Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Folks from across the Alleghenies and students at Penn State stand united by ukes

By Heather Longley

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has undoubtedly influenced musicians worldwide to assemble and perform, and two central Pennsylvania clubs—Allegheny Ukulele Kollective and PSUkulele—are in on the action.

A gateway instrument

Many factors make it hard for some ukulele musicians to just say “no.”

Louise Troxell, Allegheny Ukulele Kollective’s jam leader, has experience. She has played the instrument since elementary school and owns four regular ukes and two banjo ukes.

“I went fairly whole hog” on the purchases, she says. “If you get something that’s sub-par, it makes it harder to play. It’s frustrating because you have to press harder on the strings to make a good sound,” and it’s harder to keep in tune.

Mike Holzer, Allegheny Ukulele director/organizer, says he has a similar weakness. As he gets comfortable with one instrument, he wants to progress to a uke of better quality or to experiment with a different sound. Before you know it, he says, your collection is topping nine. Steve Sherrill, Penn State Altoona associate professor and club co-founder, has a remarkable seventeen.

“You will look around and see other people with different instruments that will make you want to get something a little better. There are three main sizes, and you’ll pick a different size. Then there are other things, like the woods involved—laminate or solid wood, or plastic, or some combo,” Holzer says.

“Plastic ukes do sound different,” Troxell says. “The thing that makes the biggest difference is the wood on top. Different woods sound different.”

She has a similar argument for the type of strings used: “Sometimes they sound tinnier, sometimes muddy. I just changed the strings on one and they sounded brighter and louder.”

The ukulele is the perfect item for those already bitten by the collecting bug, Holzer insists. They are small enough to accumulate, each one is different enough as to avoid redundancy, and they are relatively cheap—unless you’re ready to splurge for a custom-made piece, which might just open more doors for the hobbyist.

“Then you can get into vintage collecting,” Holzer says.

Allegheny Ukulele also strives to recruit new generations of uke enthusiasts.

It hosts bi-monthly jam sessions for players of all skill levels. An upcoming workshop will help participants learn how to play by ear. The club also has performed with the Altoona Symphony Orchestra and will busk at the HUB-Robeson Center and the Eisenhower Auditorium patio, respectively, on the day of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain’s 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 13, performance at Eisenhower.

Troxell has her eye on the future of ukulele playing in central Pennsylvania.

“One goal of the club would be to get more kids involved and interested,” she says.

In July, the club hosted a “Uke it up with Disney” sing-along and workshop at State College’s Schlow Centre Region Library that encouraged a solid crowd of kids to sing along to uke versions of classic Disney songs while strumming their own hand-made instruments. At one jam, she brought a children’s songbook and “the first week I had it available, we had a few kids show up, and we taught them a few chords.”

To help further the goal, the club recently received a grant from the Pennsylvania Rural Arts Alliance and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to be used to purchase and give ukulele kits to eighteen libraries in Centre, Blair, Huntingdon, and Bedford counties.

Allegheny Ukulele members will perform at 4–6 p.m. October 13 in Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center Atrium and at 6:45–7:15 p.m. on the Eisenhower patio. Go to Allegheny Ukes for details.

Plucky positivity

PSUkulele Vice-president Miranda Sheaffer says she never took her interest in music past a round of Guitar Hero.

“Music is a passion of mine, but I am not musically talented, so I almost felt like a fraud,” she says. “The four-stringed ukulele seemed like an instrument that I could easily learn.”

After she introduced herself and her new instrument to dormitory neighbor Christy Nunn, the two binged on YouTube video tutorials and taught themselves to play.

“I was obsessed,” Nunn, club president, says.

Nunn says she had experience with other instruments, so it was easy enough for her to learn. But she decided she wanted to start a group that welcomed beginner uke players without stigma.

“We wanted to meet other ukulele players that we could jam with and learn from,” she says. “We want to offer a relaxing escape through music. Our focus is on ukulele but is not limited to that instrument. Members may come to play, learn, or collaborate with others.

The ukulele couldn’t be better suited to the result—an upbeat, optimistic atmosphere in which new and seasoned musicians can learn and have fun. That’s one of the cornerstones of the PSUkulele, Penn State’s student-run club. In addition to the instrument’s magical pitch and non-threatening size, the ukulele’s dainty sound and faux naivete would make it unlikely to be chosen by anyone with an attitude problem—a perfect storm for attracting beginners.

Marc Revenson, aka Lil’ Rev, a ukuleleist who travels North America and presents concerts and workshops, has said it’s a real challenge to play a sad song on the instrument.

“It tends to bring a lot of light and happiness into this world,” he told Voice of America in 2013.

In an article by Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State intern Sabrina Evans that appeared last year in Valley Magazine, Nunn says, “The only rule in this club is to be nice. I literally wrote in the constitution that I would kick you out if you were mean.”

Today, the club is home to a twenty-strong and ever-growing band of friends united by the ukulele.

PSUkulele members will perform at 5–5:45 p.m. October 13 at Penn State’s West Halls courtyard and at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Saturday, October 17. For more information, visit PSUkulele.