by ALEXANDRA RETTER
At a Monday rehearsal, the Driftless Ukes sing about staying inside on a rainy day and pretending it’s the weekend. The members of the ukulele group at the Winona Friendship Center finish playing Jack Johnson’s “Banana Pancakes,” then shift to a new genre and rehearse Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me.” They laugh with one another between songs and enthusiastically chat about what to play next. “Playing the ukulele together … transcends just playing an instrument. It transcends singing. It becomes something greater and different,” Driftless Ukes member Kelley Stanage said. She continued, “It’s really uplifting. I leave after playing ukulele and I am just up, no matter what I felt like when I sat down.”
Ukulele groups have inviting atmospheres, Stanage and her sister Ruthe Batulis said. “People who play it welcome new people all the time, and I think that’s why you have so many groups popping up everywhere,” Batulis said. In Driftless Ukes, Stanage and fellow group member Rex Dodson would help newcomers learn how to play a few chords before rehearsal officially began.
In addition to the warm environments of ukulele groups, the instrument itself is quite affordable, and it is relatively simple to pick up how to play one, Stanage and Batulis noted. “It’s a really unpretentious little instrument,” Stanage said.
The unassuming ukulele opens the door to a wide world of music, however, Stanage, Batulis and Dodson agreed. “All you need is three chords, and you can play thousands of songs,” Stanage said.
Exposure to music may benefit one’s health, Batulis said. Music has a positive impact on the brains of older adults, she continued. She noted that those with dementia whom she has played for remember the words to vintage songs, for instance.
There are still some challenging parts of learning how to play the instrument, Dodson and Batulis said. Keeping a less expensive ukulele tuned may be tricky, Dodson said. Those who have not played an instrument much before have to learn about staying on beat, fingering chords correctly and strumming, Batulis said.
However, one can make playing less complicated with simply strumming chords or finger picking the instrument’s strings, Stanage explained. “There’s just this whole spectrum of simple to really complex [techniques],” she said.
Driftless Ukes practices at the Friendship Center currently. The group began about two years ago when it decided to start rehearsing at various members’ homes. When about 26 people attended, group members decided they needed a bigger space. One suggested they meet at the Friendship Center. The Friendship Center agreed, and the group has met there ever since, with the exception of a period during the pandemic.
While unable to meet in person, group members were not able to play together online successfully either. Only one person can play at a time via video conferencing, Stanage said. “There’s a little bit of a time lag that throws it off,” Dodson said.
Along with the technological difficulties, playing alone is not as enjoyable as playing in a group, Stanage said. “Playing ukulele or playing almost any instrument and singing for me is a communal thing,” she said.
Now that group members have been able to play together in person again for about five weeks, they are appreciating the opportunity they have to spend time with one another while sharing their love of music. “There is just something really uplifting about playing music with other people,” Stanage said.
During the pandemic, Batulis has found it difficult to keep up with creative work such as quilting. She has played the ukulele for several hours each day, though. “And so that got me through COVID,” she said. The ukulele has also helped Stanage during the pandemic. She spent time on making a case for her instrument with a white cover and red lining.
Driftless Ukes members would like to perform for those in senior living facilities in the future. They would welcome new members, as well. Those interested may contact the Friendship Center.