Libraries branch out with ukulele lessons

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Robert Friedman

Howard County libraries are now lending out ukuleles and will soon be offering lessons.

The Howard County Library is offering its card-carrying members a chance to pluck along with what appears to be a comeback for the ukulele.

Since July 1, the county’s four full-time operating libraries have made learn-it-yourself ukulele kits available for three-week loans. The libraries now taking part in the program include Miller in Ellicott City, Central in Columbia, Savage in Laurel, and Glenwood in the western part of the county. Each branch is lending out six kits, which include the instrument, a tuner and a case.

While lessons are available online through ArtistWorks.com, the library system will also start to roll out classes in the fall for all ages, “from 6 to 99-plus,” said Jessica Landolt, children’s instructor and research specialist for the county’s library system.

She said the coming classes will cover everything you always wanted to know about the uke — from how to play the instrument and its basic chords, to how to care for it, to its history and cultural impact. The last of the four classes for teens and adults will feature a short concert by the then-proficient students, Landolt added.

Easy to learn

She noted that most people are impressed by how much they can learn about playing the four-stringed instrument in a comparatively short time.

“The ukulele is probably one of the most accessible musical instruments for children and adults alike,” she said. “The chords can be easily learned.

“You can start playing songs with just two chords. Many pop and rock songs can be played with four chords. And you don’t need large hands for the stringboard,” Landolt said.

The “intergenerational classes,” she said, will afford a great opportunity for children, parents and grandparents to learn together and jam.   

The class schedule and other information about the program will be posted in the coming weeks on the HClibrary.com website.  

Ukulele lore

In the late 19th century, the ukulele was brought by Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii, where it became an integral part of the culture. The Hawaiian name for the instrument supposedly means, in a rough translation, “jumping flea” — a description of the players’ fingers flying over the strings. 

The instrument started to become popular on U.S. college campuses in the 1920s, and was “discovered” by Tin Pan Alley to accompany such vocalists as Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.

Veteran TV viewers may recall the early television host Arthur Godfrey, dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, giving ukulele lessons to millions of his viewers in the 1950s. Plastic ukes could be bought at the time for $5.95, and Godfrey is credited for selling 9 million of them.  

The instrument was strummed out of wide popularity by the rock and roll of the electronic guitar. In fact, it became something of a joke in the late 1960s, when the one — some may say, thank God — and only Tiny Tim, played it on “Laugh In” as he sang “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

But over the last 20 years, the instrument has started to experience another comeback, partly due to Hawaiian ukulele players Israel “Brother Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro.

Brother Iz’s medley of “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” sold more than a million CDs in the U.S., and Shimabukuro’s ukulele version of Beatle George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became one of the first YouTube videos to go viral. Harrison was also a uke player and admirer.   

Since 2013, there has been a more than 50 percent jump in sales of ukuleles, according to the National Association of Music Merchants, and ukulele festivals have recently cropped up around the country, from Reno, Nev. to Rockville, Md.

Uke lending programs similar to the one in Howard County are being carried out at public libraries across the country, according to Landolt.

The ukulele kits may be checked out up to three times by borrowers. According to Landolt, it probably won’t take longer than a week for beginners to get hooked on the instrument.

She has been strumming the ukulele since her third-grade days, 25 years ago in her native Guam. “I still garner a lot of joy from playing the ukulele,” she said. “It’s fun, it’s soothing — and it reminds me of home.”

“Music programs are being phased out in some public schools, which means that some kids will never have exposure to playing a musical instrument,” Landolt lamented.

She agreed that the role of public libraries has been changing over the past several years. Which leaves an observer to wonder whether libraries could take up the slack and become the new training ground for future musicians.