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My ukulele is called Wilson. Wilson was my uncle’s middle name and he loved it. He and I had plans to go ukulele shopping together as, at the time, I only had a basic model. Although he was more of a guitar man (he had at least six guitars) he knew what he was looking for and to be honest, it would have been such a fun trip. He was outrageous and zany and sometimes a real pain, but he was one of my favourite people. Before we could go uke shopping, he died suddenly of a heart attack. It seemed only fitting that when I did get my new ukulele a few weeks later, it should be named Wilson.

Wilson is a Mainland ukulele made of mango wood which I bought at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in 2015. It is a beautiful instrument with a high gloss and the wood is a gorgeous orangey colour, another nod to my uncle whose favourite colour was orange. At the festival, as well as a whole host of amazing performances, workshops and masterclasses, there were stalls selling ukuleles and associated merchandise. The stall I bought mine from was a shop called Eagle Music which is based in Huddersfield. At the time they were the only supplier of Mainland ukuleles in the UK. My friends Chris and Sue who were with me also got Mainland ukes. They sound so amazing together and we have spent many happy hours since, strumming, singing and performing together.

The ukulele is such a lovely instrument to play and has enjoyed a rise in popularity for many years now. Apart from it making such a joyful, happy sound, there are several reasons for its popularity. Because there are only four strings to get your fingers around, it is much more accessible than an instrument like the guitar to learn the basics and quickly get a few chords.

Ukuleles are so small and are very easy to transport. I’ve even travelled to Spain taking only hand luggage which included my ukulele inside my cabin bag! Back in the days when I worked for a music service, I used to have to transport whole class sets of instruments in my tiny car at the beginning and end of terms. Recorders were the easiest, saxophones were pretty trying with only about 14 able to get rammed in, but I could manage over 60 ukuleles!

Getting a new one isn’t going to break the bank either. You can get a reasonable beginner’s instrument that holds it’s tuning well for about £40. Actually I think you can get a very cheap one for as low as £10 (but please don’t, it really won’t be a pleasant playing or listening experience!) And if you find you take to it well and want to upgrade, they start to sound much nicer at around the £100 figure.

In January 2020 we started a beginner ukulele group in Oughtibridge which took place after the Friday afternoon choir sessions. It was great fun, and eight weeks on the players were really making great progress on their new instruments. It felt very sad when we had to stop meeting because of the lockdown but I have kept in touch with quite a few of the players who have been having lessons via Zoom. There’s at least 70 years age difference between my youngest and my oldest ukulele pupil, and I have some pupils that I’ve only met on Zoom, but all that just adds to the wonderful variety and I love working with them all!

So if you’re looking for a new hobby do consider taking up the ukulele. I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’m often at my happiest when I’m sitting with Wilson, strumming and singing along.

And if you want any advice or want to talk to us about our ukulele lessons, please get in touch. Wilson and I would love to talk to you!

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Singing In… joined Classical Sheffield at the beginning of the year. As an organisation that brings music makers together they usually put on an amazing festival of music across the city every other year. Obviously in the current climate, 2021’s festival couldn’t take place, so instead they organised a virtual performance of a medley of Sheffield songs. Pete and I decided that we’d take part in the Steel City Celebrations which premiered on 5th March. We’ve done quite a few videos for various virtual choirs now so we didn’t think it would take too long to sing through and get a reasonable video to send in. How wrong we were…

Pete was first up, so he did most of the setting up and getting everything in the right place. He used a music stand extended as high as it would go to put the camera on. That still wasn’t high enough but he did a good job of searching all over the place for things that could be used to balance his phone on. He wore a nice shirt that he’d ironed specially but since it was only going to be a video of his head and shoulders he kept his scruffy shorts on the bottom half. If this doesn’t epitomise our current online, half presentable life, I don’t know what does!

When he started there was still plenty of natural light left but as it was a bit later in the afternoon by the time I started on mine, the light had begun to fade. Cue lots of messing around with lighting in the room. It was a difficult balance getting a well lit shot but without lots of huge black shadows under the nose and chin. When we’d eventually got this sorted, I was fairly confident of being able to do mine in one take. I had the music in front of me and knew it enough that I could look at the camera occasionally.

