It’s been almost a year since Bev Watson was grounded by the global pandemic.
The Air Canada flight attendant is trying not to feel low about not flying high in the skies. So she’s put the year to some good use, exercising, keeping up her French-language skills — a requirement for her job — and learning new activities.
Her latest is the ukulele, and Watson is among the growing number of people around the world who are trying out the four-stringed strummer that has become synonymous with Hawaiian luaus. These days, it’s being played by artists on the pop charts, such as Billie Eilish, Vance Joy and Jason Mraz, but it’s made an impression in the movies too.
"I remember years ago when I watched The Jerk, and Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sang this lovely little tune," Watson says of Tonight You Belong To Me, featured in the 1979 comedy. "I remember thinking, ‘Some day I’m going to take up the ukulele and I’m going to sing that song.’ It’s just a beautiful little song."
Sherri Garrity Begalke, a consultant who helps people manage change, says picking up the ukulele is part of an annual plan she follows. Every winter she learns something new.
"I like to be a beginner and try things, because it takes you out of your comfort zone," she says. "I’ve never had any opportunity till now to try playing any musical instruments. Why don’t I try this?
"There’s no time like a pandemic to try something new."
Both are students of Kate Ferris, who began teaching the ukulele in 2012. She held group ukulele classes for about 20 or 30 people of varying skill levels prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 put a full stop to in-person lessons for large groups.
She feared the worst.
"Last year, I saw more and more cancellations of gigs. I thought, ‘This is it; I don’t know what am I going to do now,’ and instead I’ve got more students than I ever had. I’m quite amazed," she says. "This year I have 75 students."
Virtual lessons via video-conferencing app allowed people beyond the Perimeter to take Ferris’s classes. She has many budding ukulelists from rural Manitoba who would be unwilling to make trips to Winnipeg for lessons, and she’s also teaching students from across Canada and the United States during her classes.
"There are no borders with Zoom," she says.
The ukulele’s pandemic popularity is due largely to the instrument’s simplicity. The four-stringer is so easy to learn that Ferris teaches students their first chord shortly after introducing herself.
"(The note) C is a one-finger chord. You put that finger on the third fret of the first string and you’re playing a chord," she says. "Think about how many songs are played with just three chords, so it doesn’t take too long."
Ukuleles are small and cheap — Ferris says you can get started with a $75 version — compared to other instruments that can be pricey ornaments if students lose interest.
“Last year, I saw more and more cancellations of gigs. I thought, ‘This is it; I don’t know what am I going to do now,’ and instead I’ve got more students than I ever had. I’m quite amazed.” – Kate Ferris
"The nice thing about the ukulele is that you can start with a relatively inexpensive instrument and see if you like it, as opposed to pianos and keyboards, which are wonderful, but it takes a considerable payout to begin with," she says. "If you discover you don’t like it, with a piano you have a large piece of furniture that holds plants and books."
Garrity Begalke says the sense of accomplishment comes quickly, which encourages ukulele newbies to keep playing. There are also countless online tutorials to keep players going in between lessons, she says.
"You know what, the first day was hilarious," she says. "I ordered it and it came in the mail. I opened the box and my husband and I sat on the couch and literally tried to figure out what to do with it.
"The first weekend, I couldn’t figure how to get my fingers on the frets, but after a few days of trying, it comes really easily, at least it did for me. I’ve been playing pretty much every day since."
The ukulele craze during the pandemic is just the latest in a wave of uke-ularity. The instrument had taken a pop-culture beating during the late 1960s when American performer Tiny Tim hunted for his 15 minutes of fame on Laugh-in and The Tonight Show, playing and singing his novelty hit, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, with a cringe-worthy falsetto.
"He really loved the ukulele and he was a very good player," Ferris says. "He did more to damage (the ukulele). You couldn’t be more uncool than if you had a ukulele at that time."
Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro started the most recent revival in 2006 with a YouTube video of his version of the Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps. It went viral — the video is at 17 million views and rising — and later the Hawaiian-born musician added Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, along with other covers, dazzling viewers with his skill.
Winnipeg’s ukulele enthusiasts haven’t let the pandemic stop them from strumming either. The Ukulele Club of Winnipeg used to gather at Casa Grande Pizzeria in 2019, but it has been holding virtual open-mic nights in the past year that have seen the club’s numbers swell.
The next one, Wintervention, takes place Wednesday night; a British Invasion open-mic night is scheduled for March 31.
Tim Hogue, the club’s president, says the virtual strum sessions are getting attention from musicians in British Columbia, Alberta and even the U.S.
"We have a guy from Minneapolis who joins us all the time. We have people from Ontario joining us," says Hogue. "It’s kind of nice to see all these people who are stuck at home but they’re joining us."
As for Watson, it didn’t take long for the beginner to reach her first goal: Tonight You Belong to Me finally belongs to her.
"After the first lesson, I found that song online and... I played it," she says. "I was so surprised at myself. I actually recorded myself playing it and singing and sent it Kate.
"This stuff is just sticking to me. I am having a blast."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.