There are moments in time when historic events frame and create a personal narrative. Usually these moments are associated with a single date: November 22, 1963; July 20, 1969; September 11, 2001. The year 2020 has placed us all in a time capsule of indefinite length.
The greatest of all social instruments—the ukulele—has something going for it that allows it to thrive in social isolation: flexibility. Ukulele enthusiasts have adapted to confinement with bursts of creativity, expanding the boundaries of musical connection, reaching further than ever before from a safe distance.
The determination to carry on under unprecedented circumstances makes even ordinary events extra-ordinary. All over the world, ukulele clubs are meeting via computer, festivals are going online, and performers are live-streaming events. Rebellious acts of caring, compassion, and creativity abound! The heaviness of loss is consoled by music; the loneliness of isolation is made companionable with song; boredom is replaced by bravado.
Every generation has been affected by the pandemic. One thing that all of us, young and old, will have in common when it ends is a story. Where were you during the COVID-19 lockdown? Here are some inspiring stories from friends across the globe making the most of their lost year.
Live. Online. Interactive Ukulele Classes!
Ruby’s Ukes | Vancouver, British Columbia
Daphne “Ruby” Roubini: “Thrown in the deep end, I keep developing as fast as Zoom updates itself, changing all the time. It is 1,000 percent more work! I am determined to make sure my team continues to be employed and Ruby’s Ukes keeps going.
“In early April, I programmed the new term, wrote to all the students to let them know how I had developed the online presence, and opened registration as usual. We are only one-third down in enrollment. Class materials and learning outcomes at each level stayed the same, and we are keeping each course offering very live, and interactive, as always. The classes are still 90 minutes long and we still have a tea break after 50 minutes, only now people make their own tea—or a glass of wine, I notice! Apparently we are famous for our chocolate-covered almonds we served at break time.
“While there is the obvious disadvantage of not being able to gather and make music together, we have found many advantages of presenting live interactive classes online, so different from static pre-recorded classes. You are able to switch between ‘gallery view’ (where you see all your uke classmates) to ‘speaker view’ which gives everyone the front-row-seat experience of seeing the teacher’s hands. Nothing replaces the joy of playing with others, but being able to play with the teacher and just hear yourself can be really helpful when learning, too! The chat feature on Zoom means you can ask your question as you think it and then the teacher will look at that list in the Q&A part of the class—so you have the opportunity to ask questions during the lessons and be present just as you would in a physical class.
“You are now able to tinkle and plink away as the teacher is speaking because you are muted. (I think I can actually hear your ‘Hallelujah!’ from where you are.) We have a class materials page with downloadable song charts and some audio samples that support your practice each week. If you have to miss a class, you will be able to catch up easily.
“Our online offerings are here to stay! Ex-students who had left Vancouver were so excited to be able to take class with us again. We will continue to offer online classes alongside our physical classes when we can re-open.”
Ukulele Clubs: Purpose and Resilience
Josh and Roberta Gordon’s Kern River Ukulele Club | Kernville, California
(KRUC was featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Ukulele)
Josh: “For almost a decade now, the Kern River Ukulele Club has been touching base with each other almost every Tuesday evening. Checking in online, raising a glass, and connecting to at least a bit of the special sameness and ordinariness of our regular Tuesday session is the core of what we’re doing. Just as we realized a few years ago that the social aspects of our club outweigh the musical aspects, the same applies now.”
Roberta: “It was jarring at first, going from leading a ukulele club of 20-plus folks in a lovely old resonant room to playing into a computer screen. After I got over the initial shock, I realized that a Zoom meeting could be like putting together a variety show where the folks on the other side of the screen could talk back. I was an on-camera TV news reporter in the ’70s and ’80s and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to revive some of those skills. I feel gleeful putting together our little show, filled with joy and purpose. It’s way more fun than I ever had on TV!”
Old and New Technologies Collide
James Millar and Tricity Vogue | Leicestershire, England
Assisted by his wife, ukulele luminary Tricity Vogue, James Millar has been taking ambrotype (photos on glass) portraits via Zoom, live streaming the process on Facebook—a time/space-bending project he has named “teletypes.”
