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Uke Can Count on Me

What do falsetto Tiny Tim (remember him?), a cadre of television advertising consultants, and an NEA retiree from Las Vegas have in common? Answer: A love of and appreciation for the unmistakable and ubiquitous plinky sound of the ukulele. 

While the uke has sold records—“Tiptoe through the Tulips” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, to name a few, and household products from yogurt to car tires—for Carol Wagers it is not the instrument’s power to move the consumer that impresses her. Wagers, a retiree from Nevada’s Clark County School District, adores the instrument simply because of the joy it brings to both those who play the instrument and those who listen to its unique sounds. 

Wagers should know. She plays the four-stringed instrument daily, and teaches twice-weekly ukulele classes to senior citizens. Her students of today, with faces fine-lined from years of life experiences, could be the grandparents of the fresh-faced students she taught and counseled before retiring in 2002. But students are students, no matter their age, and Wagers delights in teaching them.

“The satisfaction of being a teacher comes from making an impact on students. Recently, a student told me, ‘Carol, the [ukulele] classes changed my life. I’m making music and having a wonderful time.’ It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Wagers.

Clearly, a steady pool of students are eager to master the diminutive Hawaiian instrument. Twice a week, Wagers and a co-instructor teach non-credit classes at the University of Nevada Las Vegas’ (UNLV) Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Ukulele classes have experienced a sharp increase in popularity over the years, with this semester’s enrollment exceeding enrollment capacity. So what is driving this love for an instrument that seemed to have had its heyday? 

One of the appeals for older people may be that playing the ukulele, as Wagers points out, engages much of the body: voice, eyes, fingers, arms, the torso, and, of course, the brain. 

Wagers also points to other key factors. First, the instrument is relatively easy to learn. “On the first day of class, students are learning a song,” explains Wagers. In addition, the classes are fun. “Taking uke classes is a great way to meet people. We are supportive of one another; have a good time; and socialize outside of classes,” Wagers adds. Plus, the instrument is affordable, with some costing only about $50, which is considerably more than Wagers paid for her first ukulele.

The first ukulele she bought, a brightly colored plastic children’s toy, was meant as a gift for her grandson. He quickly cast it aside. Wagers started fiddling with it and discovered that she was interested in learning more. Musically inclined—she plays the piano, organ, and guitar—Wagers bought a real ukulele and taught herself how to play. As she became more proficient, she was eager to share her talent and love of the instrument with others. 

“It’s a fun instrument to learn and if you stick with it, you can learn easily,” says the proud owner of 10 ukuleles. “It’s easier than the guitar because there are only four strings and its strings are not as challenging on the fingers.” However, there is one group of people who should not consider jumping on the ukulele bandwagon: people with long, perfectly manicured fingernails. “It’s really not a good match,” Wagers cautions with a chuckle. 


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