- - Monday, December 8, 2014


All you — or your kid, or your friends — want for Christmas, Hanukkah, maybe even New Year’s is to play a song.

So you’re so tempted to pony up for one of those cool guitars reminiscent of the ones Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, seem to play so effortlessly.

Stop. Unless you or your musically minded gift recipient has a flair for music and oodles of time to practice, chances are the instrument may end up collecting dust next to the treadmill, juicer and other past buying mistakes.

Consider, instead, the ukulele, which Mr. Chesney, Ms. Swift and Ms. Carpenter along with a slew of other world-renowned musicians, seemingly half of the hipster crowd, and everyone from toddlers to seniors quickly learn to play. Some then move onto other instruments while many happily stick with the easily portable uke.

Consider two-time Grammy winner Marcy Marxer. Ever since the 1970s when she recovered a ukulele from a garbage can, the virtuoso player hasn’t stopped strumming one. She also teaches others to play including at the annual UkeFest held at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda. She and her musical partner Cathy Fink spearheaded UkeFest in 2009 and watched it grow from two to four days of classes preceding a free outdoor concert.

“We see more people every year,” said Ms. Marxer from her Silver Spring, Maryland, home. “I thought the popularity might slow down by now but it grows every year. It’s an amazing thing to see.”

The growing UkeFest attendance almost mirrors country, folk and Americana musicians’ interest in the four-stringed instrument.

“We all played them because we could get high quality ones for almost nothing, and we loved the sounds we could get from them,” said Ms. Marxer, noting Pete Seeger’s proficiency. “Almost anyone can pick it up and learn to play it.”

Indeed, Ms. Marxer taught a group of 30 seniors — 28 of whom had never played instruments — and saw them quickly becomes in-demand performers booking gigs.

Avid ukulele player Mark Michaels — who counts Broadway performers, Wall Street executives, Brooklyn hipsters and small children among his New York Ukulele School students — also finds many uke novices have no previous musical proficiency.

“There are a lot of bad teachers out there that killed the soul of half the kids in their classes by telling them they had no talent,” said Mr. Michaels. “People constantly tell me they can’t sing. Bull****. Everybody sings. That is the first sounds you make when you come out of the womb. You may not sing like Elvis Presley or Elton John, but you can sing. And it’s good for your health psychologically.”

Young children find singing and playing the ukulele so uplifting — and easy — that the instrument is now part of the school curriculum in England.

“They can’t put the instruments down. They are writing their own music,” primary school teacher Gail Roberts told the British newspaper The Guardian. “They are forming their own little groups. They don’t seem to feel constrained by boundaries. Nobody’s told them this note is A and this is B and this is how you’ve got to play.”

Renowned multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Chris Leslie, of the British folk rock group Fairport Convention, said that while many associate the ukulele with folk, country and Celtic music, it inspires a wide range of music.

“I never think of music as a genre. I tend to listen for atmosphere which puts me in different moods,” Mr. Leslie said when discussing the music on his latest solo album Origins. “I think of it as flavors, a bit like those that go into making a nice meal. I was listening to Peace, Love, Ukulele [by Jake Shimbakuro] and .it put me in the mood [to create] what I ended up recording. It was nothing like that record, but it brought out what I had to say in music.”

Shelby Bock, a 16-year-old aspiring musician from Peachtree City, Georgia, said the uke inspired her original cover of Miley Cyrus’ “You Can’t Stop” for an “American Idol” audition. She will be on the January 7 episode of the Fox program.

“Standing out was the main thing I wanted to do,” said Ms. Bock, a student at Jan Smith Studios in Atlanta. “I think it definitely did that because it had the factor of hipness because I played hip hop on a uke. It definitely changed [the song] up.”

Grammy nominated producer Jan Smith, perhaps best known for her work with Sugarland, Justin Bieber, and Usher, said aspiring musicians would do well to take up the ukulele.

“From a personal vantage point, that was the first instrument that I played as a child. That was the instrument that got me into writing my own songs, then playing guitar, and then took me to where I am now. The ukulele was the beginning of answering the music that was natural in me.”

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