An inside look at the Austin Ukulele Society
It’s the evening of the second Thursday in August and the members of the Austin Ukulele Society are packing up inside the gymnasium at Memorial United Methodist Church in Windsor Park. Some greet each other and discuss this month’s featured song, Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” while others tune their instruments, filling the room with suave notes that sound almost like a mix of harp strings and of wind chimes.
When it’s time for the band to warm up to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” the ukulele players start strumming and chanting, “Don’t worry about a thing / ‘Cause every little thing will be alright.” Slowly, as their playing builds, the symphony of ukuleles and vocals blend together and sound so good that you really feel like everything is going to be okay.
Since January 2011, the society has held these monthly meetings for anyone interested in learning the ukulele (or “uke”), the four-string guitar-like instrument most often associated with Hawaiian music. As players of all ages and experience levels come to learn, improve their skills, and pick up a new song, they inevitably leave feeling revitalized and accomplished.
“It’s been the funniest night of my month,” says Tom McMinn, a cardiologist who started attending meetings with his daughter about five years ago. “I always try to get people to come.
The company was founded by Jen Richardson and Bob Guz, two ukulele enthusiasts who yearned for something more than just a typical singing group. They met in 2007 when she was looking for someone to give her ukulele lessons and he played in the string ensemble Shorty Long with Pops Bayless. They became friends and would go to ukulele jams and play-alongs. Then the inspiration came in October 2010 when they went to see The Mighty Uke, a documentary about the renaissance of the ukulele around the world.
“We were all invited to bring uke and we watched the movie, and there was great singing,” Guz says. “Jen and I looked at each other and were like, ‘We have to do this. “”
Three months later, they held the first meeting of the Austin Ukulele Society at a community hall in Central Market on North Lamar Boulevard. Twenty people showed up. Within months others began to appear and they had to move to a larger space. They have been meeting at the church gymnasium ever since, and Pastor Cynthia Kepler-Karrer is a regular.
They stick to a simple agenda. After warming up to “Three Little Birds” (the same warm-up song they’ve been playing since the first reunion in January 2011), Guz teaches the band the featured song. This is followed by a break with an open mic portion, where anyone can register and perform. They rehearse the featured song a few more times, and when Guz feels they’re ready, he sets up cameras and tapes a performance — or two or three, depending on how good the band is sounding. He then edits and publishes the video on the company’s YouTube channel. The evening ends with the closing song, “On the Road Again” by Willie Nelson.
There are other ukulele groups around Austin, including the Tuesday Ukuleles and groups in South Austin, Georgetown, and Pflugerville, but none have been as successful as the Austin Ukulele Society. Guz and Richardson think the format of their meetings sets them apart: while other bands are geared around playing song after song, the company is organized more like a workshop.
Guz, who retired from working for the City of Austin in IT project management and development four years ago, breaks down the featured songs into their component parts: chord progressions, strum patterns, lyrics, vocals and vocal harmonies. It finds techniques in songs that can be applied to other songs and offers different types of strumming or picking for more advanced players. As he goes through the components, an overhead projector displays the song charts on a screen for everyone to follow. The group practices these components until everyone feels confident. “So the idea is that at the end of the night everybody really has a deep understanding of that one song,” he says.
Over the years, the band learned songs like Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon”, The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love”, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”. “We’re more successful when we’re doing things from anywhere from the 50s to the 90s versus the newer ones,” says Richardson. By posting the performances online, interested ukulele players realize how inviting the band can be.
McMinn, who knew how to play guitar before joining the band, decided to attend the meetings after watching the videos with her daughter. “It’s intimidating to show up the first time and not know what’s going to happen,” he says. “But Bob is a magician at doing things for people, everyone from beginners to experts. He makes sure there is something for everyone. McMinn is now part of the band’s spin-off performance ensemble. And when his daughter left for college, his wife, Parul Desai, also a cardiologist, started attending meetings with him. “The way I look at it is that this is the nicest group of people you’ll ever meet,” she says. “I’m just having fun.”
Even seasoned musicians, including Kathy Murray and Bill Jones of Austin blues band Kathy and the Kilowatts and John Davenport, who is best known for the song “Don’t Dallas My Austin,” are getting something out of the meetings. “We love it,” says Davenport, who’s been coming since 2012. a song. When I had a new song for the trio, we went through it a bit like Bob.
Before COVID-19, between 150 and 200 people attended society meetings. During the pandemic, the company began livestreaming its meetings on the company’s YouTube channel. People from all over the world could watch, and the number of YouTube channel subscribers doubled that year. It increased again by 50% in 2021.
This is how Laurie Johnson discovered the group. She picked up the ukulele during the summer of 2020 (“It was my pandemic instrument,” she says) and followed the company virtually before attending in-person meetings. “The good thing is that a beginner can come in and you can grow in this area,” she says. “It’s not just for people who really want to do more advanced stuff. This allows everyone to play. Johnson has recently started attending in-person meetings and finds that you can’t help but have fun at meetings. “Everyone is ridiculously excited about it,” she says. “I smile from ear to ear.”
To date, the band’s YouTube channel has received one million views. Over 1,000 people are on the group’s mailing list. Remarkably, the group has never charged a membership fee, and all videos and song sheets are available for free at austinukulelesociety.com.
“It’s been a fundamental principle since the very beginning: no obstacles,” says Guz. “You don’t even have to own a ukulele. We lend you one during an appointment. The idea is to reach people who may be musicians, but in many cases it’s to reach people who have never had the chance to play or learn.
And you’ll be hard pressed to find a friendlier group of people to encourage your growth with the instrument. “It’s really encouraging,” Richardson said. “You’re just going to be happy. You’ll forget your worries at the door, you’ll leave that meeting with less stress than when you walked in, and you’ll feel like you’re part of something really fun.