Because I don’t like having massive headphones on for these things, I use the earbud style headphones that I can hide with my hair. Just before starting the first take, I took one of the earphone buds out to readjust the wire. This is when things started going really wrong… The little rubber part of the bud came off and disappeared. I knew the bud wouldn’t stay in my ear without it so I spent ages looking under the fridge and cupboards, in my pockets, through my hair and double checked it hadn’t stayed in my ear. I even took my clothes off and shook them out! When I say it disappeared, it really did. We still haven’t found it three weeks later!

After giving up the search, I decided to just go for it with one earbud in. I got back into position and set off on take number one. There followed a ridiculous number of takes as each one went wrong in some way. There were wrong words, swearing, the camera falling off the stand, anything that could have gone wrong seemed to. Finally, I was almost there, just six bars away from the end! I’d performed to the camera and smiled, I’d got all the notes and words right, not missed any entries etc. when a stupidly loud group of motorbikes drove past with all the revving that goes with it. This was the point I lost it, grabbed one of the sheets of music, screwed it up and got more inventive with the swearing!

I was also laughing though, by this point it was farcical the number of things that had gone wrong. I decided to give it one more go. The next take worked, it wasn’t perfect by any means but I’d got to the end and had managed to smile into the camera. I didn’t even watch it back because by this time there was NO WAY I was going to do another one.

My first virtual choir performance was singing Smile with three friends, two of whom I’ve never met in real life! Julie Gaulke is an extremely talented arranger, singer, multitrack artist and so much more and she put this beautiful video together for us.

When working on some virtual choir performances, I find the joy doesn’t really come until you get to see the final result. This was certainly the case when Pete and I sang in the Eric Whitacre Sing Gently video. We had left it until the last minute to get a video done which added to the pressure. I’m not sure either of us were entirely happy with our completed videos but we knew there was so little chance of us being seen that we sent them in anyway. This one had 17,572 performers so there was a long wait after the submission deadline before the finished video premiered. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved by it, but it was a stunningly beautiful moment to watch and hear knowing that we had been part of something so special. It premiered on 19 July 2020, four months after choirs had stopped rehearsing and performing, and I know this added to the heightened emotions when watching it for the first time. It was so special to us that Pete and I played it at our wedding six weeks later (an event that was due to have lots of choirs singing at it, instead there were 10 special guests and no live music). It was wonderful.

So if you are ever doubting whether to send in a video, know that often the pleasure doesn’t come from singing on your own to the tracks you’ve been given and trying to get a near perfect take, it comes from watching and hearing the final performance cleverly edited together. Having edited and produced a few of these videos (our December performance of Sans Day Carol is a great example), I can tell you that I often don’t even notice who has made a mistake, I just amend and move on. So be brave and take the challenge!

And do have a watch of the final version of the Classical Sheffield Steel City Celebrations - you’d never guess Pete was wearing his shorts would you?!

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Last week I had the pleasure of recording a podcast for @HelpSheffield. For those of you that don’t venture into the busy Sheffield Twittersphere, @HelpSheffield is a fantastically useful source of knowledge about what’s going on in the Steel City. Set up in 2013, the @HelpSheffield account has long been my ‘go to’ for community news or for finding out about new initiatives. And as a community initiative it’s about as genuine as they come, run without pay or reward by a dedicated, but anonymous small band of elves!

Trying to squeeze everything I’m involved with into 21 minutes was no easy task. It’s fair to say that I wear many different hats, and that tends to be just the way I like it these days. Not only do I like the flexibility that having all the different hats brings (have I overused the hat metaphor here?!) but I can easily see the connections between the various activities I’m involved in.

Much of what I do is about bringing people together. In my role in the Community Team at the Co-op, I’m supporting my colleagues to connect with some of the many amazing local groups and charities working in Sheffield. With Singing In… it’s about bringing communities together to sing and make some wonderful music. But it’s always about how much more we can achieve when we come together to work as a group.

It was good to be able to plug my volunteer work for the Shout 85258 text service. Keeping our mental health in check is so important, especially at a time when the pandemic is forcing so many of us to be isolated in our own homes. Singing with the choirs definitely gives me a lift, even in these strange online times, and working in the community sector has made me aware of the numerous initiatives that are out there to help. But having a national service to fill some of the gaps, particularly for anyone who needs support in the middle of the night, is very reassuring.

So thank you to the elves for giving me the opportunity to shout about some of the things I’m proud of, and thank you for shining a spotlight on the great things that happen in our fine city.

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