NEWPORT, Maine — The so-called underdog of all musical instruments made a triumphant debut at the Newport Cultural Center on Saturday when 45 people turned out to embrace the ukulele.
The notion that the uke is a novelty instrument or somehow inferior to a guitar or piano was put quickly to rest with a screening of “The Mighty Uke,” a film replete with evidence that a ukulele in the right hands can be as awe-inspiring as any other instrument and more accessible than most. But that last bit was put to the test as the credits rolled and Frets Halligan, a Maine-based ukulele player, embarked on the onerous task of creating pickers and grinners from the audience. Most of them confessed they’d never played the diminutive instrument, except perhaps for taking a few swipes at its four nylon strings.
“You’re all conscripted into the Newport Ukulele Orchestra,” quipped Halligan as three dozen twanging ukes sought perfect pitch and discernible chords. “Guitar players, you’re OK, but the uke is where it’s at.”
Aided by pictures of lines and dots that showed where the fingers go, Halligan began teaching which tangles of the fingers create what chords. It went something like this: “For a C chord, your third finger goes on the first string, third fret.”
Above a babble of voices and scatter-shot outbursts from the ukes rose a question from a confused participant: “What’d he just say?”
Soon the participants, who ranged from 10-year-olds to people well past retirement age, had learned two chords, which, according to Halligan, are enough to play hundreds of popular western tunes. With the lesson not yet 20 minutes old, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” materialized in grand and recognizable fashion.
“Trust your ears,” said Halligan as the group neared the song about Mary and her lamb. “Your ears will tell you what’s right.”
Sitting near the back with family members was 12-year-old Noah Guerin of Bangor, who, according to his mother Misti, is one of those kids who makes easy work of most any instrument. For his grandmother’s Christmas present last year, he performed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on an inexpensive uke. That prompted his mother, who serves in the Maine Air National Guard, to buy him a better ukulele during a recent deployment to Hawaii.
“Musical instruments are one thing I don’t mind spending money on,” said Misti Guerin. “I know this ukulele is something he’ll have forever.”
So how’d grandma like her Christmas present?
“She loved it,” said Noah, chopping out chords on his shiny new uke.
While some of the participants were venturing into music for the first time, others were making a transition from other instruments. Chris Healy, a high school English teacher from Hampden, has played the guitar and bass for decades, but the uke is easier than either of those.
“It’s not that hard,” he said. “I found some songs online and I’m progressing quickly.”
And so was the rest of the group. Inside an hour they’d been through the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan. Many said they’ll be back at Newport Cultural Center on May 14 for another workshop with Halligan. That event will run from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and organizers suggest bringing a bag lunch. Halligan, who also leads a twice-a-month uke workshop in Belfast, said he was impressed with the Newport group’s quick progress.
“Playing the uke is one thing,” he told them. “Singing is another. Sometimes together they can be a disaster, but you did great. Isn’t this fun?”
All the answers shouted above the din were in the affirmative.