James: “While we are stuck at home, it’s been great to connect with people all over the world and keep my passion for this magical process alive. I think it’s kind of cool to fuse a technique from over 150 year ago with the latest video conferencing technology.
“The camera is a Victorian large-format camera I call Izzie, named after my Granny Isobel. In fact, all my tintype cameras are named after grandparents: My big one is called Hilda and my smaller one is called Babs. I haven’t got an exact year she was built, but around 1870 would be my guess. The camera is designed for the wet plate collodion process, a technique pioneered in 1848 which renders silver images on glass, called ambrotypes. The image is a negative but appears as a positive when placed against a black background.
“Tricity, my darkroom assistant/health and safety enforcer, has continued her monthly London Ukulele Cabaret online via Zoom, on the second Tuesday of every month.”
Mask Makers to the Rescue!
Peggy Gunter Mohr | Harrison, Michigan
Peggy has made more than 100 masks, many of which have been sent to musicians, especially uke players (Daniel Ward and myself included) across the nation, as well as friends, family, and anyone she knew to be “at risk.”
Peggy: “The overwhelming seriousness of this—to bring the whole world to a halt practically overnight—really drove me. I bought stamps and padded envelopes online so I would be able to do everything, including mail, right from my home.”
More Masks for Heroes
Gabriella Dupré and Family | Folsom, California
What started out as the Dupré family (featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Ukulele in an article about music in the schools) making a couple of masks has turned into a community based grassroots-from-the-heart movement to help protect heroes on the frontlines from the sidelines, dubbed “My Village People Masks.”
Gabriella: “On March 24, my oldest daughter and son-in-law, local ICU nurses, were in desperate need of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). They were asked to use one mask for their entire 12-hour shift and to recycle them daily. My younger daughters—Brigette and Suzette—and I dusted off our sewing machines to make masks. Our unique pattern includes multiple ways to tie with straps or elastic for comfort, and is designed to fit over an N95 mask and has a secret pocket to hold a Hepa filter for an added layer of protection. Both my husband, Rene, and my son, Dylan, jumped in to help with anything that didn’t require sewing.
“Requests for masks and friends wanting to help came in fast and furious. I recruited stitchers, material cutters, fabric washers, and ironers for a total of over 40 volunteers. Lowe’s Home Improvement donated a pallet of anti-viral HEPA filters to be used as inserts for each mask delivered. With great local support, we produced and delivered over 1,500 masks and produced 3,700 HEPA filters paired with each mask to hospital COVID units and adjoining departments, nurses, sheriff, police, firemen, essential workers in grocery stores, dentist offices, nursing homes, emergency home repair, and pharmacies, along with at-risk individuals and their families in eight states.”
Caring for the Elderly
Fred Altobellis | Wilmington, North Carolina
With his songbook in his lap, Fred regularly sits outside a locked gate to serenade his 96-year-old mother, who lives at the Commons at Brightmore nursing home in Wilmington, North Carolina. His favorite songs to sing are “Under the Boardwalk,” “Stand By Me,” “Aloha O’e,” and “Oh, Susanna.”
The Next Generation
Willow | Tucson, Arizona
Seven-year-old Willow began learning ukulele via private lessons as part of her transition to online learning when classrooms abruptly closed in March. She has mastered chord and rhythm basics and enjoys singing and playing her favorite songs: “Down in the Valley” and “You Are My Sunshine.” A voracious reader, she has sharpened her pencil to review News from Me, Lucy McGee, a children’s book about another young ukulele player.
“I liked the book. I thought Scarlett was mean. Lucy McGee, Phillip, and Resa were nice. It’s nice that they got to play the uke together. I would recommend this book to friends,” she writes.
The Lucy McGee fiction series by Mary Amato are fun books for children ages 7 to 10 about uke-playing kids who start a songwriting club. Uke-loving adults, however, will enjoy devouring them, too. Mary, herself an avid ukulele player and songwriting teacher, has filled her time capsule by finishing her next novel, to be released in 2021.
