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The Mary Atwood room of the J.V Fletcher library rang out in song on Saturday afternoon, April 21, as music lover Julie Stepanek hosted her free ukulele strum-along lesson for novice musicians and ukulele beginners.
Entering the J.V Fletcher Library, one could hear a dozen-or-more-ukulele rendition of the Beatles’ classic hit “Love Me Do” backing Stepanek’s singing voice. Elderly couples sat side-by-side with children, teens, and young adults as they all played along, some singing, some smiling, and others focused intently on the chords and lyrics projected on the white screen in front of them.
Stepanek began teaching beginner ukulele courses after having worked in libraries for years. It was while Stepanek was working as a substitute story time provider for libraries across Franklin County that she first began incorporating ukulele music into her story time with children.
“After a certain time, I was doing storytimes every day around Franklin County, and I always brought my ukulele, but I’m not a teacher, I’m self taught, so I was just doing music for the kids. Librarians came up with the idea that maybe I could do programs with ukuleles, and one of my first jobs was teaching librarians at the New York Public Library,” Stepanek said.
Ukulele chords are simpler than those for the guitar. Stepanek’s students played Shoo Fly, Amazing Grace, Jambalaya and several other songs by following along with her.
Although it was once considered by many to be a somewhat obscure and exotic instrument, the ukulele has in recent years, made a comeback in pop culture. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, between the years 2010 and 2017, annual ukulele sales have risen from 581,000 units to 1,750,000 units. In addition, ukulele-based classes and events have become more and more prevalent.
Groton’s Indian Hill music school has launched a new weekly ukulele club for adults 21 or older, while in the Fall 2016, Westford Academy music teacher Karen St. George introduced a new elective music class to high school students, Elements of Ukulele.
St. George was inspired to begin teaching ukulele after one of her former students gave her a ukulele as a gift. After playing the instrument, St. George said, she was pleased by its sound, and wished to share it with others.
“One of my students gave me her old ukulele, and I started playing it and realized what a great sound you can get off the instrument from the very first time that you pick it up, and I thought ‘why are we not sharing this with our students,’ ” St. George said.
In the current school year, St. George said, she has approximately 60 students in her Elements of Ukulele class.
“I think that they’re enjoying it very much, and if numbers show us anything, we have tons of sign ups for the class for next year, 60ish, so there will be several sections,” St. George said.
“I think that people realize the importance of music in their day, and with an instrument that’s accessible as the ukulele is, the word just spread,” she said.
Workers at Littleton’s local music store, the Minor Chord, has noticed the growing trend as well. Minor Chord employee Zach Smith said that in the last five years, ukulele sales have skyrocketed.
“I have been working here for the last 17 years, and back when I first started, we would be lucky to sell 10. Now we’re selling hundreds,” Smith said.
While ukulele playing is most prominent among millennials and Generation X, Baby Boomers populate a large portion of Stepanek’s classes. Boomer couple Claire-Marie and Mark Minor, for example, decided to take up the hobby after first attending Stepanek’s class in November.
“The reason we got the uke was because the library had a class in November…and she let us borrow ukes. Then we got one for Christmas, so it all began at the library,” Claire-Marie said.
According to Claire-Marie, what started as a single ukulele class at her local library grew to become a new hobby for her and her husband to enjoy together.
“We actually just bought tickets to go to a ukulele jamming session in New York City, so it’s spun off into a whole thing,” she said.
Joyce Pellino Crane contributed to this story.