In the Ukulele Society of Door County, Nobody’s ‘Second String’

Bruce Hake bought his first ukulele without any intention of playing it. Instead, he planned to hang it on a Hawaiian-themed wall in his home, next to a canoe paddle and pictures of Hawaii.

But when Hake’s wife heard about a local ukulele class that offered two two-hour sessions, she pushed him to enroll so that the instrument wouldn’t be merely a decoration. 

Learning to play the ukulele was “just kind of a fluke,” Hake said, but now, nine years later, he’s a co-leader of the Ukulele Society of Door County (USDC). 

The group meets twice monthly at the Fish Creek YMCA to play songs and sing along, often picking oldies by artists such as Elvis and the Beatles. It also hosts occasional public performances.

Only about eight people – all of whom were participants in the initial ukulele class – showed up to the first USDC meeting in 2013, but now the society has around 30 active players. It has retained many members since day one and welcomed newcomers as well.

USDC Attracts Players of All Levels

One of those relative newcomers is Bob Jorin, who has played ukulele for a year and joined the USDC around the time he took up the instrument.

Playing as a newbie in a room full of people – some of whom have been playing for years – might sound intimidating, but group members “immediately do a good job of making you feel like you’re welcome,” Jorin said. 

That’s a theme echoed by many of his fellow USDC members, several of whom have established close friendships by bonding over their shared hobby. 

Members’ backgrounds vary, but it isn’t uncommon to find someone who already played another instrument. Jorin, who is also a bass guitarist, was drawn to uke group because he wanted to meet other musicians after moving to Door County. 

The Ukulele Society of Door County performs at Ephraim’s Harborside Park on July 24. Photo courtesy of Barb Ottum.

USDC co-leader Barb Ottum has been a musician her entire life, but she had focused mainly on woodwinds before picking up the ukulele. The instrument’s small size and reduced number of strings make it easier to play than other stringed instruments such as the guitar – an aspect that’s especially important as players get older, Ottum said. Plus, once players know just a few chords, they can play dozens of songs, making it easier for new players to get started.

Some USDC members have taken their affinity for the ukulele to the next level. Jerry Lecy, for instance, has been in the group since day one and now makes his own ukuleles following instruction in Hawaii. His handiwork includes 22 instruments, each one taking about 50 hours to craft. Lecy doesn’t keep his hobby to himself, either: He shares his interest with his three children and nine grandchildren and has taught several of them how to play.

Music and Mental Health

Beyond the ease of learning the instrument, the ukulele’s light, plucky sound can’t help but make players and listeners smile.

“When times are tough, more people turn to happy things, and the ukulele is a very happy instrument,” Ottum said.

USDC member and former music therapist Laurie Farnan agrees. 

“Everybody should be given a ukulele at birth, and we’d all be a lot happier,” she said.

But Farnan is only half joking. She said science shows that playing music is a deeply physical experience, grounding players by making them concentrate on their breathing and how they’re holding their bodies.

When Farnan was a music therapist working with people who have developmental disabilities, she noticed major behavioral improvements in her clients after they started playing an instrument. She introduced some of them to the ukulele as a smaller, simpler alternative to the guitar, and she’s continued to play even after she retired.

“You’ve got an emotional outlet; you’re gathering with people; [and] it’s a lot safer than pickleball,” Farnan said. 

Ready to play? The Ukulele Society of Door County meets on the second and fourth Mondays of each month, 1-2:45 pm, at the Northern Door YMCA, 3866 Gibraltar Road in Fish Creek. A YMCA membership is not required, and new members of any skill level are invited to join.

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