TORONTO – After eyeing her son’s ukulele with a mix of curiosity and trepidation, music lover Shelly Steele couldn’t resist the urge to pick it up.
It immediately felt good in her small hands, and the narrow neck, short frets and four strings were easily covered by her inexperienced fingers.
Things felt much different than her clumsy attempts to handle a guitar, or even the flute she was assigned in high school decades ago. At age 42, Steele finally found the invigorating hobby that could unleash the latent musician inside her.
This is no kitschy fad, the school teacher insists, pointing to an explosion of uke-focused activity in her hometown of Guelph, Ont., which includes sing-a-long pub jams and a ukulele festival at the end of September.
“Anybody that I know that is my age, they’re picking up the ukulele. They’re not picking up other instruments to learn as kind of their instrument of choice,” says Steele, wife to a drummer and mother to two music-loving kids.
Indeed, the ukulele craze is proving to be an enduring phenomenon that’s here to stay, thanks in part to famous devotees including Taylor Swift, Eddie Vedder, Train and Jason Mraz, whose recent releases have helped revamp the four-string’s image from twee novelty to bona fide musical instrument.
Its embrace by school music programs hasn’t hurt, nor has its relatively affordable cost, with lower-end models starting at around $40.
Guitar salesman Matt McKenna has seen the ukulele phenomenon translate into consistent sales at Toronto’s downtown Long & McQuade location. He says a surge in interest about seven years ago “hasn’t dwindled at all,” with sales this past Christmas hovering around 600 ukes.
“Trends go up and down. We were expecting at some point there would be a little less interest, but it seems to be gaining interest,” says McKenna, who adds his shop carries 50 to 60 different varieties.
“It’s almost like it’s a cult, I guess. But a very a positive one, because people generally have great fun playing it.”
Today, a newbie can find a slew of feel-good uke circles across the country where newcomers can learn chords and build a repertoire with like-minded pals at a pub, senior’s centre or community hall.
A big driver is the social connections that this quirky instrument can quickly forge, says Toronto uke fan Steve McNie, who launched a weekly pub gathering in Toronto eight years ago that has expanded to twice-weekly strum sessions in two separate venues.
“People are looking for person-to-person human engagement at a time when we’re so fixed on our screens and with our digital lives,” says McNie, who is organizing a ukulele festival in Toronto for mid-June.
“People crave opportunities to become part of a community that provides human interaction.”
And for those adults and seniors looking to pick up an instrument later in life, a brightly coloured ukulele can certainly seem less intimidating than the piano, or even guitar.
Longtime music teacher Elaine Rusk of the Royal Conservatory of Music is glad to see the trend, noting that adults who dive into music lessons give both their brains and their mood a powerful boost.
She says adult learners have been a consistent cohort in the conservatory’s examination program, although children still make up the vast majority at well over 90 per cent. The conservatory does not have an exam program for the ukulele, but does offer classes.
“My own experience teaching and working with adult learners at all levels is that they’ve made a choice to do this and they tend to be very passionate and committed and receive great joy out of even the smallest achievements,” says Rusk.
But adult learners can be impatient, she notes, and many are nervous, especially when they take exams. Kids, in contrast, are used to being in a learning environment and bounce back from mistakes.
“(Adults) have very high expectations and you often spend time reminding them that it’s a process,” says Rusk, whose adult students are most interested in piano, followed by voice, guitar, violin, flute and cello.
“You have to train the fingers to work independently in a way that they haven’t done before, perhaps. Or not for a long time.”
Steele is largely self-taught, having gleaned some techniques from a plethora of online tutorials. But she’s also taken advantage of the ukulele workshops at a local bar and weekly jams at a friend’s house, where her husband builds on his burgeoning banjo skills and another friend works on learning to play the fiddle.
“Sometimes they’re epic fails and sometimes they’re wonderful musical pieces that we can play together. But it’s always just fun.”