Pushing the boundaries of the ukulele

Uke-orchestra and jazz duo to play the MAC

It turns out you can do a whole lot on two short strings.

That’s what Anna Lyman continues to discover with her Vancouver Island Ukulele Orchestra, based out of Nanoose Bay, which will be performing a range of music including tango and Vivaldi Saturday, June 17 at the MAC.

The eight-piece orchestra will open up the Uke-Stravaganza night, with the Jazzalele Duo of Lyman on ukulele and her husband, Steve Sutton on bass ukulele.

Lyman began her journey with the ukulele several years ago after an enthusiastic performance left her with a hand injury.

Originally a guitarist, Lyman was playing a Christmas gig for real estate agents, and decided to liven up the party by playing some rock.

“I ended up putting my hand through a tambourine,” she said.

About a year later, one of Lyman’s students brought a ukulele to class, and she thought she’d give it a go in the hopes it would be kinder to her hand.

“I bought one and Steve and I taught ourselves how to play it in a weekend,” she said. “We learned some chords, and because we both have music degrees, we began to arrange for it.”

That led to a keen interest in the instrument, which had coincidentally coincided with a rise in the instrument’s popularity.

Lyman said she’s happy the ukulele has gained others’ interest, because it’s a great way to start playing music.

It’s all about the hand, she explained. “When you start studying music, you learn it with your head, and you learn it with your hand, and for the hand, on the ukulele, everything is closer together and it just doesn’t hurt as much.”

Pressing down strings in easier and less painful than on a guitar, and because the strings are closer together, they are easier to reach.

“There is very little pain and suffering (with the ukulele, which is better for small fingers as well as old, arthritic fingers,” she said with a laugh.

In fact, an 84-year-old with no prior musical experience who joined Lyman’s ukulele orchestra in Victoria was ready to play on stage in three months, she said.

But that’s not to say the ukulele is only a beginner’s instrument, said Lyman.

The sound of the instrument is somewhat like plucked violin strings, she said, and has about half the sustain of a guitar, meaning the sound from a plucked string doesn’t last as long.

“When you have something like an orchestra, if someone is not as proficient on the instrument, and they make a mistake, it doesn’t last very long,” she said with another laugh.

That also means guitar music doesn’t quite suit the instrument, and requires careful arranging, as “you can’t buy music for ukulele orchestra.”

That hasn’t stopped Lyman from arranging Vivaldi’s lute concerto in D for the orchestra. The orchestra will be performing the piece on June 17.

“Who would have thought you could do something like that on a ukulele?” she said.

The orchestra plays a range of music from classical to pop to world music.

The orchestra and Jazzalele will be performing the show on Saturday, June 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the MAC.

Tickets are $15. For tickets, call 250-248-8185, or visit online at mcmillanartscentre.com.

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