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December 7, 2012
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Local group brings 'ukes' to life

Given the song's ubiquity, it wasn't wholly unusual to hear "Brown Eyed Girl" while walking through a hallway at Tahoe Senior Plaza Wednesday.

What was unusual about the Van Morrison staple was the tone it took while emanating from the center's recreation room - in that it was being played on half a dozen ukuleles.

Meet Ukuleles of Tahoe, a group of South Shore residents who gather at least twice a month to practice songs on the diminutive, four-stringed instrument with Hawaiian roots. The informal group formed about three years ago.

"It's a casual instrument and we're a casual group," said South Shore resident Mary Lou Whitcomb, who planted the seeds of the "uke" troupe with an email to friends after a trip to the islands.

Whitcomb - who had played the ukulele as a teenager, but put it down for years - brought a ukulele back from the seven-week trip after being able to soak up a series of free lessons. Starting off with three local ukulele enthusiasts, the group has grown to include eight people who regularly meet to refine their playing abilities, but don't take themselves too seriously.

Member Karen Miner said she and her husband, Jeff, started playing the instrument after buying one at a fundraiser on a whim.

"We never even thought of playing it," Miner said. "It's just kind of cute."

But the decoration came to life after the Miners' heard about other players in the area.

"It was just fun," Karen Miner said about playing the ukulele.

"And it was doable," Jeff Miner added, noting the instrument's four strings are intuitive for people who are not trained in music.

Members of the group list artists who played the ukulele, like Don Ho and Harry Belafonte, as influences, but also marvel at modern-day virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro and Brittni Paiva.

Although considered a novelty at times in its history, the ukulele is going through a renaissance, with Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder putting out an album based entirely around the instrument and popular actress and musician Zooey Deschanel taking up the cause. Shimabukuro's and Paiva's YouTube videos have racked up millions of hits.

The growth of the instrument can also be seen on a regional level, with the Annual Reno Ukulele Festival adding an extra day in 2013. The festival runs April 11-14 and several members of Ukuleles of Tahoe beamed when discussing the upcoming event, billed as "24,000 square feet of ukulele bliss."

Ukuleles of Tahoe does hold occasional performances outside of the practice room, including this summer's Great Gatsby Festival. The group laughed at receiving a couple dollars from onlookers after leaving a ukulele case open during the festival.

The group usually performs classic pop songs, but they were working through several tropical numbers this week in preparation for an event at Heavenly Village.

A nationwide community of ukulele players exists and the local group will occasionally get a visiting ukulele player who sees an announcement of the group's regular practice and sits in. They are always open to new players, regardless of skill level, member Penny Fairfield said.

"We mentor beginning people and we encourage them to come," Fairfield said.

Sharing the love of the ukulele is a big part of the group's existence.

"Music is fun," Jeff Miner said. "That's why people do it."

For more information, contact Fairfield at pennyfairfield@bmwmotorcycletech.info.


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Dec 7, 2012 09:06PM Published Dec 7, 2012 08:58PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.