For many, the ukulele symbolizes warm tropical breezes, a deep blue ocean and sipping a cool drink.
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For the students in Lew Johnson’s ukulele classes at the Senior Center in El Dorado Hills, learning to play is a fun experience.
“I’m celebrating my 40th year teaching musical instruments,” Johnson, of Placerville, said. “I graduated from University of Hawaii and lived over there for three and a half years.”
Although he didn’t learn to play the ukulele while in the islands, a few years ago his brother mentioned that the instrument was gaining in popularity and suggested Johnson teach people how to play it.
“I’ve been teaching ukulele classes at the Senior Center in El Dorado Hills for about three years now,” he said. “A nice little core group plays and also in the evening I teach an adult class program.”
Johnson added that he doesn’t just want to be known as the “ukulele Guy” even though he enjoys the instrument immensely.
Johnson has spent his teaching career instructing students of all ages on various instruments from the elementary school to college level to private lessons.
“Ukulele means jumping flea in Hawaiian,” he said. “The instrument came to Hawaii, I think in 1879. Portuguese sailors landed in Honolulu Harbor to work in the sugar cane fields. They brought a little four string guitar with them and the Hawaiian people loved it and put strings on it and named it ukulele. They thought that when you played it, it looked like your hands were jumping.”
He added over the years the instrument has appeared off and on in popular culture and its popularity has grown.
“There is a new resurgence,” he said. “High-schoolers are standing around at lunchtime with their own ukuleles on campus. It’s a nice little small portable instrument that is fairly easy to learn. It’s tuned to ‘My dog has fleas.’ You can tune it by ear that way.”
He added there are four sizes that include soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The baritone is tuned similar to a guitar. The one most frequently used is the soprano which is the smallest.
“I teach groups of people using the first three sizes,” he said. “I also can teach the baritone but it would be a separate deal.”
Johnson said when he teaches at the senior center, class sizes vary.
“It’s usually a group of three, four or five that start out,” he said. “The class is called ‘Let’s Uke!’ It’s taught in a four-week block so usually they stay with it for at least twice through and sometimes three times but at that point if they are still enjoying it and want to stay with it, they move on to the second group called ‘Got Uke?’”
He added the second group is ongoing and additional songs and playing techniques are added for students to learn.
“In the ongoing class, the numbers vary and I have had as many as 15 participate,” Johnson said.
Johnson added playing a musical instrument is beneficial in that it helps keep the brain stimulated.
“The more chords you learn, the more keys you can play in,” he said. “Most people sing with the ukulele but you can also use it as a solo instrument. I think it’s soothing. It’s small. It’s compact. It’s relatively easy to learn at the beginning level and it’s something you can play for your own enjoyment or get together in groups and enjoy.”
He also said those wanting to play the ukulele don’t have to know how to read music.
“It’s learning chord sheets and learning some strumming and hopefully singing,” he said. “I don’t insist on singing but I encourage the students if they want to. Some don’t sing. They just enjoy playing.”
He added in order to play the ukulele, you don’t have to come from a musical family. You can start any time.
“At the beginning level you can just dive in and learn a few chords and strokes,” he said. “If you like to sing it’s a plus. “
Johnson also said musicians can play pretty much anything on the ukulele and not just Hawaiian songs.
For more information on the classes call the El Dorado Hills Senior Center at 916-358-3575.