Ukulele strummers' online orchestra is finger-picking good

The Orchestra of Ukuleles Confined at Home strummers complete their first online ensemble.
The Orchestra of Ukuleles Confined at Home strummers complete their first online ensemble.

UKULELE lovers have taken their weekly jam sessions from the confines of the cosy community hall into the infinite expanse that is the internet. And we love it.

A global health pandemic was not going to stop these sprightly strummers who have tuned into the latest technology to ensure they stay connected and the music plays on.

Directed by Port Macquarie's Ruth Allen, the Orchestra of Ukuleles Confined at Home (T.O.U.C.H) has produced its first collaborative piece from home. Each individual player learned and recorded James Hill's arrangement of jazz standard Ja-Da over four weeks and Ruth brought them together in an online ensemble.

There were a few false starts, technological hurdles and no doubt some curse words, as the group navigated their way through Zoom and the marvellously effective on/off capabilities of the mute button.

But in the end, the collaboration was less about the music and more about coming together to create.

Ruth runs two ukulele groups Ukestra and the Conservatorium Ukulele Ensemble in Port Macquarie, while also offering private lessons.

"In mid-March when everything looked a bit dicey we made the decision, before anything was shutdown, that we would stop meeting because many of the people in our daytime group are retirees and over 70 and there was a real risk in getting together," Ruth said.

"Initially in the first four weeks I felt bereft and thought, what am I going to do instead? If I can't be a musician, teach and perform, then what am I good for?

"This is about getting together and a sense of bonding. Many people in my group, who have been coming for four to five years, are currently feeling quite isolated.

"I picked myself up off the ground and heard about this Zoom phenomenon and what we could do to make it more interactive."

What started as a jam session evolved into an online orchestral project.

"It has been a bit of a learning curve for all of us. Many people who performed on that video hadn't performed in an ensemble setting before. Half had never recorded themselves, or even heard themselves play. That can be a terrifying experience," Ruth said.

"They all had to learn how to record, send it, put it in a Dropbox. I had to learn how to use editing software. I didn't quite master Zoom - I thought I was recording everyone, but it turns out I just recorded myself."

Of the 25 regular ukulele players who gather at MacAdams Centre in Port Macquarie on a Wednesday night, half have joined the online sessions. Ruth has now opened up the weekly jam session to anyone with a ukulele who wants to play.

"I've become a musician by default. I started playing the ukulele six or seven years ago and became obsessed with it," she said.

"I've been running Ukestra for five years now and I'm a qualified ukulele teacher. I now perform at ukulele festivals across country and teach locally.

"A lot of the performance work I do is quite comedic."

Ruth looks forward to bringing the band back together but says it will be some time before they can gather back in the hall given research has shown singing and choir environments can spread the COVID virus more readily.

She hopes to start an online beginners group. Anyone wanting to join in can find out more at the Ukestra Facebook page.

In the meantime, enjoy Ruth's one-take rendition of a Victoria Wood song Let's Do It - The Ballad of Barry and Freda. It's a musical tribute to all the "corona-babies" expected in nine months' time as a result of too long in lockdown.

Warning - it's a bit saucy.

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This story Ukulele strummers' online orchestra is finger-picking good first appeared on Camden Haven Courier.