Although Portuguese in origin, the ukulele is most associated with Hawaii, where it was introduced in the late 1870s and became an immediate hit. But it has its fans all across the globe.
While the instrument’s popularity declined in the second half of the 20th century, it began a rebirth in the 1990s, partially due to the rise in social media, giving aficionados a chance to connect and expand their base.
Sandy O’Shea frequently serves as an instructor for those wishing to learn the instrument through the Arlington County government’s 55+ programs. Most months, classes are held the first and third Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m.
Attendees can bring their own instruments, although several are available to borrow.
The Sun Gazette recently checked in with O’Shea for her thoughts on the ukulele and those who love it.
What first drew you to the ukulele as a musical instrument, and what led you to want to teach it to others?
I had been taking piano lessons, but wanted an instrument to travel with, so I was looking at travel guitars, but didn’t like how they fit my hand. I came across a baritone ukulele, which is strung like a guitar and started learning to play.
First I took some lessons at the local Music and Arts, then found a Northern Virginia ukulele club. My piano teacher passed away, so ukulele became my primary instrument. I was retired and looking at getting more involved, so I signed up for James Hill’s Ukulele Institute, which taught using music theory through the ukulele. It is a three-year certification program that included written and performance tests.
I have met so many folks who love the ukulele, and I love sharing my love of the instrument. I have my own club now, Ukes Springfield. We meet once a month at various libraries in Fairfax County.
Are there any common threads among the people who come to learn?
Most folks are just interested in trying their hand on a simple instrument that they can strum and sing. They have curiosity and love music.
How long does it take for the typical person to master various levels of proficiency?
In an hour I can teach a simple two-chord song and have them singing along. The next lesson is to add two chords to the ones they already know, now they can play quite a few songs. To get truly proficient, it can take a lifetime. (Still working on that!)
Do you believe everyone has at least some musical talent in them?
Yes, I do. Some folks catch on quickly, others take a bit longer. A lot depends if they pick up the music after a class and try playing it a couple of times. I tell people that I am not truly talented, I am just very stubborn and don’t give up. I practiced for more than two hours a day when I started. (More when I took the James Hill classes.) Practice does make perfect.
If someone wanted to take up an instrument like ukulele but was hesitant, what would your 30-second “elevator speech” to convince them sound like?
I get asked all the time if it’s too late to start learning an instrument. My answer has always been, “It’s only too late if you never start.”