Virtually the Same: Transylvania Ukulele Circle Goes Online

This feature appeared previously in Bold Life Magazine.

The Transylvania (NC) County Library offers more than books. In January 2019, the library launched a fun and informal ukulele circle; participants of all skill levels got together periodically to sing and play. The pandemic briefly put a stop to the uke circle, but organizer and youth librarian Laura Gardner found a way to continue the regular gathering in virtual fashion. With her colleague Heather Reedy, in September Gardner took the ukulele circle online using Zoom videoconferencing technology.

What is a typical ukulele circle like?
We have themes that we choose in advance. We create and distribute a packet of music up to a month in advance. Pre-pandemic, we had a three-minute tutorial before the actual circle would begin. We created a PowerPoint to go over the basics; we would show people a few things so they would be able to read the chord charts that we’d put up on the screen later. It was just a crash course to make people more comfortable. Then, we’d have a jam session for an hour. The idea is that someone could drop in and try it.

When did the meetings change to virtual?
Our March circle was the last one that we had in person, and then we had a gap for a while. Like many libraries, we were closed to the public for a bit. Our first Zoom circle was September 10th.

What kind of technological challenges did you face?
Zoom isn’t the greatest for music, especially when you’re playing simultaneously with several different people. So we have two separate Zoom logins with two different sound sources. Heather is inside a room and I’m just outside; we’re able to see each other through a glass window. I do the PowerPoint as a “share screen” option in Zoom so that people can see the music. And Heather manages the chat, letting latecomers in, and things like that.

For our first Zoom circle, we muted most of the participants; they could hear us and they could hear themselves, but they weren’t hearing each other. The whole thing took a little trial and error. But I got feedback from people that it seemed to work pretty well!

What do you think accounts for the ukulele’s recent resurgence in popularity?
I think a lot of people are enthusiastic about learning music, but we sometimes get intimidated. There’s a learning curve when you try something new. And the ukulele is just really accessible; the size of it makes it easy for a kid to use. There are four strings and you have four fingers, so the fingering is a lot simpler. And those nylon strings are softer on your hands than the coiled wire strings on a guitar.

You don’t even have to use a pick. There are certainly a lot of different ways to play it. What I do is [play] a rhythm while I’m singing. I’m always very quick to tell people that I’m not at all an expert or a performer; I’m just an intermediate player. And I think that makes me a good person to teach beginners, because I’ve just so recently been there myself!