When ukulele teacher Kevin McCabe led a class at The Terraces at Los Altos last week, his senior students hit a trend head-on: The tiny instrument once strummed by Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe has become something of a hipster sensation.
For the senior set, classes are, by nature, social enterprises. Last week at The Terraces three residents and one enlisted reporter divided up the chords of “Aloha ‘Oe” and, together, fleshed out a song as uke rookies. When Gwen Farey, Barbara Woods and Libby Stager struck a chord last week, they were building on a lifetime of musical experiences. Although I may have mastered a G chord, I found my ability to keep time sadly outshined.
Making sweet music
When the ukulele evolved from a Portuguese instrument, the four-stringed strummers had been built to travel. An 1879 edition of the Hawaiian Gazette referred to “strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music.”
Ukes seem almost custom-made for hands with changing strength and flexibility. Players can cradle the instrument in various positions, and McCabe introduced styles of strumming that might suit fingers and thumbs with differing ranges of mobility.
McCabe teaches afterschool programs and at senior communities. Although he comes from three generations of banjo players, he moonlighted in the tech field during more than a decade of his musical career.
“I worked in software for many years at NASA,” McCabe said. “But when I stayed home to take care of my kids, I started the Saratoga Music Academy.”
Why start teaching the ukulele, out of all the larger instruments with more, perhaps, gravitas?
“It’s nice and small – because it’s not heavy, it’s accessible and soothing,” McCabe said. “They’re relatively inexpensive, and you can almost take it as a given that every house has one.”
When a student of any age picks up a ukulele, there are some eccentricities to allow for. The four strings are often tuned in a surprising order, with the outer two higher on the scale than the center two, rather than a steadily rising sequence from low to high pitch.
For arthritic knuckles, the ukelele’s soft nylon strings don’t present too dire a workout, and players can experiment with different ways to hold and strum the instrument, customized to every physique.
Seniors can spread the ukulele across a family, playing with grandchildren. All generations benefit from the math behind the music – practicing the mind-body connection encoded in notation hones timing as well as tuning. Music might soothe the soul, but it also sharpens the brain.
“This focuses on the intellectual component of the whole-person wellness we do here,” said Cathy Jensen, director of resident services at The Terraces.
The music class is part of The Terraces’ larger life-quality initiative, which promotes “aging successfully” through activities that range from the spiritual to the physical.