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Interview: Sandra Obritsch

Nova Scotia-based Sandra Obritsch is the founder of the South Shore Ukulele Players and is co-chair of the International Ukulele Ceilidh. She specializes in teaching ukulele to seniors. Playing ukulele, she has discovered, is one of the best ways for seniors to stay happy and healthy.

Ukulele Yes!: Everyone has a ukulele story: what's yours? How did you become involved in playing and teaching ukulele?

Sandra Obritsch: "Music is like aerobics for your brain."

Sandra Obritsch: I went into this as a piano player, actually. When I started in the elementary schools, a lot of schools didn't have music rooms. If you had a music room with a piano you were OK but if you didn't then what did you do? It was suggested that we learn to play ukulele. Well, we were shown three chords and then it was like, "ok, there you go" (laughs). I didn't do too much with it at that time. When I finished teacher's college I also picked up guitar and did a little more on my own with guitar.

Then, during the early 1970s the board of education down in Halifax put on a "block" program for specialized teachers. There was a block program for teachers who wanted to be reading specialists and then there was one for music teachers. So, you would go six weeks every summer for four summers to get a certificate in this. They brought in the very best from all over the world. They had teachers doing solfege from the university of Budapest and recorder teachers from Germany and then, of course, there was Chalmers [Doane] doing ukulele. So that's where I really got into doing ukulele. That's when they were promoting it in the elementary schools and I was teaching elementary schools so I started teaching ukulele in my school using Chalmers' first book Classroom Ukulele Method. The first summer that we worked with Chalmers the book hadn't even been published yet; we were using photocopied sheets he gave us.

Seniors [are] saying it's just opened a whole new door for them. They have a new life; they're so excited because they have something to do besides sit on the couch and watch TV!

I taught music for five years and got married and started raising my family. I was living in Berwick, Nova Scotia and they were looking for people to work with adults in the evening for different evening programs so I started an adult ukulele class. I did that for quite a few years and again I used Chalmers' program. Then I worked in a library for about 10 years in Ontario. Part of what I did was children's programming and I used my ukulele when I was doing children's programs. So it's been with me everywhere I've gone!

When we moved back [to Nova Scotia] again the Parks and Recreation department was looking for someone to do a program so I thought, "well, let's try this with seniors first and see how it goes over here." It went over really well. That was the fall of 2002 and from there, everyone was asking for a ukulele. I've probably taught – between [Bridgewater, NS] and Liverpool [NS] – close to 200 people how to play ukulele now.

It's really taken off since I've been down here. I have people who are so eager to learn now. I think it's because the seniors that are retired have time to do this and they're saying it's just opened a whole new door for them. They have a new life; they're so excited because they have something to do besides sit on the couch and watch TV!

UY!: Can you describe the early stages of setting up your ensemble; you know, the period where everything was new. What was the biggest challenge?

SO: Well, facility. My first group was run through continuing education so I had a school room to work in. Now, as long as I'm doing it through Parks & Recreation we can use the high school but there are so many people wanting to use it... We were using the senior's centre for a while but the lighting in there is kinda dark and it's dingy and we had to rearrange furniture every time we went in so just recently – and quite by accident – I discovered a huge boardroom downstairs in the new sports complex over here. It's a beautiful facility and the rent is very reasonable – something like $12 an hour – so we've been using that. The lighting is so good; I find that everywhere you go to play, the lighting is so bad and that's very important especially when you're working with seniors.

UY!: You work primarily with adults and seniors. What is special or different about working with students in that age bracket?

Seniors [are] really keen on showing their grandchildren. All the grandparents I've taught now have grandchildren who play ukulele.

SO: There's all kinds of great things. They're there because the want to learn, they're really keen about everything that they're doing and they appreciate it so much. Of course, you get children that are very anxious to learn as well and are really excited about it but a lot of times there will be kids there because their parents want them to, not because they want to be there. And then you have to deal with them because they're causing problems... I don't have too many adults that cause problems!

Another thing when you teach seniors is that they're really keen on showing their grandchildren. All the grandparents I've taught now have grandchildren who play ukulele. I think these people are in the position to sort-of "push" this thing and they see the importance of it whereas you can talk to children all day you about how important [music] is but they don't necessarily pass that on.

The people I'm working with now are realizing the importance of music and how it affects the learning process; they know it helps children with their math and with their reading skills. It helps in their schoolwork in every way. Going through the school system myself and working in schools, I know that many teachers looked at music as a frill and when things are dropped – when budgets get tight – it's one of the first things to go. But it's one of the things that helps develop a child's brain probably more than anything else.

Another challenge when you're working with older folks is this: when you teach music to someone who hasn't had it at all it's like teaching a foreign language. But it's almost doubly difficult because most words have one interpretation but when you look at a musical note, well, for starters it has two interpretations: it has a time value and it has a pitch value. And then once you learn how to understand that then you've got interpretation where you can play it legato or staccato or loud or soft. That is the tricky thing – I think – about teaching music: getting that concept across at the very beginning.

UY!: I want to expand on something you mentioned there. Learning music helps children in school but can you say that it's good for one's health in general? If so, how?

I look at music – especially if students are learning to read music – like aerobics for your brain.

