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Lodi Ukulele Club brings happy music to Lodi

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Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2017 9:30 am

Anyone who enjoys ukulele music knows how hard it is to keep a smile off your face while someone is strumming.

“It just makes me feel really good. It’s a happy instrument,” Roxane Willis said.

That may be part of what draws about 20 players — including Willis — together for meetings of the Lodi Ukulele Club each month.

The club, with members ranging from pure beginners to strummers who have been playing for years, meets at least once a month at the Lodi Public Library. When the weather’s nice, they add a second meeting on the patio of Panera Bread.

“We just celebrated our two-year anniversary in May,” said Jenifer Tometich, who leads the club.

Tometich first picked up the ukulele six years ago. A former pianist, she wanted to try another instrument — perhaps one that was a little more portable.

“The ukulele was so much easier to carry around with me,” she said.

She had a souvenir ukulele from Hawaii, and it inspired her to purchase a real one and give it a try. She took a few lessons at Hutchins Street Square, then moved on to learning the instrument a little more organically.

“I joined a couple of clubs and started going to different ones,” she said.

One of those was an offshoot of the Stockton Strummers that set up in Lodi. Two years ago, when the leaders of the Stockton offshoot scaled back their meetings in Lodi, she formed the Lodi Ukulele Club.

Everyone is welcome to come to meetings, whether they just want to listen, they want to learn more about the instrument, or they’re already dedicated strummers, she said.

“We share our music and we share our books,” she said.

They’re also happy to help new musicians learn the fine points of playing, Tometich said. While some of the members just enjoy coming and playing with the group, others are dedicated players who work hard to improve their craft and share their knowledge with other strummers.

“They play every day, they go to workshops. They’re very talented,” she said.

One of those strummers is Al Heathman Jr., who has been playing for about five years. Like Tometich, he had a background in music, though he’d never played a stringed instrument before the uke.

“It was something I wanted to do when I was a youngster,” he said.

That’s when he saw Tiny Tim playing the ukulele on a variety show he watched with his father.

“I was 6 or 7, and I asked (my father), ‘What was that thing?’” he said.

He moved on to other instruments and other passions, but about five years ago, his wife saw an article about the Stockton Strummers. Heathman decided to check the group out.

That revived his interest in the instrument, and he bought a ukulele and began teaching himself how to play, starting with learning the basic chords.

“A ukulele only has four strings. The charts are a little easier to read,” he said.

He’d go to Stockton meetings and play along with what they were doing, and focused on learning to switch chords smoothly.

“Once you get that down, it becomes a little bit easier,” he said.

He started going to the Lodi offshoot of the Stockton group, and then to the Lodi Ukulele Club.

Heathman retired a little more than two years ago, and ukulele has become a passion. He volunteers to teach a group of fourth- to sixth-grade students at John Muir Elementary in an afterschool club, and plays with a string band in Stockton, along with the Ukuladyz & Gents — the performing group of the Lodi club. He’s also been invited to play with a group in Sacramento.

The key to successfully learning ukulele? Practice, practice, practice.

“The club is a recreational thing. But if you want to increase your playing skills, like anything you do ... you need to practice,” Heathman said.

Every morning, he gets up, lets the cat in, has his coffee, and then picks up his ukulele to play for a little bit. He also keeps another ukulele by his sofa, so that when he’s watching videos or looking at tabs on his iPad, he can pick it up to try new things.

“I usually play at least an hour a day,” he said.

Willis, a newer player, also practices regularly.

“I’ve been playing just over a year and a half,” she said.

She first became interested in the instrument when a friend of hers won a ukulele in Bodega Bay. She entered the same contest a few times, but never won.

Then she had a realization: “I don’t have to win one to play. I can just go buy my own,” she said.

She may have gone a little overboard, she admits. Willis now has five different ukuleles, all with their own strengths and weaknesses.

“I have one that’s waterproof so I can play it on my kayak,” she said with a laugh.

What she should have done, Willis said, is test a few different instruments before choosing one.

“If you don’t own a ukulele, you should go into a shop and try several,” she said.

A good beginner ukulele will run about $70 to $90, Heathman said. Those will stay in tune, and there are plenty of resources for learning the basics online, he said.

Willis began teaching herself through YouTube videos and took a class through San Joaquin Delta College’s SICL program, but her playing really took off once she joined the Lodi Ukulele Club.

“The Lodi club is so nice!” she said.

The first time she went to a meeting, she was nervous.

“I didn’t know if I could keep up with the chords,” she said.

But the club was very welcoming, and gave her tips and advice to improve. When she asked Tometich how she could continue to challenge herself, she was invited to join the Ukuladyz & Gents.

“Playing with her has really improved my playing,” Willis said.

Lodi is welcoming, too, she said. Willis will often meet up with Tometich or other club members at Starbucks, Tillie’s, or other Lodi spots with a welcoming patio to practice. People stop to ask about the club, and Tometich always has a flier handy.

Anyone interested in the ukulele should give it a try, Willis said.

“Do it! Don’t let anything hold you back. It’s just fun,” she said.

Tometich encouraged new players to come out and join the club at their meetings.

“You learn from other people,” she said.

She admitted learning the chords — and learning how to sing while playing — can be a little tricky at first.

“It’s like rubbing your head and patting your stomach,” she said.

Still, once players get the hang of it, it’s a lot of fun.

There are thousands of three-chord songs out there that are easier for beginners to pick up, Heathman said.

“Learn at least the 12 basic chords,” he said.

Then, practice. Even practicing just a couple of times a week will lead to enough skill to entertain friends, he said. Anyone who is serious about learning and patient can pick it up with some persistence, he said.

Plus, it’s hard to get frustrated while practicing.

“You can’t be unhappy playing ukulele — but I can play blues on it, too,” Heathman said.

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