When Janet Hutcheson joined the Waco Ukulele Orchestra in 2018, she practiced until her fingers were raw, but still wasn’t confident in her skills.
“I played terribly and off and really struggled, but the band was so nice,” Hutcheson said. “They just let me keep trying and I just tried and tried and tried to learn.”
Hutcheson is now a dedicated member of the group, which meets for rehearsal on Tuesday evenings in a back room at Crestview Church of Christ, 7129 Delhi Road.
The pandemic has delayed the ukulele group’s efforts to expand its membership, but eight to 10 members have remained loyal, practicing over Zoom. Over the past two years, the band has perfected two tracklists and now plays around town frequently.
Due to time conflicts and other constraints, the founders of the ukulele orchestra are no longer part of the group. However, one of the original members, Mike Thompson, stayed on and is now a leader and mentor for new members.
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Thompson said he joined the orchestra when he moved to Waco in 2017. He started playing the ukulele around 2015, but had previous experience with other instruments, including guitar and drums.
“I started the ukulele because it was given as a gift to my wife and she left it at home on the couch and I picked it up,” Thompson said. “I didn’t expect to like it, but I like it.”
Thompson said there is something special about the orchestra that draws people in. They perform many older classics such as “Oklahoma Hills” and “Just Because”.
“Sometimes we’ve had people who’ve never played an instrument at all, and all of a sudden they come in and over the months, really become part of the band,” Thompson said. “I think it’s contagious. I think every time we play, whether it’s in a retirement community or on the street in downtown Waco at Christmas. I think people really appreciate what we bring.
The ukulele orchestra is constantly finding ways to expand its shows, Hutcheson said.
“We’ve played Common Grounds and Hemingway’s (Watering Hole), we’ve played Waco Wonderland, Dr Pepper Christmas and the Chalk Festival. We just hope to keep improving and playing for a bigger audience,” Hutcheson said.
Susan Anderson, who joined the orchestra around the same time as Hutcheson, enjoys performing at nursing homes with the band.
“Most of the songs we choose are pretty (happy). The ukulele is naturally a happy instrument. Everyone smiles when you play,” Anderson said. “When we go to nursing homes, no matter how they feel or where they’ve been, all of a sudden the whole room is smiling and singing along to some of the songs we do. It’s a real treat to to be able to come into contact with people from this group.
Anderson is a singer and a former choir director at St. Louis Catholic Church for 24 years. She has also sung with the Waco Lyric Opera and in musical productions by the Waco Civic Theater.
“What I really love is that we can all enjoy it together,” Anderson said. “It can be newbies and people who’ve been playing for a while, people who’ve been playing for 20 years, and we can all hand out a song and play it, even on the first night.”
Thompson and the other members agreed that a performance at the Chalk Festival on Austin Avenue in May was one of their most memorable.
“The reason I really liked the Chalk Festival was because of the nature of how it worked, you didn’t have a captive audience,” Thompson said. “It’s not that we think our other audiences are captive, but what I’m saying is that while people were doing the festival, they could drop by and enjoy the music and just stand there for a few minutes or so. “Sit down and cool off. We had people standing across the street as they ate their whatever on a stick. It was a good time.”
Thompson said he thinks the ukulele is a great instrument for beginners because it doesn’t require a large initial investment.
“It’s not that expensive to start with, and this group right here has zero dues,” Thompson said. “People just show up and we have a few loaner ukuleles that are available, if we know someone is going to show up and they’re not sure. We could lend them a ukulele for a few weeks and if they decide to stay, they could either buy us that ukulele or I would even go out with them to help them choose a ukulele.
Successfully playing the ukulele will take time and practice, Thompson said. But it is possible for everyone.
“How good you’re going to be is how much you put into it,” Thompson said. “So every time you see someone online and they go through something, yeah, they have chops. They know what they are doing. Maybe just playing the bottom three chords on that, you could be up and running pretty soon.