Strumming Along–You can join these local Ukulele Players
Some four years ago, a cadré of ukulele enthusiasts were spending their Sunday afternoons jamming at the gazebo behind Great Barrington’s town hall. A reporter happened by on his way to another concert and asked the group’s name. They didn’t have one, recalls their leader, Sherry Steiner. So she just called out, “Sunday Strummers!”
“He wrote a little article and took a picture, and then, all of a sudden, we started performing,” says Steiner. “It wasn’t a jam anymore.”
The ensemble members first met at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center, where they learned to play in the Berkshire Ukulele Band (BUB), under the tutelage of multi-instrumentalist Rob Sanzone. Steiner enjoyed the experience so much that she wanted to play more. “I decided I really wanted to perform.”
But getting people to join her wasn’t so easy. “I think a lot of people didn’t like practicing because with the jams, we’d just play a song and then move on. Now we’re going to stay on this song and we’re going to do it until we get it right.” Nevertheless, as they say, she persisted, ultimately gathering a core group of five members, including Andy Krouss, Jackie Shepardson, and Peggy Richard.
And perform they did, even when they didn’t have a name, which came a little later on. Through word of mouth, the group has become a community favorite, making the rounds in venues that run the gamut—from farmers markets to senior centers to the Lenox Apple Squeeze.
While Steiner already knew how to play guitar, piano, and violin before taking up the ukulele, the beauty of BUB is that one doesn’t need to know how to read music to play. In fact, Andy had never played a musical instrument before. But, he found his four-string uke easy to learn. “I have a terrible memory and it’s really, really easy to read the music and memorize the chords.”
The Strummers play a wide variety of music, including oldies, jazz, R&B, and rock and roll. “When someone hires us we’re able to pull into our book and see what would go with a particular venue,” Steiner explains.
A songwriter herself, Steiner sometimes throws in her own original compositions, as well as coming up with new arrangements for old standards. Proficient in three other instruments, learning to play ukulele was somewhat counterintuitive. “I kept listening on YouTube to people playing ukulele, and being a guitar player, that sound was almost annoying to me,” she says.
One night, she decided to head over to the community center to see what BUB was all about. “The people were so great. That’s what was more interesting at that point. It was the people, and there was a feeling about it that just felt right.”
Krouss, on the other hand, was pushed into it by his wife, Lorrin. “She said, ‘You have a lot of time on your hands. So-and-so is going down to BUB. Why don’t you go?’ She kept on pushing me, so I finally said okay.
“The easy part is that they have loaner ukes; the lessons are free; it’s a walk-in; it’s an hour and a half. So I said what do I have to lose? If I don’t like it, I won’t go back.”
But he did like it. And he came back. And he bought a ukulele. And he didn’t stop there. “Sherry says to me, ‘When are you getting your next one?’ I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? You want me to stay married?’ ”
But there was no turning back. He bought a second one. He received his third as a gift.
Steiner describes the group’s character. “We can laugh at ourselves and each other while we’re practicing, but then we know when it’s show time we’re serious about it, and when we get there we’re going to put on a good show.”
Andy sums up the enduring attraction of the group for himself. “Whatever’s going on in your life at the time, you can take yourself out of that and stick yourself into this playing. We’re all good together. It’s fun. Everybody knows what their commitment is. If we have a practice on a Thursday, everybody’s going be there on a Thursday.
“The time flies and you walk out of there and feel refreshed and engaged and great. It’s fantastic.”
The Berkshire Ukulele Band (BUB) meets every Tuesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. There’s no fee; drop-ins are welcome. Bring your own ukulele, although a few are there that can be borrow. The Sunday Strummers will be performing in the following venues over the next several months.
Dec. 21: Ski Butternut, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Jan. 6: Jewish Federation at Congregation Knesset Israel, 10:45 to 11:45 a.m.
Jan. 18: Great Barrington Winter Farmers Market at Monument Valley Middle School, 10:30 a.m. to noon.
Mar. 6: Egremont Council on Aging at the Egremont Village Inn, 12:45 to 1:30 p.m.
Mar. 21: Great Barrington Winter Indoor Farmers Market at Monument Valley Middle School 10:30 a.m.
Photo at top: Andy Krouss, Jack Shepardson, Sherry Steiner, and Peggy Richard.