The humble ukulele is enjoying a renewed popularity among all ages. Lightweight, easy to play, and inexpensive, this much-maligned member of the lute family is often the first instrument children learn to play at school (replacing the recorder in popularity). Its very accessibility has drawn the older generations as well. Local musician/singer/teacher Jill Shatford reports that people in their 80s who have never before played a musical instrument have found a special pleasure in playing the chords and notes of familiar tunes.

Ukulele groups tend to be a warm and welcoming bunch.

Graham Walker started the first ukulele group at Christenson Village as a form of music therapy. The group now entertains residents with regular concerts, and have travelled to perform at Shorncliffe and Totem care facilities as well. In Sechelt, Nikki Weber leads Ukulele Madness, which meets and performs at Greencourt Hall. Ukulele Madness is not restricted to Greencourt residents – it embraces members of all ages and all abilities from throughout the community. A longtime impresario, Weber will be leading the Madness with one of the Paul Latta dance troupe through a Polynesian Luau Dinner at the Sechelt Legion Auditorium on August 25. (More info in our July issue)

As Shatford notes, “the beauty of the ukulele for seniors is that there are so many familiar songs they can play. They already know the lyrics and the melody. Now they get to learn the chords and with a group of people all plunking along – joy emanates.”

Joy emanates regularly from the Arts Building in Gibsons and the Gumboot Café in Roberts Creek, where the Beachcomber Ukulele Group (B.U.G.s – find them online at bugssc.com) meet to ‘plunk along.’ Co-founded by Walker and fellow musician Mark Trevis, the B.U.G.s transcend age boundaries. The still-growing group now performs regularly around the Coast. Nonplayers and novices are welcome to attend, even if they can’t yet play a note or even hold the instrument correctly – just come and sing along! It’s remarkably rewarding to play music, but playing with others is like a great conversation, but without words.

For those wishing more instruction, Shatford and Trevis coach a novice group, and Shatford offers one-on-one lessons that will get people up and running. Usually just one or two lessons provide the knowledge and efficiency in playing that will give beginners enough knowledge and confidence to enter the novice instruction group.

Because the ukulele is such an accessible instrument, it is easy to overlook the side benefits that ride along with learning to play. Nikki Weber testifies to the advantages of learning music which she has witnessed among her senior students.  And science backs up her observations: that learning music activates the memory sections of the brain and can halt and even reverse loss of brain function. Learning an accessible instrument like the ukulele can alleviate boredom among seniors, and playing with a group is a powerful antidote for loneliness and isolation. People have varied reactions to learning an instrument, but boredom is not one of them. And although it may be difficult for those with arthritis in the hands, Weber has seen that playing helps coordination and hand strength.

The bottom line is that learning to play a ukulele can do a number of wonderful things for emotional health, while giving a new skill to be proud of. Somewhere out there, there’s a ukulele that’s just waiting for someone to find it, name it George, and take it home. Why not go out and look for it?