By Shifra Whiteman
I grew up in a very musical household where music always surrounded us in various ways. Whether or not any of us were actually musically talanted is yet to be determined.
My mother certainly has the genes for it. A Yiddish singer, she co-produced and recorded her own CD of Yiddish children's songs about animals, and as a child, I vividly recall falling asleep to her lullabys and hearing her practicing scales in the shower in the mornings. She also used to play the violin until I was born and stole her attention. My father was a very short kid in high school and, to compensate for his lack of height, chose to play the upright bass. My darling dad was not blessed with the gift of rhythym, so his bass was the giant instrument - living most of its life in a corner next to our bookcases - that came out once in a blue moon until he finally sold it to a friend when I was 11. My grandmother played the piano and tried to teach me, until I quit because she would get upset that my small, five year-old fingers couldn't reach from one end of the instrument to the other.
My family loves music, whether it's 1980s Soviet musicals, Klezmer, German pop from the '30s or ABBA in Spanish (that's right, we have a vinyl of ABBA in Spanish). With all of the notes, versus, and chords in our lives, my parents must have forgotten to sign both my sister and me up for music classes. We used to sing in an all Yiddish children's chourus, but that was the extent of it. My sister used to say she wanted to learn the trumpet, to which we all responded, "You ARE a trumpet!" but our lack of formal training didn't really bother us that much. Instead, my parents enrolled us in ballet and we focused on our artistic talants. I ended up going to high school and college for art and my sister followed.
It wasn't until I graduated from college that I started yearning to learn something new. I had just moved to the frozen tundra that is Chicago and worked as a freelance textile designer and teacher. I would come home from work, thaw out on my couch, watch TV or hang out with my roommates, but I had the desire to find a new and exciting challenge for myself. I made up my mind and decided to learn how to play an instrument. Now, I had a dilema: What did I want to play? Where would I find the money to pay for lessons? How much do instruments cost? I was absolutely clueless.
I finally chose the ukulele. Why? Simple! It has four strings and I found a great deal for a cheap blue uke and case for $25. If I fell in love with it, I could invest more time and money; if I didn't, it wasn't the end of the world and I didn't break the bank. The day it came in the mail I ripped the box open with no idea what to do or even an idea of how it should sound. Thankfully, I had a musically-inclined friend in town who tuned my baby up and taught me the C chord. Over the next few days, I dove into the world of ukulele YouTube videos, practiced incessantly, and drove my roommates crazy. I named my shiny new instrument Tobias (yes, that IS an Arrested Development joke) and I played the same two songs over and over and over and over again.
Once the Chicago winter thawed and the temperature rose, I took Tobias with me everywhere. I would play him outside, pretending to know what I was doing and just practicing anywhere I could, but eventually Tobias broke because, let's be honest, he was $25. I decided to upgrade. I had fallen in love with the instrument, I dabbled with it all the time, and even though I was very limited in what I could play, I enjoyed the challenge of learning something new. My new (and much better quality) uke is a beautiful wooden Lanikai Ukulele that I named "Hermano" (you guessed it - another Arrested Development joke) and he is a beauty and a dream to play. My fantastic boyfriend got me proper lessons at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music that introduced me to the world of Hawaiian culture and helped me to actually begin understanding music.
What I realize now is that picking up an instrument helped me learn to become a student again. The drudge of work life is hard, even when work is something you love. It really is wonderful having someone teach you a new skill, cover a new topic, show you a new perspective or introduce you to a new hobby. I am now happy to report that this is my third year playing the ukulele and I love every minute of it. I am proud to say that I have aquired this new skill and that I am still a student in so many ways, which is lucky for me, because there is so much more to learn.
Maybe I'll pick up the banjo next?