A pleasant frenzy fills a stark classroom in the Wilkins School Community Center: the sound of loosening and tightening strings, of amicably disagreeing notes, of cheery scales and the choruses of several different songs all played at once. This is the sound of 14 ukulele players tuning up.
Steel City Ukuleles, a group of musicians of all ages, backgrounds and skill levels, was founded by Marlene Parrish, a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After receiving a ukulele as a gift, Parrish found that, while other cities boast active ukulele communities, Pittsburgh lacked such a collective. Last spring, she wrote an article detailing the cultural history of the instrument, ending with a Field of Dreams-inspired proposal: "Build a band of ukulele players to get together to sing and strum." The group, which is open to anyone, meets every first and third Wednesday.
"Nationally and internationally, the ukulele is burgeoning," Parrish says, and that does seem to be true. Musical acts like tUnE-yArDs and The Magnetic Fields, for example, give the uke a leading role and, of late, every other TV commercial seems to have a ukulele soundtrack.
According to one group member, Sunny Park, the appeal of the ukulele is its accessibility. "It's very easy to start playing. It can range from 'I can play a song!' to being a virtuoso."
MeeLi-Lee Jones agrees. "It's so cute, it doesn't intimidate me."
The group has had one casual performance, at a holiday party, but for now members are focused mainly on teaching each other new songs and techniques, and having a good time. "It's such a happy thing!" Parrish exclaims. "I've never seen anyone leave here with a frown."
Seated around folding tables, copies of the songbook The Daily Ukulele close at hand, the group practices Amos Lee's "Sweet Pea," The Beatles' "When I'm 64," and Billy's Rose's "Tonight You Belong to Me" (popularized by Steve Martin — on the ukulele — in The Jerk). Some people sing along, some don't, some attempt more daring musical feats than others: Every level of participation is welcome.
"Do you see anyone frowning?" Parrish cheerfully demands, between songs. "I've made my point."