It was the final round of the TV show Wheel of Fortune. For her final puzzle, the contestant had to figure out a mystery word. She was able to pick five consonants and a vowel, but even with a six-letter spot, the clue was largely empty, reading ” _ _ _ _ E _ E.” She muttered her answer so softly that the host had to ask her to say it again, louder. “U-ku-lele?”
My husband Dave still remembers the look on Pat Sajak’s face. Dumbfounded.
Did you know they sell ukuleles at Target? Inside the actual store! My local Target regularly runs out of toilet paper, sweetener packets, jigsaw puzzles, and Clorox wipes, but the ukulele stock remains current. I discovered this while shopping for Sonny’s birthday last week in the electronics section. A pair of them nestled on the bottom shelf in a short, dusty aisle containing clock radios and boombox CD players. The price for the instrument, instruction manual included, was $39.99. Hmmm, I though: no wireless headphones here. But a few days later, when I was pondering how to allocate my own birthday money (my birthday being the day after Sonny’s)–like cookies on the kitchen counter, I couldn’t get the Target ukuleles out of my mind.
The ukulele will be the third stringed instrument in our house. There’s a violin that I’d like to learn to play (someday) (maybe) and a pink, rarely used guitar that Sonny won at music camp. I learned a bit of guitar as a kid. My mom had one–not pink, sadly. However, the wire strings made my fingers hurt, making clarinet practice difficult. My best friend’s mother was a professional classical guitarist who had a radio program on the local NPR station; she used to say that a decent practice session was when her fingers started bleeding. She wasn’t joking. I preferred my music-related bleeding to remain metaphorical, so I gave up guitar soon after I’d started.
While guitars were everywhere during my childhood, I grew up during a trough in ukulele popularity. The only ukulele player I knew of was Don Ho, mostly from his appearances on the Hawaii episodes of The Brady Bunch. The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, modeled on the small guitars (cavaquinhos) played by Portuguese sailors in the later 1800s, whose fingers dancing on the strings inspired the name. Ukulele means jumping fleas. Ukuleles felt fun to me, but a little tourist-trappy, like a plastic lei or a Tiki bar.
As staying at home in 2020 became practically permanent and it became clear that my music-making would be in my living room or by video, I began to covet an instrument more portable than a keyboard. One that I could try for fun. The ukulele is ranked as one of the easier instruments to achieve a basic proficiency–of course, like any instrument, to play it well is a lot of hard work. I also figured the smaller strings would be easier on my fingers than what I remembered from guitar.
Once home the ukulele sat in the box, untouched, for almost a week. When it comes to starting things, I’m better at preparation than execution. After dinner yesterday, though, I took the plunge and opened the box. The instrument features a cheerful red lacquer on the back, a black neck, and white nylon strings; the front of the body is the color of our dining room table. Easy to learn, easy to learn, I reassured myself, and logged on to the Hal Leonard audio course that supplements the beginners’ book.
Five minutes later I was swearing. Tuning: how could it be so hard? About 20 minutes in, Dave poked his head around my studio door. “How’s it going?” My fingertips hurt like hell, I complained. Not as bad as with guitar, but still: ouch! I’m going to stop in a couple of minutes and try again tomorrow. Two chords is plenty for the first day. Forty-five minutes after that conversation I set the ukulele on the piano bench, having added four more chords plus five melody notes. The wonderful thing about a new instrument: the incremental improvements are enormous when you start from zero.
Also I had spent an hour without worrying about politics or climate change or that guy down the block who’s flying one of those racist thin-blue-line flags. Distraction from the horrible present, my search for which is ongoing, had been achieved. For a bit.
It’s close to impossible these days for me to lose myself in a book. Sometimes a game will do it, sometimes drawing, sometimes writing, but the sweet spot of absorbing, focused activity is hard to achieve. With ukulele, for now, there’s enough new information to keep my brain involved, plus sensory stimuli as my fingers learn what to do, plus the comforting feeling of the ukulele resting against my body like a sleeping baby.
My practice session left me happy but wired. My left hand fingers tingled whenever I leaned them into any surface, so my sleep was interrupted. Not exactly painful, but a reminder of what I’d done to them. Even as I type this, they still feel a bit sore. They’ll get tougher–and faster and more accurate–with time. Maybe someday they’ll be ready to run off with the flea circus, though probably never as fast as those old-time sailors, playing their cavaquinhos on the Hawaiian docks. I discovered that another name for cavaquinho is machete and realized also that machete would have been another possible answer for the puzzle _ _ _ _ E _ E! I fall into a fabulous daydream about explorers slashing through the Hawaiian jungle with their ukuleles, watching for feral pigs and carnivorous caterpillars, all the while accompanying the songs of birds of paradise and linnets.
My ukulele waits on the piano bench.