SO: Well, in a couple of ways. First and foremost I look at music – especially if students are learning to read music – like aerobics for your brain. I think it's the University of Toronto that was studying the effects of music on seniors and they're finding that it delays the onset of dementia. Just listening to music – not necessarily playing it – has that effect. Taking it a step further, reading music and playing it engages your brain even more and keeps your brain active. So I think it's one of the best things in the world for seniors to keep their brains active and functioning.

Then there's the social aspect of it. They get together and they make new friends and they really enjoy that aspect of it, too. When we go into the class we can be tired, dragging our feet a bit, but after playing music for an hour or two we're all energized. There's just something about it; everybody goes out and they're totally different. Instead of being wiped-out they feel renewed, invigorated.

UY!: What about physical health? In your experience, can playing music help with a condition like arthritis for example?

SO: I've lost a few players to arthritis but not necessarily in their hands. Some of them just have problems getting around, up and down stairs; even sitting for long periods of time can be a problem when you're 70 and I have people anywhere from age 50 to 93.

I've had a few people tell me that it has helped their arthritis. When you think of your right hand, if you're strumming for any length of time you're increasing the circulation in that hand. And with your left hand... well, I know they give people these little sponge balls to squeeze and strengthen their hands but when you think of playing chords – pressing strings off and on constantly for an hour or two – it does the same thing, maybe even better!

UY!: Do the students in your group learn how to read music as well as play by ear? If so, is learning to read music notation a challenge for adult students?

SO: I don't do as much playing by ear because of the importance of engaging the brain at that age. It's one of my goals not just to teach ukulele but to teach students to read music. For the mental benefits of it and because if they reach the stage where they can't come to classes they can pick up any music book and play the music out of it; they can figure out how it's supposed to sound. Whereas if you can't read music you can buy a record and play it over and over and over until you learn it. You might be able to sing the melody but as far as picking it out it would take a lot of work.

UY!: So, is it a challenge to get adult students to read music or do they welcome that?

SO: In the beginning it's always a challenge; a lot of them balk at it but then when they see what's possible and they see that it's good for their brain, too, I find they're really eager. What they resist at the beginning they get really anxious about learning after a little bit. Once they understand how it works – the notes and timing and all that sort of thing – then they get really excited about it. Quite a few of them now realize if they want to learn a song they just go buy the music for it and they can figure out how to do it.

UY!: What gets them through that initial stage of skepticism?

SO: I think being with the group, seeing one or two other people do it. It's a "if they can do it, so can I" type of thing. And encouragement; showing them how good it sounds when they do it. When they hear something and say "gee, that sounds so good, we'll never be able to do that" and I say "well, yes you can," you know it's not too long before some of them are playing it.

UY!: You spend a lot of time arranging repertoire. How do you come up with repertoire choices in your ensemble and what type of repertoire seems to work best?

I've got a stack of music books a mile high! I'm constantly looking at how music is taught through other instruments, not just stringed instruments.

SO: I've got a stack of music books a mile high! I started with a lot of the older uke books, doing some of the songs in Ukulele Encore and so on. I started with the beginner books and picked simple songs with just two chords for starters. With picking I just made up my own exercises. I've also gone to band books. I've taught band to some kids and I like the way those books are put together. Every page a new concept is introduced; just one basic thing like, maybe, a sharp and how a sharp affects a note. And maybe the next page will go on to what a tie does, that sort of thing. I'm constantly looking at how music is taught through other instruments, not just stringed instruments.

I've taught my group quite a wide range of repertoire. When they started out they wanted to play what they heard on the radio but that wasn't possible. Some of them like country and western so we looked at a bit of that but I can't handle too much of that (laughs) so we compromised and I started with a lot of the older uke stuff: Five Foot Two, Heart of my Heart, things that they would have heard as children. If there's something that they heard over and over as a child it's much easier for them to learn it. That's one of the big things with the music I start out with: something fairly simple melodically and also very familiar. Even things that were more familiar when they were younger is sometimes easier to work with than music they're hearing now. Although I'm not too keen on country and western music it's easier because it's simpler melodically – I find it that way anyway – and it's easier to harmonize with.

We've also learned some old Gospel music; they love that and the old folks at the nursing homes that we play for like it, too. It's something that everybody knows and knows quite well. If they're picking it they know they're picking it right because they know how it's supposed to sound. It's the same with Christmas music; one of the first things I did was teach them some Christmas music. Every year I added a few more pieces. I started with simple stuff like Up on the Housetop and Jingle Bells, things that have just a couple chords. Even the beginners have a couple Christmas songs that they can play. Once they learn a couple of those I give them a couple more with some more challenging chords and, well, it doesn't take them long to learn the chords because they really want to play the Christmas stuff!

UY!: What's next for you and the South Shore Ukulele Players?

SO: We're doing eight local Christmas concerts this year. We usually play all Christmas stuff but this time we're dividing it in half: we're doing 50s rock 'n' roll tunes for the first half and then Christmas tunes for the last half. In one of the nursing homes they like to dance so with some of the 50s stuff we play they actually get up and dance to it! We do these concerts for free; we see it as our way of giving back.

Sandra Obritsch lives and teaches in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is the founder of the South Shore Ukulele Players and co-chair of the International Ukulele Ceilidh.

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