By Annemarie Brissenden
It’s hard to feel sad when playing a ukulele.
“Everyone feels good when they play the music,” laughs Sarah Bradley, a branch head librarian with the Toronto Public Library (TPL). She and her colleagues have been running a ukulele program at the Lillian H. Smith branch at College Street and Spadina Avenue that is proving surprisingly popular.
“We want to be completely accessible and welcoming”—Sarah Bradley, TPL branch head
The drop-in program runs once a month on Wednesday evenings, and is open to people of all ages and all abilities.
Bradley says she doesn’t mind if people show up with their instrument in an unopened cardboard box (which has happened); those leading the class are happy to help unpack the ukulele, tune it, and launch someone on their musical journey.
“We want to be completely accessible and welcoming,” she says.
Although ukuleles aren’t expensive — they are available for as little as $30 — the library also provides a few for use during the class. Bradley is also keen to spread the word about the new instrument-lending program, which is run out of the Parkdale branch.
Ukuleles are a bit trendy at the moment, so there are several drop-in programs throughout the city, but few are designed to get a budding musician going from zero to strumming in an hour or less, and without cost.
“It’s hard to find places where you can learn for free,” notes Bradley.
The August drop-in was reflective of a typical night. The evening begins as participants — ranging from 8 to 80 — unpack their instruments and get tuning. Once everyone has their instrument tuned, many with the help of library staff, Bradley reviews the basics: how to hold the instrument, how to strum, where to place one’s fingers, and a few standard chords. Then the group progresses to playing songs very quickly, tackling everything from “You are My Sunshine” to “This Land is Your Land” to “The Adams Family”.
Ivy, who uses a branch instrument throughout the session, during which she has picked up the ukulele for the first time, says she came to see what it was all about.
With little or no musical background, she’s thinking of purchasing her own ukulele.
“It’s good for the well-being of a senior to learn an instrument,” says Ivy, adding she will be back.
Siblings Aiden, 12, and Andie, 8, have fun sharing a branch ukulele throughout the drop-in. It’s their first time playing the small stringed instrument, though both play the piano and the recorder.
“It’s a bit challenging, changing hand positions,” says Andie.
Ian, who plays guitar but has only been playing ukulele for about a month, brought his tenor ukulele. Slightly longer than the standard uke, it has a deeper tone that adds a richer sound to the music that results when the budding musicians start to play in sync.
As Bradley leads, she picks like a professional, even though she has only been playing for six months. She started in order to participate in the program, and credits her musical background along with the versatility of the instrument for gaining a familiarity with it so easily.
“The ukulele is one of the most welcoming instruments,” explains Adam Platek, a music teacher at King Edward Jr. and Sr. Public School, who has also held ukulele jams in Seaton Village during the annual Open Tuning festival. “Once you learn three or four chords, you can play hundreds of songs.
“It is diminutive, but very powerful.”
Platek introduces students to the ukulele early, sometimes as early as grades four or five, as it prepares them for learning the guitar in later grades.
“It starts them on their musical road,” he says, “and it’s an instrument that they can carry for the rest of their lives.”
“Kids are drawn to it at a young age,” agrees Bradley, who practises with her 9-year-old nephew on a ukulele she has borrowed from her 12-year-old.
Both she and Platek encourage anyone interested in picking up an instrument to consider the ukulele.
“It’s really affordable, easy to learn, and with very little you can do a lot,” says Platek. “If anyone is interested in learning music at all, the uke is the best instrument to start on.”
The TPL’s Lillian H. Smith branch fall programming schedule is still being organized, but will be posted on the events section of the branch’s website once finalized.
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