Too old for Rock Camp. Too lame for Guitar Workshop. Not talented, invited or naked enough to join The Sticky. My chances of making music with others are looking imaginary, at best, which makes sense given that I can’t play any of my guitars—bass, acoustic, classical or electric—at all.
And then it happens. The hushed rumors about Candyman’s summer Ukelele Club transmute into cold, hard—every Saturday for the next five weeks—fact when bass/guitar/ukelele teacher (and boyfriend) extraordinaire, Ross Hamlin, posts a Facebook announcement claiming it’s on and he’s facilitating.
I have a ukulele, I think. I can even play it—sort of—well, enough to stumble my way through one Lykke Li song and Radiohead’s “Creep,” which has been begging for a ukulele cover ever since Prince took the guitar version to un-toppable levels at Coachella back in ’08.
In! I post.
I fantasize about merit badges, secret handshakes and being club superstar—strumming complex chords, plucking nuanced melodies and leading the smiling, brotherly lot of us in brilliant renditions of classic rock anthems, reimagined for our four, perfectly harmonized strings.
I forget that the reason I picked up the ukulele in the first place is because my gymnastics-ravaged wrist, deformed and spastic from multiple operations and years of atrophy, isn’t agile enough to handle six strings and the varying chord positions they require. I forget that while I’ve been practicing “Creep’s” four simple chords for over a week, I’ve still yet to make it through the song without huge gaps between strums during which I (try to) force my fingers into chord-like shapes. I forget that I’m a musical retard.
I’m late for the first club meeting, which is being held in an upstairs rehearsal room at the (thankfully) air-conditioned music store. Luckily, Hamlin is still copying chord charts, so I drag a folding chair into the semicircle the other five other club members have made and go about fitting in. As I untangle my uke from the canvas grocery bag I use to transport it, I notice the others have cases for theirs. They all have chromatic tuners attached to their instruments, too, and are dutifully twisting and turning knobs while plucking—tuning, as we musicians say.
There are two middle-aged women, two college-aged men and a child and me dappling incongruous demographic space between them. The child’s uke is fancy and electric. Mine’s cheap and common, but comparison is low vibration and useless, as well as an ineffective social strategy when galvanizing a new club, so I stop myself and go about twisting and plucking my own knobs, pretending I can hear the subtle differences in tone that would allow me to tune my instrument.
By the end of Ukelele Club: Day One, I’m not the club superstar, but I’m not the club retard either. I keep up easily, strum my chords with confidence, switch between them with grace and don’t humiliate myself.
Ukulele Club rocks.
We all leave with homework—tablature for “Love Me Tender” and the Jeopardy theme song—and instructions to practice. But, after confusing Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” melody with “Aura Lee” (which I later find out are the same), I convince myself I don’t know the song, and give up.
I was great last week, I rationalize. I had no trouble with any of the exercises Hamlin gave us. I don’t need to practice. I’m a natural.
I’m on time for Club meeting number two, which means I’m ahead of the game. What we’ve lost in college boys, we’ve made up for in real musicians. Alice and Sam have clearly been practicing, and are noodling the Jeopardy theme like they’re the game show house band. Suddenly, I’m the only one in the club who can’t read music, who doesn’t know dick about half notes and stops, and isn’t grocking any of the chicken-scratchy symbols Hamlin writes on the whiteboard. We launch into “Love Me Tender,” and I completely spaz out. I make sounds when no one else is. I strum upwards when the rest of the club strums down. We go around our semicircle taking turns plucking melodies to a backbeat the rest of us strum. I can’t find the notes, can’t keep the beat, can’t not humiliate myself.
Ukelele Club sucks.
Hamlin tells us to strum a B-something. I fail to convince my first finger to effectively hold down the three bottom strings. Meghan—of the fancy eight-stringed uke—advises using my second finger OVER my first for extra strength. Mikey suggests I make micro-adjustments to my finger pad until I find the right combination of flesh to string pressure. Suddenly, I forget to care whether I’m club dunce or club superstar, that I can barely keep a beat and strum up instead of down, because I’m part of a club wherein it doesn’t matter who’s the best and who’s the worst, all that matters is that we’re having fun playing our ukuleles together.
Ukelele Club rocks.