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Strumming up fun

Ukulele Kollective offers monthly sessions

Courtesy photo Fourth grade students at McAuliffe Heights play ukuleles during a music class as part of a pilot program.

Stephanie Pardee of Altoona surprised herself at a recent ukulele jam at ArtsAltoona. As she strummed and sang, her smiles increased.

“I wasn’t expecting to pick it up so quickly,” she said with a beaming smile. Pardee and friend Matt Cain of Altoona spent an hour “jamming” with Allegheny Ukulele Kollective members Mike Holzer of Altoona and Diane Albert of Bedford.

Holzer provided Pardee and Cain with brief instructions accompanied by a simple drawing of each note on a white board and demonstrated how to strum the four-string instrument.

Holzer said the pleasure of playing and singing along with others reinforces success and delight. Even new ukulele players with no musical background find success fairly quickly.

The Allegheny Ukulele Kollective is beginning to play again after being largely silenced by the pandemic. The session attended by Cain and Pardee was the first held at ArtsAltoona with “jam sessions” scheduled from 2 to 4 p.m. the second Sunday of each month. It is hoped when the weather warms, the sessions will move outside.

The quartet strummed and sang through Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising,” The Crystals/Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Do Ron Ron,” Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving On a Jet Plane” and the classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

A nonprofit organization founded in 2010, The Kollective’s mission is “dedicated to strengthening public access to, knowledge of, and enjoyment of music by offering experiences that celebrate all things ukulele.” Holzer serves as president and “chief ukulele evangelist” for the group.

The Kollective has a mailing list of 1,000 members throughout the region with partner groups in State College and Johnstown, and a core group of about 20.

“It can be very intimidating to learn a new instrument especially if you’ve never played in your life. We try to get across that the ukulele is a real instrument, but it’s not intimidating. There’s not a lot of ego involved, and it’s not a toy,” Holzer said. The group has ukuleles available for participants to use at the Sunday sessions at ArtsAltoona.

Beginners welcome

The ukulele is user-friendly, affordable and approachable to beginners, Holzer said. “I can teach three to five chords, and you can play all kinds of music. Depending on how far you want to take it, you can accompany yourself or compose intricate instrumental pieces.”

At a “jam,” they use songbooks, take turns leading the song and playing together for the sheer enjoyment and camaraderie.

The enthusiasts are gearing up for its ninth annual Allegheny Ukulele Soiree to be held April 29 to May 1 at the Altoona Grand Hotel. Described as Pennsylvania’s longest running ukulele festival, the soiree brings top talent in the world of ukulele to instruct and perform in an immersive weekend experience.

After a pandemic-induced two-year hiatus, Holzer said, the group is offering a “hybrid” experience in an effort to bring ukulele music back.

Albert, who plays the cello professionally in various pit orchestras, said playing the ukulele “is pure fun for me.” She joined the Kollective after attending a soiree and hearing about the ukulele enthusiasts from her longtime friend Melanie Ramsey, a classically trained violist with the Altoona Symphony Orchestra and outreach coordinator for the Kollective.

When Ramsey was with the Hollidaysburg Area Public Library, a patron donated a ukulele so she learned two chords to play an opening tune to begin children’s story time. In 2014, Holzer contacted her, and the Allegheny Ukes held a concert and a “petting zoo” where attendees could try the ukuleles.

“It was so successful, it became a regular thing,” Ramsey said. “The Ukesters came and played at the symphony’s annual outdoor summer concert at Canal Basin Park.”

At a jam session, Allegheny Ukulele Kollective provides binders song chords and words. Before each song, Holzer demonstrates each new chord and writes it on a white board.

“In a group, it’s very comfortable,” Ramsey said, “you look at the chord and hold your fingers in the right place. You don’t have to learn a whole new language.”

The Kollective recently partnered with the Altoona Area School District Foundation to pilot a ukulele program at McAuliffe Heights Elementary School.

Scott Pappal, elementary band director, credited Holzer with expanding the elementary music program to include ukuleles.

“We’ve had a ukulele program at the junior high level for three to four years, and I wanted to expand the musical offerings at the elementary school level,” Pappal said.

The elementary program started in mid-January and is paid for through a grant from the Altoona Area School District Foundation, which is matched by the Allegheny Ukulele Kollective. The Kollective also helped secure better pricing on the instruments through its relationship with Ohana Ukuleles, a ukulele manufacturer in Long Beach, Calif.

“Mike’s been very generous with his time on multiple days to teach me the terminology and provide me with mini lessons,” Pappal said, explaining he stays about a week ahead in his learning before teaching it to 120 fourth and fifth graders in their music classes.

“They have really done a wonderful thing for the kids,” Pappal said. “I’m just their guide. I’m open and honest with the kids that I’m learning, too. So far, the kids love it and are picking it up shockingly fast.”

The students and attendees at the second Sunday jam sessions at ArtsAltoona find joy in collaborative music-making, Ramsey said. Participants of varying skill levels play the same music together, which is different from playing in an orchestra where each instrument plays its part and each member has trained for years to attain high proficiency.

“There are more opportunities for beginners to contribute to the mix,” Ramsey said. “Ukesters come in all ages and from all backgrounds and interests. There’s just something wonderful about playing and singing together.”

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