Meet the strummers [video by Rod J. Eckrich]


Ukulele Strummers find harmony at the Lincoln Center

For Shirley Novak, it began with an ad.

Shirley grew up surrounded by music, so the blurb in the newspaper about evening ukulele classes piqued her interest. She and her husband decided to give them a whirl, and a musical love affair began. The discovery of kindred spirits followed.

Tucked away at the Lincoln Center in Highland, the Just for Fun Ukulele Strummers gather every Wednesday morning to harmonize for two hours. The sounds of paradise resound. The four-stringed ukulele, with its calming tones, evokes a landscape of swaying palm trees and smiling natives.

It's not a difficult instrument to learn, which is part of its attraction. The Ukulele Strummers consist mostly of people who are a little bit older, although everyone is welcome to join. The group's catalogue bursts with songs from multiple genres – from modern tunes to classics. With only four strings, one can learn four chords and gain the key to playing more than 300 songs.

The ukulele is so easy to pick up that lessons aren't absolutely necessary, according to Shirley, who has been leading the Ukulele Strummers for six years and is self-taught, like most members of the group.

The instrument is small enough to be transported anywhere. The different types include soprano; baritone; concert; banjouk, a cross between a banjo and ukulele; tenor; and jenny cutaways. And some ukuleles can be hooked up to amplifiers.

When the players get together in the morning, they usually kick off the proceedings with a patriotic anthem. A medley of tunes follows: Hawaiian songs, country ditties and standards along with solos of songs such as "Til There Was You" from the musical "The Music Man."

In between songs, Shirley delivers one-liners to nurture a jovial mood. Sometimes, the get-togethers are recorded so Shirley can monitor the performances and look for ways to improve. Recordings also help the group learn new songs.

One Wednesday morning, the group rehearsed for a wedding of a member’s grandson. The strummers tweaked some of the songs to include the names of the bride and groom, ensuring a distinctive and meaningful reception.

The group ventures out into the area perform. Members plucked the strings at 30 gigs last year, entertaining crowds at festivals, members of historical societies, suit and ties at a homeowners association and gatherings of church groups. Children in the room across the hall at the Lincoln Center have wandered in and enjoyed such songs as "You Are My Sunshine" and "On Top of Spaghetti."

The group this year played for Alzheimer’s patients at St Anthony Medical Center in Crown Point, and its performance earned Shirley a hearty hug from a nurse. When the strummers play, joy bounces around the room, and a sense of family infuses their surroundings. Shirley said the biggest reward is seeing the smiles in an audience.

Members of the group come from all corners of the region, including across the state line from Lansing and Chicago. An average of about 18 to 20 members practice at one time, and as many as 16 members go to performances.

For more information about the Just for Fun Ukulele Strummers, call Shirley Novak at (219) 696-8301.