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  • Ukeleles take Southern Oregon by storm

    The whimsical four-stringed instrument is easy to pick up and a joy to play, enthusiasts say; a recent ukelele workshop at Britt drew dozens of participants
  • "Hello, my name is Guido, and I'm a recovering guitar player," quipped ukulele instructor and performer Guido Heistek at the launch of Britt's second annual Ukulele Getaway.
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  • "Hello, my name is Guido, and I'm a recovering guitar player," quipped ukulele instructor and performer Guido Heistek at the launch of Britt's second annual Ukulele Getaway.
    Seventy ukulele enthusiasts from ages 6 to 76-plus gathered last weekend at Bigham Knoll in Jacksonville to play the folksy, four-stringed instrument.
    Several years ago, after being largely forgotten, the ukulele experienced a surge in popularity. It is now heard everywhere from on a street corner played by a busker crooning an Ingrid Michaelson song to blaring from a top-40 radio station in a Bruno Mars hit.
    The ukulele community in Southern Oregon, however, is just getting started.
    Two years ago, Rachel Jones, the director of education and community engagement for Britt, wanted to create a camp that was more multi-generational.
    "I always thought that the ukulele was a great instrument for getting people started in making music," said Jones, who plays the ukulele herself.
    At the Britt Rock Camp, Jones noticed kids putting away electric guitars and drums during free time and instead opting to sit in circles with ukuleles.
    "There's an element of community and joy to playing the ukulele," Jones said. "And I love that people can feel successful right away."
    Jones reached out to Ashland music teacher Tish McFadden, and together they designed the Britt Ukulele Getaway, featuring three days of classes and culminating in a performance at the Britt Pavilion.
    "It's just the most lovely, happy place," McFadden said of the camp. "There are people in little groups playing together all over."
    While some campers have been playing for years, others, including Margaret Brewer, picked up the ukulele for the first time at the camp.
    After suffering a shoulder injury, Brewer, a Medford nurse, said the ukulele is one of the few instruments she can wield without pain.
    "There's a lot more possibility to be successful with it than there is with the guitar," Brewer, 58, said. "And there's a social aspect to it."
    Brewer is not alone in being drawn to the communities formed around the ukulele.
    After the 2013 getaway, Jones said, campers pleaded for a way to keep playing together. In response, they created a group called Southern Oregon Ukulele Players (SOUP).
    The group meets monthly at McFadden's house. After a brief lesson from McFadden, the meeting is opened up to anyone who wants to perform a piece or share a song for the group to play together.
    "What's amazing is the level of joy in this house of mine," McFadden said. "People are singing their hearts out and everyone is so happy to see each other."
    Spouses Vicki and John Billdt call themselves "huge" SOUP members.
    "It's way too much fun," John said.
    John began playing the ukulele a few months before attending last year's camp.
    "He came home from camp and handed me this small ukulele and said 'Here, you have to do this,' " Vicki said.
    She's been playing ever since. "It's small and cuddly. We just love it."
    Another reason to love the ukulele is its relatively low cost — low-end ukuleles sell for as little as $40, and beginners can find a decent-sounding ukulele for $80.
    This year, when many SOUP members expressed interest in attending camp again, Jones brought in instructors from outside Southern Oregon, including Vancouver, B.C.-based Heistek and Aaron and Nicole Keim of Hood River, to offer more advanced classes.
    In McFadden's beginner's class, campers came in barely knowing the body from the neck, and walked out an hour later having successfully played "I Feel Good" and knowing a C cord from a C7.
    Down the hall, more experienced players learned clawhammer and fingerstyle techniques from Aaron.
    While some pick up the ukulele in a final attempt to be a musician, others do so simply because they're too small to pick up anything else.
    Although McFadden played the ukulele as a young girl — when she and her friends would tune their ukulele's to "My Dog Has Fleas" instead of with electric tuners — she abandoned it for other instruments.
    When parents started coming to her with 5- or 6-year-old children wanting to play the guitar, she was reminded of the smaller, more manageable ukulele.
    "I didn't want to have to say to them come back in three years when they're large enough to play," McFadden said.
    Soon after she began offering ukulele lessons, the ukulele surged in popularity, and demand grew for lessons.
    "It was a happy accident, really," McFadden said. "And it's a joy to bring a musical instrument to children of young ages and have them be successful at it."
    One of McFadden's students is 11-year-old Kali de St. Phalle, who started playing the ukulele four years ago.
    "I like that it's small, so you can play it even when you have small hands," Kali said. "And it has a really cheerful sound. It's not as gloomy as sometimes the guitar is."
    She attended camp with her dad and her cousin, Tallulah, 12, who began playing the ukulele not long after Kali.
    "When you're holding a ukulele, there's really no way to be sad or angry," Tallulah said.
    Reach Mail Tribune reporting intern Kelsey Thomas at 541-776-4368 or at kthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyethomas.
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