Newbie at a Ukulele Festival

You may hear that playing a uke (ook) is easy. After six months of lessons, sometimes taking them twice a week, I can honestly say, “I don’t agree.”
I can also say I’m glad I didn’t take up a different instrument at this seasoned age of 70, with no previous musical experience other than the summer of ’57 when I tried a few piano lessons. I gave up on those to climb trees.
UkeFest Virginia in Glen Allen was my first foray into anything other than my safe, familiar lessons in a small group setting. My thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Lacy, has been playing and singing with MAUI (Mt Airy Ukulele Invasion) for three years. She has had private piano lessons and eight years of public school music including two years of performing in the school chorus.
She has taken lead and backup lead singer in several MAUI concerts and has conquered being on a stage in front of hundreds of people. I knew a festival setting and the open jams would be a piece of cake for her.
After a four-hour drive, we arrived at the Courtyard Marriott in Glen Allen, a Richmond suburb. We were both pleased that the River City Ukulele Society had chosen this exceptional accommodation at a very good value for the money. When traveling with a teenager in November, it is always good to have an indoor pool and breakfast included in the fee. It was especially nice to be in walking distance of several good restaurants and a movie theatre.
Our first event at the festival was a mini concert from key presenters and an open jam at 6:00 PM, all at the hotel. We had no idea what to expect. We made our way to the registration desk to find our first mistake, minor though it was. I missed the part of the online registration that had you pre-order the festival T-shirts. No commemorative shirt for us and I had counted on one to complete the clothes I had packed for the weekend. Cest la vie.
The performances were the first hint of a captivating and thoroughly entertaining weekend ahead for us. It was also a hint at the genre of music we may hear. I looked over a grey wave of hair across a sea of mature faces. The average age of the participants was probably 60.
Sure enough the music at the jams consisted mostly of 20s through 60s popular old favorites. Lacy immediately whined about missing her contemporary rock taught by the director and founder of MAUI, George Smith, a young 40-something rock musician. For a professed musician herself and one who sees herself studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts or even Julliard, Lacy was disappointed at being the only person in the group under 21. Those in the 20-something group were limited and were the instructors and performers, not the participants.
Lacy and I spent 10 days in Hawaii this summer and were delighted to have The Aloha Boys as the first group in the mini concert lineup that evening. It was like being taken back to that distinctive island time. We could almost smell the hibiscus blooms as they performed several “acoustic downhome, backyard-style of Hawaiian music, everything from traditional to contemporary. They all [sang] lead and backing vocals. Their voices [blended] in a nahenahe (soft pleasant) style.”
We broke into two groups for jams after performers Stu Kindle, Bumper Jacksons and Amy Ferebee gave a short concert. Some people stayed in the lobby with The Aloha Boys to jam Hawaiian style. Lacy and I went off to a large conference room to jam with the other presenters.
I was too intimidated to play anything other than a kazoo. Lacy, on the other hand played a variety of songs from the 74-page songbook complied by River City Ukulele and given to us at registration. When they opened the floor for suggestions, with a tiny bit of encouragement from me, and the offer to accompany by Stu, Lacy led the 40 plus group in “Riptide”. I realized later that I missed a wonderful opportunity by choosing to be Lacy’s music stand. I could have drug out our stand and my uke. The group was very accommodating. The jam leaders made the numbers simple enough for any beginner. They called out chord changes for many of the songs played that were not in the book. I did enjoy singing my heart out to all the golden oldies.
The official day of Ukefest, Saturday, proved to be exhausting, only because I didn’t want to miss a thing.
We had breakfast at the hotel provided in the conference room by UkeFest. There were four large round tables and a buffet of eggs, sausage, potatoes, sweets, fruit, oatmeal, juice and coffee. Much to our chagrin, Lacy and I sat at one of those large tables completely alone – socially unapproachable maybe? Grandma and young granddaughter? We tried smiling!! Honestly! I explained to Lacy after her quizzical looks that these people were probably returns from the previous five UkeFest VA events. They probably knew each other and wanted to catch up or they could have been from other ukulele societies and had traveled together to be at the festival. We did, however, make friends and exchange numbers by Sunday afternoon.