Our Man in Spain
Gerald Ross | Oviedo, Spain, and Lansing, Michigan
On March 1st, Gerald Ross accompanied his wife, University of Michigan Pulmonologist Margaret Gyetko, on a business trip to Oviedo, Spain, where Margaret was scheduled to collaborate with a university hospital. What was intended to be a cozy four-week stay in a tiny 250-square-foot flat became two months of sheltering in the center of a “hot zone.” He chronicled his sojourn on social media, posting his shopping, cooking, and ukulele adventures.
Gerald: “I always bring along a uke whether traveling to perform at a music festival or traveling for pleasure. For this trip I had my 2016 Hive Hornet tenor uke (low-G). I also had an iPad and a Zoom H6 handheld audio recorder. The combination of uke and the portable electronics gave me a complete audio/visual recording studio. Recording in a crowded city apartment building posed many challenges, most notably noise from my neighbors’ open windows. Instead of trying to silence the natural urban sounds, I decided to incorporate them as best I could. In one of the videos you can faintly hear the bells of the town’s cathedral in the background.
“I learned how to slow down and use the extended time to mindfully work on my projects. If a question or problem arose during recording or mixing, I would calmly take the time to research the issue online and not try to rush through and employ a band-aid solution. The same was true for learning new musical material. While on Spanish lockdown I learned the Duke Ellington tune ‘Jubilee Stomp’ note-for-note from the original recording. I did not ignore or fake the hard parts of the song. The hard parts are not so difficult when you approach them in an unrushed and calm fashion. I had the time.
“When we finally made it home after our flights were cancelled eight times, we were under 14 days of at-home quarantine. The ‘freedom’ of those 14 days was exhilarating, just being able to be outside on our deck and seeing the arrival of spring.
“Was my life enriched by this experience? Yes. Would I do it again? No.”
We Will Survive
McCabe’s Guitar Shop | Santa Monica, California
The reports of McCabe’s’ death are greatly exaggerated. In early June, the Los Angeles Times ran an article reporting the retirement of the venerable guitar shop’s long-time owners. Within hours, “McCabe’s Closing” trended on Twitter, and by sundown orders for T-shirts began flooding in. Koko Peterson laughed it off. “The way it sounded was so macabre… ‘Gone to a better place’… everyone wanted to make sure they had a little piece of it.”
In truth, the couple had been planning to pass the mantle to their daughter and son-in-law for some time, but the situation with COVID-19 increased the urgency. “The infusion of new life is more important than the changing of the guard. It’s a good sign—that there is a future,” says Koko, whose pre-shutdown job title had been Concert Director and Special Events Producer. “Now,” she laughs, “I am that plus Webmaster, Social Media Manager, and pretty much all things McCabe’s.” She detailed the shop’s efforts to jumpstart their online lessons, instrument listings, and concerts, while striving to maintain the magical McCabe’s intimacy that has made it a beacon for musicians and music lovers since 1958.
With live, in-person shows on hiatus until further notice, they are making the most of their archives, creating links to some of the historic live performances that have taken place on their intimate stage, which has been graced by ukulele luminaries including Del Rey, Jim Beloff, Janet Klein & Her Parlor Boys, Ian Whitcomb, Fred Sokolow, Herb Ohta, and Lyle Ritz. Plans for McUkeFest online for fall 2020 and in-person in 2021 are both in the works.
“McCabe’s has been burning for an update,” says Peterson. “For years we weathered changes by doing nothing and surviving—‘we’re still here.’ Now we have the chance to modernize, do things we have been meaning to do, bring things up to date. It’s good timing, even if it’s not.”
Compassion for All
Norine Dresser | Las Cruces, New Mexico
A member of Las Cruces Ukes, Norine’s response to the pandemic reflects the depth of both her humor and empathy. For comic relief, she has shared a parody song she wrote, the “COVID Quarantine Blues” on YouTube. For deeper comfort she has joined forces with “Ways of Peace,” an interfaith organization which has organized a 24-hour remote vigil for the dead. Volunteers take shifts and focus on the dead while saying prayers, reciting poems, reading literature, playing music, or remaining silent.
Norine: “Every night in Las Cruces, from 11 p.m. until midnight, I sing and play songs on my ukulele, keeping company with the bodies of all faiths as well as no faith. I visually focus on a sight that will never leave me: in New York City, large, white refrigerated trucks—temporary morgues crammed with bodies awaiting their final disposition. The thought of these lonely, crowded bodies fills me with great sadness. My house is quiet: the neighborhood has mostly gone to sleep. This remote vigil-keeping is a way to bear witness and extend ultimate kindness to all dead—near and far, whether named or unknown—and it satisfies my need to meaningfully participate in one of the most horrendous events of a lifetime.”
