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Big hits, little instrument: Song night at the ukulele club

The Long Island Ukulele Strummers Club meets every other Friday at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library. Anyone is welcome to come (it helps if you bring a ukulele) and join in what club founder Suzala calls "big, stupid fun." Aug. 19, 2016. (Credit: Jeremy Bales)

“Put your finger here,” says the mononymous Suzala, as she instructs Arlene Krassner, both with ukuleles at their chests. Suzala is tutoring Krassner in the B-minor seventh, or Bm7 chord, on the four-stringed Hawaiian instrument at a recent Long Island Ukulele Strummers Club jam.

The 15 members who came out for a twice-monthly session at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Public Library are gathered around a table in a room near the front entrance playing “The Worst That Could Happen.”

The sappy selection is apropos — it’s the club’s One-Hit Wonders Night, and this was the song that put Johnny Maestro & the Brooklyn Bridge on the musical map in 1969, never to be seen on Billboard’s top 40 chart again.

“The whole trick is to get your arm around,” Suzala tells Krassner, 67, a school nurse from Merrick. Krassner adjusts her position, raising the neck of the instrument to make it easier to press evenly across the frets. She strums and out comes the minor chord, ringing true. “Hallelujah,” says Suzala. “It’s a miracle.”

It was only eight years ago that Suzala, the 58-year-old club founder, taught herself to play the ukulele by watching YouTube videos. She had sung in a choir and played the organ growing up in Plainview, where she still lives, and knew how to pluck a couple of songs on the guitar. (“Back in the late ’60s, everyone could play one or two songs,” says Suzala, an artist and graphic designer who used the name Susan Zahler before adopting her current moniker.

Three years later, figuring “I cannot be the only ukulele player on Long Island,” she posted signs at two music stores and the library announcing plans for a new club. “Like, 25 people showed up,” says Suzala. She still uses the phrase, “Good, stupid fun,” her original description for the meetings.

“The kids are really the reason why I started playing,” says Suzala, mother of two teens, who were in elementary school at the time. (She also has a 29-year-old stepdaughter with her husband, Rick Ramhap, who works in computers.) She says she was inspired by Dan Zanes, the Brooklyn-based Grammy Award-winning member of the Del Fuegos who, after becoming a dad, started playing children’s music, often using a ukulele.

His philosophy, she says, is that kids are not learning traditional music at home the way they used to. She says she thought the easy-to-learn ukulele would be “a great way to bring the family together and have music in the house.” As she has found over the years, it is also a great way to bring together adults, especially those who grew up in an internet-free world.

Dan Turner, 56, a highway sign installer from Wantagh, is one of the more enthusiastic strummers who turned out for the club’s meeting. He is laughing and singing along to the group’s plucky renditions of the crowd-pleasing 1969 tune “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye”; the bright 1976 “Happy Days” theme song; and the sentimental (and kitschy) “Rubber Duckie” from 1970s-era “Sesame Street.”

For Turner, who picked up a ukulele two years ago and knew within a couple of hours of playing chords that “it would become a lifelong thing,” the instrument holds nostalgia. His late mother, Emily, who was born in 1919, learned the instrument as a teen. “Sometimes we’d say, ‘Come on, Mom, take out the ukulele and play a song,” says Turner, who grew up in Uniondale, one of six children. Out would come “Toot Toot Tootsie! (Goodbye)” or “Has Anybody Seen My Girl? (Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue).” He says he wishes he knew where Emily’s ukulele is today.

Aside from the visible joy he experiences being able to rip into a song and sing the moment he picks up his signature red pineapple-style ukulele (which, he says, is actually supposed to be a watermelon), Turner says playing helps keep his mind sharp. “It focuses my attention a lot,” he says. “I’m always on the lookout for a song and wonder if I can learn the chords.”

There is a lot to learn, which keeps members of all ages coming back. That includes Plainview’s Sam Karp, who, at 12 years old, is the youngest in the group.

Sam, who wants to be a “rock star,” says that he finds it fun to learn about “new music.” His favorite in the past couple of months since he joined: “Mr. Sandman,” a hit from the 1950s, for its “interesting melody.” He says he now plays it on his ukulele all the time.

Young and old, people find the ukulele to be an approachable instrument for various reasons, including its size and, “it only has four strings, so there’s less to worry about,” says Benjamin “Benoir” Metzger, 43, who owns and operates Studio Noir, a music school and recording studio in Long Beach. “It’s small enough that the body can control it,” he says. The ukulele is light and portable, says Metzger, who runs the Long Beach Ukulele Orchestra, which is a pay-as-you-go $20 class (no experience necessary) whose members voluntarily perform in concert at libraries, art fairs and charitable benefits.

Beginners can use chord diagrams showing where the fingers should be placed on the frets to strum songs, he says, without a need to know how to read music.

Along with nailing the Bm7 chord, Krassner says she learns all kinds of new things at the meetings, including chord cheats and strum patterns as well as music she has never heard before. She says she only started playing the ukulele in 2014 by chance. While her husband, Larry, was taking a nap on vacation in Honolulu, she wandered down to the hotel lobby and into a ukulele lesson. A few weeks later, and with only some musical experience playing clarinet in school as a child, she bought a uke and started learning chords on web tutorials.

“It’s so much fun playing music — it’s invigorating,” she says. And the students at Eastplain Elementary School in North Massapequa where she works enjoy it, too. Krassner — her ukulele strap adorned with iridescent duct tape and a blue ribbon tied to the instrument’s neck — plays during the holidays and for other special occasions.

Suzala says that she thinks her group fosters laughter and togetherness (so much so that two members met there and married). “When people are sitting around singing old songs, there is a sense of community,” she says, adding that this is one reason retirees are drawn to the club.

It also might help that “there’s no judgment” on one’s ability to play, which is a good thing, she says with a chuckle, because “I am not a whole lot better now than when the group started.”

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