The event was held at the Cultural Arts Center, a ten-minute drive on a warm and brilliantly sunny day. The entrance was framed by bright orange Crepe Myrtles against a cloudless blue sky, a perfect palette for the painter-turned-uke-enthusiast. When we walked in the building my head spinned and my eyes were dazzled with a plethora of arts’ eye candy. I didn’t know where to look first. I had to remind myself that I was there for Lacy’s music education and entertainment. I had to put all that artsy stuff on the back burner!
Short concerts were scheduled from 9:30 until 11:00 AM. The Peninsula Ukulele Players, a group from the Tidewater region opened, followed by Midnight Ukulele Society from Richmond and River City Ukulele Society, our host organization, also from Richmond.
Unlike the concerts Lacy and I are involved with, these three groups played mostly simple oldies with simple melodious singing in a range of harmonies. Most songs were sung as a group to three stage mics set up to capture the whole of the group rather than individual voices.
Also, unlike our norm, we were pleasantly surprised to see instruments other than ukes such as a guitar, a tuba, a clarinet, a banjo, a bass and kazoos of course. Eric Alger played steel drums and River City even played Roy Roger’s “Happy Trails” with coconut shells.
We had several choices of simultaneous workshops from 11:00 AM to noon: Stu Kindle, Moveable Chords, Jess Eliot, Washboard, Chris Ousley, Swing and Blues Uke, Amy Ferebee, Very Beginner Ukulele and Glen Hirabayashi, Beginner Ukulele Music Theory. Swing & Blues filled up before I could make a choice. I read the descriptions for Very Beginner. My training was actually more advanced than that class. Lacy is beginning to write her own music and has questioned transferring her piano tunes to the uke. Therefore, I signed us up for Glen’s Music Theory.
Theory was a quickly paced, Greek to me, hour class. Lacy was following the lecture on tones and pitches for chromatic scales, and the diatonic scale and harmonized chords scale, easily enough. She did complain about the room being too large and the inability to see Glen’s fingers on his uke as he quickly ran through his thoughts. An overhead projector or Smartboard were sorely missed here. I personally would have had a call for pre-requisites for this workshop – a working knowledge of theory. It could be that I am such a Newbie at this, that I didn’t know enough to know what to sign up for?!?!
Sideways Mobile Bistro was in the courtyard for a quick bite between sessions. Burger, bacon and bar-b-que sliders and fries were the main choices. I guess vegetarians were stuck with leaving the premises or choosing black beans or grilled cheese. Vegans are familiar with bringing their own food, I guess.
A coffee truck was present in the morning. The chill in the air made me wish they were there for lunch too. I grabbed a sunny table in the corner and enjoyed the 20-minute rest but missed open mic sessions.
The Aloha Boys opened the afternoon with a rousing 45-minute concert.
All participants were privileged to a compelling workshop by James Hill, the festival keynote entertainer. Booster Uke was billed as “the magic of chord twins, an amazing musical phenomenon that will launch your playing to new heights!” I really enjoyed this short workshop. He was funny and kept us playing the uke with easy to understand instructions. It was a teaser session for sure. Now I need to buy the book Booster Uke to continue. Hill is Canada’s premiere roots musician according to The Scene.
After a thirty-minute break to draw raffle ticket winners for several high dollar ukuleles donated by various vendors, James and Anne Janelle gave an invigorating concert that ended in a standing ovation and pleas for an encore. My favorite number was his original song “She’s Still Got It” about a mature woman that hasn’t lost a thing, who can still wrap a mature man around her little finger.
There was an informal jam back at the Marriott at 8:00 PM until……… After dinner at one of the many restaurant choices near the hotel and a swim in the thimble sized pool, we conked out to recharge for the next day. Scheduled was a two-hour morning of Gospel jamming led by Amy Ferebee at the hotel.
The time change that night was a welcome relief as we slept in. Breakfast was served again from 7:00 until 9:00 AM. I actually think the scrambled eggs were real and not the reconstituted powdery ones so often served at hotels.
By the time the Gospel jam rolled around, I was ready to give it a try. We sang and played old favorites that wouldn’t have been complete without “Amazing Grace”.
We left with new friends, new chords, new songs and for sure, a new enthusiasm for the versatile ukulele.

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