Really Big Mini Festivals
Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel | San Diego, California
Sarah: “Craig and I were sitting drinking our morning caffeinated beverages when Craig noticed that Lil’ Rev had made an incredible post about what it’s like to be a full-time musician during these hard times, watching your entire year of work vanish. We started reading about uke club members devastated that all their planning and work for these events were for naught. Craig looked at me and said, ‘Why don’t we do an online festival? But on a smaller scale—like a mini fest. We’ll have three or four artists, and it will be free and fun for folks.’ I dutifully sent out emails to a bunch of our friends and all of them wrote back saying they were in—so instead of just picking a few folks, we decided to embrace the larger event, knowing it would bring a lot of joy.”
Craig: “There was definitely way more prep work for this than anything else we’ve done so far. We found that play-alongs, workshops, and interview segments were amazing live, but for performances, it made it easier to have artists pre-record those segments. It also allowed us to have a quick bite or use the restroom, or check on baby Cameron—did we mention we did all this with a three-and-a-half-month-old?”
Sarah: “Because of the outpouring of support from our friends, it started to feel larger than life—like we were embarking on something that was much bigger than ourselves. It was truly a labor of love. The audience for both events was global—many from Australia woke up at 2 a.m. to join us! People shared so many sweet stories about how these events lifted their spirits and made them forget they were in quarantine. Some folks said they just kept it on all day and that the conversations made it feel like they had friends over. It was wonderful to be able to thank our community by helping them, when so many have helped us over the years.”
Lenny San Jose (AKA Ukulenny) | San Francisco, California
“I’ve been doing Zoom workshops all throughout our quarantine period. It’s crazy to say it, but it’s almost like I can feel the vibrations from the other ukuleles and voices from across the world! Just seeing everyone’s faces singing and jamming along brings me joy, and the support of the ukulele community has been incredible, especially in these tough times.
“My favorite things about Zoom are the versatile screen-share options, the ability to switch cameras and audio (Zoom is really versatile if you’re using multiple sources), and the easy streaming capability to Facebook, YouTube, and many other platforms. I love using it to host open mics and showcases, and it has the capability to feel like a radio show or a talk show, presenting multiple artists in the same room.”
LENNY’S ZOOM TIPS
- When leading a song, everyone else should be muted.
To avoid feedback or echoes, train your fellow ukulele players to mute themselves.
- Learn to mute everyone—find it in the “Participants” tab or use the shortcut: (Alt+M / Cmd+Ctrl+M).
- To facilitate conversations, assign a moderator to mute and unmute people who want to speak. Having a few co-hosts is a great way to share the responsibility!
- Encourage folks to use the chat window
- Polls are a great way to get input from your community. You can prepare them in advance and see live results when you activate them.
- Zoombombing is real! Use security features to prevent unwanted visitors from joining your jam.
- Only publish meeting IDs and passwords to secure locations (email or private FB group, as opposed to public posts)
- Use the “waiting room” so you can at least see the names of folks who are coming in (and encourage participants to use real names as they log on)
SOUND YOUR BEST
- In audio settings, “Enable Original Sound”
- Disable “Auto Adjust Volume” and both “Background Noise” settings (advanced tab)
- Use a USB mic or interface for best results
- Use headphones! If your speakers are on, they can feed back or cause noise cancellation issues.
- Do a soundcheck with a friend or group. Sound can get pretty wonky on these internet platforms and it definitely helps to practice.
- Click “Gallery View” to see everyone strumming at the same time. So fun!
- The “Spotlight” feature is a great way to highlight someone teaching or performing. This affects everyone’s view, versus “pin video,” which affects only your individual view.
- Use “Share Screen” to display chord charts. Participants on the other end have control of how big or small the window is, so don’t worry if you think your window is too small.
- To share audio from your computer, click “share computer sound” in the “Share Screen” dialog, or go to the advanced tab to share audio without sharing your screen