On a recent weekday, in the conference room at Jack Lawson Realty, a dozen people crowded around the table, clutching one type or another of four-stringed instrument. Lawson's good-natured spaniel roamed around, watching everyone with one blue eye, one brown. Earl Mullins stood at the head of the table in a kitschy yellow-on-blue Hawaiian shirt with a ukulele propped up on his ample midsection.
The Boise Ukulele Group (BUG) spent the first 45 minutes of the lesson on basic skills of strumming, chord forms and music theory, before moving into an informal jam session. Though Mullins provided the lion's share of the teaching, the three most experienced players sat close to the head of the table and tag-teamed instruction in a relaxed, unrehearsed way.
In anticipation of St. Patrick's Day, Mullins sang out an impromptu version of Tom T. Hall's "I Like Beer." He encouraged the attendees to ask about any skills they'd like to learn or songs they'd like to sing.
"The primary focus of this group is, 'What do we want to do? What's going to make you want to come back next week?' I don't want to just instruct," Mullins said.
The mood in the room was indistinguishable from the willing acceptance of a kindergarten classroom. If some players had difficulty keeping up, Mullins slowed down the tempo. When a song came up with more advanced chords or a difficult progression, it was diagramed on the board so that everyone could follow along. The cheerful, joking group all sang out happily with the songs, whether the resulting chorus was pleasant or not.
BUG formed during the second week of January and started off with about five or six members. Now, they have about a dozen consistent attendees and a smattering of here-and-there participants. In the last three meetings, they have filled their space at Jack Lawson Realty and are looking for a new location for jams.
This is the third attempt by Boise ukulele enthusiasts to form such a group. In 1994, Charley Simmons tried to create a regular meeting of ukulele players. Ray Miller tried again in 1999. Both attempts petered out for lack of response or attendance.
Lawson and Mullins have put more time and resources into promoting than the previous group, said Miller. Instead of relying on word of mouth, Lawson has sponsored a Web site and drawn in participants via print and Web ads.
BUG formed as a result of Lawson's posting on an online bulletin board looking for ukulele players in Southwest Idaho. As they talked through e-mail, Lawson and Mullins decided that the ukulele group should be as informal and beginner-friendly as possible. The group charges no dues, keeps no schedule and emphasizes that they'll meet on whatever night works best for everyone.
"It's a very organic and dynamic thing. We don't come at it with an agenda," said Mullins, who recently moved here from Alaska with his family.
As a child learning piano, Mullins resented that he was forced to practice scales when he really wanted to learn the theme song to Gilligan's Island. As he teaches the group, he focuses on the songs that people bring in to play.
"Playing songs is very motivating," said John Bartels, BUG attendee and beginning ukulele player. "If you learn two or three chords, you can play a song."
Though over half of the group has only been playing since the beginning of the year, many of them have already reached proficiency in the basic chords and strum patterns. The ukulele is lightweight, easy to handle and simple to play. The motto of BUG is "Four fingers, four strings, no problem."
Of course the group looks forward to getting past the need for elementary tutorials and moving on to more challenging music. Miller, who specializes in jazz ukulele, is going to teach a summer workshop in music theory for intermediate students.
Miller, a self-proclaimed forgetful septuagenarian, offers his 50-plus years experience to BUG with no thought of remuneration. He, too, thinks that the rewards of making music are boundless.
Miller told the story of a father and daughter who decided to take up ukulele together a couple of months ago. The girl was painfully shy for the first month of BUG meetings, but through practice and acquired skill, she has gained confidence. Music can boost confidence and create a sense of community, Miller said.
Lawson hopes that eventually the group will be ready to play at retirement homes, elementary schools or for community events.
"Watching someone smile and laugh, I think that's cool. I'm pretty selfish that way," said Lawson, whose sees his investment in BUG as a charitable contribution.
Lawson said Boise is the only city of its size that doesn't have a ukulele group. "We want to fix that," he said.
Boise Ukulele Group meets Wednesdays. For more information, call Earl 208-514-6264 or Jack 208-890-8199 or visit BoiseUkuleleGroup.com.