and played it, and got lots of smiles.”
It’s precisely that happy sound that inspired St. Albertans Linda Tourand and Pamela Labonte to learn how to play and to take part in World Ukulele Day.
Tourand said she saw a documentary about the ukulele a few years ago, but didn’t quite get around to picking it up until September. It appealed to her mostly because it seemed like such a fun instrument, and people who play it don’t seem to take themselves too seriously.
“It looked like everybody was having fun,” she said. “And everybody thinks you’re ridiculous. This is a ridiculous instrument, and it makes it that much more fun.”
Labonte explained she started playing because her young daughter wanted to learn, but was too young to take lessons yet. She registered for lessons in part to be able to help teach her daughter, but has certainly come to appreciate it in her own right.
When playing in the circle she feels no pressure to be any kind of a virtuoso, but rather can focus on just having fun and practising her skills.
“If the ukulele sounds bad, it still kind of sounds good,” she said, “It’s just such a happy instrument. I really feel like I should be on a beach playing.”
“I have every intention of going to Hawaii and becoming a rock star,” Tourand added with a laugh.
While the majority of the players at the World Ukulele Day jam fall into an older age group, there was also a group of young students there proving it’s an instrument you can enjoy at any age.
St. Albert resident Tanya Frigault is a music teacher at Landing Trail School in Gibbons, and played at the jam along with eight of her Grade 4 music students.
The easy-going nature of players in a ukulele circle, and the low-pressure atmosphere of this kind of jam is precisely why she wanted her students to join her.
“The biggest thing for me is they’re going to be able to play, make mistakes, and feel safe,” she said. “It’s a really comfortable jam situation and you can make mistakes, because nobody’s really going to be able to hear them.”
Frigault also teaches students singing, hand-bell and the much-maligned recorder – all valuable components of teaching music – but when she introduced ukulele to the kids several years ago, she said the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“I think they make the connection that the ukulele looks like a guitar,” she said. “It’s more relatable in that way.”
She added that because it is also relatively easy to learn plays no small role in its popularity.
“I think everybody has the opportunity to try and really succeed at it, as long as they put in the effort, and you get a lot of return quickly,” Frigault said. “I wish everyone would pick one up and try it.”