How some ukulele players bond in a group that embraces this instrument

  • People
  • Wednesday, 28 Feb 2024

The ukulele is employed by diverse performers including 60s curiosity Tiny Tim, Hawaiian favourite Don Ho and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. — Dreamstime/TNS

AFTER a couple of near misses, ukuleles were what eventually brought Lisa Snow and Kevin Lilly together.

Yes, that cute, distinct-sounding guitar-wannabe employed by such diverse performers as 60s curiosity Tiny Tim, Hawaiian favourite Don Ho and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder helped the Naperville, Illinois, couple meet, fall in love and get married.

Both are members of a ukulele group that practices every Saturday at Musical Expressions, a music school in Naperville in the United States.

The group is more than a decade old and performs at retirement homes, festivals, libraries and other venues. Of their membership of about 25, ages mostly range from 40 to 80.

And that’s where Snow and Lilly finally met.

Lilly, 58, grew up in downstate Breese, not far from St. Louis, and Snow, 56, in Petersburg, near Springfield. As they grew older, they often were in the same vicinity.

“We kept missing each other,” Lilly said. “We went to Southern Illinois (University in) Carbondale and for two years we were there at the same time but missed each other.”

“His friends lived in the same apartment complex in Naperville when I lived there,” Snow said. “We didn’t know each other then.”

But once they joined the group...

“The band members kept wanting us to sit together,” Snow said. “They would move so that we would be next to each other. So, I have to credit several of the other band members.

“Apparently they knew something we didn’t know.”

Lilly and Snow married in Hawaii a year and a half ago.

“We had a minister who played the ukulele and sang,” Snow said. “It was all very cool.”

Lilly (left) and Snow, now married, met after joining a Naperville ukulele group, which gathers to play once a weekly and performs publicly. — JEFF VORVA/Chicago Tribune/TNSLilly (left) and Snow, now married, met after joining a Naperville ukulele group, which gathers to play once a weekly and performs publicly. — JEFF VORVA/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Beautiful sound

On some Saturday sessions, one member is quite a bit younger than the others.

Quirin Polensky, an 18-year-old from Sycamore, is a freshman at Kishwaukee College. She played cello in high school and was a choir member.

She accompanies her grandparents – Mary Helen and Bill Polensky – to Naperville to play with the group. “Everyone is really nice,” Quirin said. “And I get to spend time with my nana and papa.”

Many of the songs the group performs were written before her time, I Got A Name by Jim Croce, Do You Believe in Magic written by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian, a variety of Beatles tunes.

“She’s an old soul,” Mary Helen said of Quirin. “She has a wide range of musical tastes.”

Carl Hix is the group’s leader, taking over from his brother, Peter, in 2015. In local circles, Hix clan’s is well-known in local music circles, having performed in the area since the 1940s.

His says the instrument is underrated and shouldn’t treated as a novelty or as something limited to Hawaiian music.

“The ukulele has a beautiful sound,” Hix said. “And it’s kind of easy to play. You only have to push one string down and use a couple of fingers. Once you get the strumming synchronised, it’s fun.”

He and bass player Ruth Schneider sit in the front of the classroom and provide the direction. They’re serious about the music but Hix has a lot of fun joking and laughing with members.

“These people are dedicated and really good people,” he said. “They are very faithful as far as coming in every week. They are willing to brave the weather. They are willing to learn and want to get better.”

Bringing joy

The strummers love the songs they play.

“This group likes a lot of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s and so do I,” Hix said. “I’m a huge Beatles fan. I could do all the Beatles songs possible, but I don’t want to overdo it.”

There are some songs in the group’s setlist that wouldn’t initially seem to fit the instrument. The Beatles’ Lady Madonna, for example, is one that stunned Hix the first time he heard the group play it.

“That song has no guitar part, necessarily, it’s all piano,” Hix said. “Somehow it works out. A good song is a good song.”

Lilly said he enjoys playing in front of crowds, even if it’s just a small gathering at a nursing home.

“It’s great if we can bring joy to their day,” he said. “This is a happy thing.” – Chicago Tribune/ Tribune News Network

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