Picking Up

Barbara Brooks, right, sings harmony while co-leading the Carmel Valley Manor ukulele club. “Everywhere we go we start ukulele clubs,” she says.

Steve Brooks offers a perfunctory welcome to a group of ukulele students at a weekly class: “Open your book to page 47, and we’re going to play through,” he says. “Put on your glasses, adjust your hearing aids. I forgot mine.”

Across the table, Sheila Cooper quips, “That should tell you how much he likes our music, he forgot his hearing aids.”

Hearing aids come standards for this group at Carmel Valley Manor, a senior living community. Brooks is 88, and his wife, Barbara Brooks, is 85. The co-teachers are on the younger end of this group, which kicks off by playing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” many players singing more than strumming. In a soaring operatic tone, Barbara does the harmony, while everyone else sings the melody in unison.

For an hour, they go through classic old-timey tunes one after another, slowing down so the group can get the chords right. They play “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley,” “You Are My Sunshine” (“the number-one on the hit parade of retirement communities,” Steve says), “Oh! Susanna” and “On a Bicycle Built for Two.” Steve and Barbara are the strongest uke players, but the whole group sings along even if they’re out of tune or slow on the tempo on their instruments. Barbara and Steve’s son, John Brooks, keeps time on a u-bass, a bigger, lower-pitched ukulele. At one point, Steve encourages the group to not even try to play: “I want to emphasize your singing, so just John and I are going to play.”

Uke club member Laura Pasten credits Arthur Godfrey, whose 1950s variety show included ukulele tunes, for turning their generation onto the instrument. An estimated 40 million people tuned into Godfrey’s two TV shows and radio show weekly, sparking a uke craze and a familiarity with the songs this group has stored in their collective memory bank.

“It’s such a mobile instrument and it doesn’t need electricity or space,” Pasten notes. (She declines to give her age; “I always say age is just a number and mine is unlisted.”)

The Brookses have decades of experience as ukulele players and instructors, and celebrate this tiny portable instrument as something anyone can play. “Once you know three chords, you’re dangerous,” Barbara says. “There are about a hundred songs you can play and sing around the campfire. The ukulele is a happy little instrument.”

John first picked up a ukulele to take on backpacking trips for campfire sing-a-longs some 30 years ago, and it became an essential part of their lives, even though he still doesn’t read music. (“If the notes go up, I go up,” he says. “If the notes go down, I go down.”)

He’s a retired community college physics professor, and she is a retired ESL teacher, including having taught workshops for the spouses of foreign students at the Naval Postgraduate School; while they might not have formal musical training, they do have professional experience as teachers, and know how to coach their students through a song, slower at first, then slightly faster, then at tempo. They’ve been teaching ukulele, though never professionally, for more than 20 years.

It began when the pair gave a 12-session class at a church in Carmel. Continuing demand led that group to morph into the Monterey Ukulele Club, which still meets weekly at American Burger in Monterey, about 25 members strong. Four years ago, the Brookses moved to Carmel Valley Manor, and their attendance at the American Burger gatherings has since slowed.

A few months ago, they started this group at their new retirement home. Blair Hyde, 99, is the oldest member, and he practices his G chord until a small tuner affixed to his ukulele shows he’s in tune.

About a dozen aspiring uke players came at first, but a few dropped out – no surprise given the age of the membership. “Some people didn’t have enough flexibility in their fingers to be able to keep up,” Steve says. “The left hand requires some flexibility. You need a little strength, too, and you need a good thumb.”

The Brookses rarely go to the American Burger gatherings these days, where there are more experienced uke players, but that’s fine – they’re still bringing music to their peers. No one in the Carmel Valley Manor group, save for one member who played violin, had any musical experience before joining. And the Brookses agree it’s less about skill than keeping music in their lives as they age.

“Music is food for the soul. It keeps you young,” Steve says. Barbara adds, “Music keeps the grim reaper at arm’s length.”

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