More than a toy: South Shore Ukulele Players demonstrate the instrument’s versatility

by Peter Josephson

Thirty men and women all dressed in black pants, white shirts, and red sparkling sequined vests sat in front of band leader Sandra Obritsch. She turned to the audience and made a brief introduction.

"We're the South Shore Ukulele Players. We play country and western, gospel, golden oldies, Hawaiian, and selections from the big band era."

With that she turned and nodded to the players in the activity room at the Desbrisay Museum in late February. They strummed and sang the 1966 Buck Owens and His Buckaroos hit Act Naturally.

"They're gonna put me in the movies/They're gonna make a big star out of me/We'll make a film about a man that's sad and lonely/And all I gotta do is act naturally."

As the applause ended, the players began their version of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. Obritsch whispered to someone in front to make sure the whistle was ready.

"When I hear that lonesome whistle blowin'/I hang my head and cry" was the cue.

Angela McGinnis placed her ukulele in her lap and picked up a small whistle. Everyone heard the train "a-rollin" past the prison.

If you are inclined to dismiss the ukulele as a toy, a guitar that never grew up, you'd be wrong. The South Shore Ukulele Players are professionals who make entertaining professional music.

The group was formed in 2002 by Obritsch, a former elementary school music teacher.

"It started out as a class for senior citizens and the interest just ballooned. I've taught over 200 people how to play. I have three levels in my beginners group and three levels in my intermediate group. Students move up through those levels to the band. We have about 40 members now."

Saturday's jam was designed to entertain and to teach. Guests were encouraged to bring their ukuleles. If they didn't own one, Obritsch had a few extras on hand.

Between tunes like Hey Good Lookin' and Down by the Riverside, Obritsch paused at a white board to sketch out how to finger cords. After a few more songs, she showed the audience strumming and picking techniques. Those with instruments were encouraged to play along with the band.

Theresa Heffler from Lunenburg and Teresa Quilty from Garden Lots were in the audience hoping "to pick up a few tips." They have a band of their own that numbers four players. So far. And do they play publicly?

"Oh, no. We get together at each other's houses and play for just for fun. We're not very good yet. Sometimes we laugh so hard we end up rolling on the floor."

Obritsch stresses that playing the ukulele at any level is fun. She also sees deeper reasons for everyone to have music in their lives.

"Studies have shown that music can forestall dementia. While other activities activate parts of the brain, music activates all of it."

She went on to say that one of the bands' greatest joys is "sharing our music, especially in nursing homes."

"I've seen elderly patients sitting in wheelchairs seemingly unaware of the world around them suddenly come to life tapping their fingers and their feet to our music. It's wonderful."

In addition to nursing homes, the South Shore Ukulele Players volunteer their music at church functions and fundraising events from Halifax to Liverpool, and the Valley."

"The band members come together partly to be sociable. They enjoy extending their friendship to the community at large." Obritsch said. "We perform about 50 free concerts a year."

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