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One chord at a time

Tallgrass Creek neighbors tackle the ‘uke’

Created date

July 5th, 2016
Tallgrass Creek Ukulele players

Tallgrass Creek ukulele players include (seated, from left) Lynn Brown, Edie Dahm, Bob Van Landingham, and Nadyne Nesbitt. Back row (from left) Bill Converse, Flossie Shattuck, Dick Yates, Bob Allen, Mary Lou Vest, Jack Denzer, and Wanda Schwarz.

As the sound of strumming chords fills the room, Dick Yates, Tallgrass Creek resident and organizer of a new musical group, queries the musicians. 

“Is everyone tuned up?” asks Dick. He quickly follows with a wry grin, “Or maybe I should ask, ‘Is anyone tuned up?’”  

So begins a meeting of aspiring ukulele players that meets Tuesday afternoons in Tallgrass Creek’s Sunflower Room for one hour of strumming a small, stringed instrument that goes by the nickname “uke.” 

Everyone in the group is a first-time ukulele player, and the laughs are as plentiful as the chord strumming.

“We’re all beginners unless there’s something lower than that,” notes Bob Allen. 

But the learning is happening anyway as the novice musicians meet each week for instruction and practice. Though Bob does not play the ukulele, he is a longtime guitarist and shares his musical knowledge by demonstrating how to play different chords on a stringed instrument. He also flashes a computer program on the large screen in front of the room called “Dr. Uke,” a beginning ukulele instruction course found on the Internet.  

After some chord reviewing, the class follows the computerized instruction as they play traditional songs such as “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Amazing Grace,” “Down in the Valley,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “Down by the Riverside.” 

“Occasionally, we play something that’s almost on the verge of recognizable,” laughs Bob. 

Ukulele roots

Participants bring their own ukuleles to class. Though many bought or borrowed theirs, several members’ ukuleles have their own stories. For instance, Bob Van Landingham’s beautifully crafted ukulele was made by his son David, who used lovely, light-colored maple to construct the instrument.

“David made it in his workshop, and it was actually his first major project,” says Bob. “It must have inspired him because now he’s making a guitar.” 

Jack Denzer’s ukulele also has some family ties. His 23-year-old grandson Ben, a recent graduate of Princeton University, played it when he was in middle school. 

Flossie Shattuck’s ukulele, also a family instrument, belongs to her daughter. 

Some residents, like Wanda Schwarz, are adding the ukulele to the list of other instruments they play. 

“I play the cello, saxophone, piano, and am a vocalist,” says Wanda. “Why not play the ukulele, too?” 

Other ukulele players just enjoy learning something new. 

“It’s easy to carry around, and the group is very fun,” says Nadyne Nesbitt. “Plus, it’s always good to keep learning.” 

The musicians have plans at some point to share their newfound talent with other Tallgrass Creek neighbors. 

“When we improve a little, we’re planning to ask others to join us for a sing-along,” says Dick. “By that time, we’re hopeful they won’t need earplugs.” 

In good company

Ukuleles have been an icon of Hawaiian music for about 120 years, but they were introduced to Hawaiians by Portuguese immigrants in the late nineteenth century. These days, many young entertainers, such as Taylor Swift, play the ukulele, and as a result, the uke’s popularity is booming. Production is up, too, by about 300%.

George Harrison of Beatles fame collected hundreds of ukuleles and frequently gave them away to friends; famous bandmates Paul McCartney and John Lennon also played the ukulele. Other ukulele-playing celebs include Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Lucille Ball, Tony Danza, astronaut Neil Armstrong, and everyone’s favorite billionaire, Warren Buffet.