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Ukulele players brush up skills

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By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

On Thursday afternoon, The Dover Library was full of the sound of muted strings, as Lisa Cohen taught a group of ukulele players various strumming patterns.

Cohen, an Ayurvedic health counselor and yoga teacher, explained what was going on by noting: “This is just a skills workshop for ukulele. The Dover ukulele group that’s organized through the Council on Aging and the Senior Center asked me to come in and help them work on certain skill sets. It’s open to the public, and it’s free.”

While the next class will focus on fingerpicking, this one was about the strumming patterns: rock, train, syncopated strumming, island rhythm, single-strumming and double-strumming. While simple looking, these patterns are very hard in practice; getting one’s mind focused on repeating the down-up pattern, then rejecting it minutes later, is very difficult.

To deal with this, Cohen had a few tricks. She encouraged the players to try playing with their eyes closed, and to rock their bodies back and forth to synchronize themselves with the rhythm. These are skills Cohen has acquired over her musical career, with her only having played the instrument for around five years.

“I’ve sung my whole life, just casually, and I started playing the ukulele in 2014,” she explained, “so I’ve been playing for about five years. Three years ago, I started teaching to beginners, because I wasn’t a beginner anymore, and I thought I could at least teach the beginners with a friend. We taught at the town of Sharon’s Adult Education program, and then founded the Unlikely Strummers, which is still playing out of the [An Unlikely Story] bookstore in Plainville.”

Cohen told the group that she keeps her ukulele on the coffee table and picks it up during commercial breaks or whenever she has some free time as a means of practicing every day. This has gotten her very comfortable playing the instrument in any way. It’s a process she compared to learning how to drive a stick shift; when you first start out, you’re constantly thinking about when to change gears, but as you gain experience, it becomes natural.

But while most of the day was spent strumming on muted strings (using the off hand to stop the strings from moving), the group did work on some songs together, like “Skip to My Lou” and "This Land Is Your Land.”

But while the session was focused on sharpening some very specific skills, when it came to why she was so excited about teaching the instrument, Cohen was far less mechanical about why people should be playing it.

“Ukulele is just so great for everybody,” she said. “I’m working with the general population, but with seniors in particular, to learn a new skill at any age is a wonderful thing. And to make the connection between the mind and the body, and to feel the emotion of music, is really powerful. I’m actually a yoga teacher and health counselor, so to me, the mindfulness of surrendering to the music and understanding that I’m not going to be perfect with my ukulele brings me a lot of joy.”

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