Fans of singer-songwriter Taylor James Donskey used to catch him at local clubs and coffeehouses, performing original folkie-country tunes or jamming with his band.
With COVID-19 closing many live music outlets, Donskey now plays for much smaller audiences. Instead of a stage, he’s wedged into the tiny studio in his Minneapolis apartment, leaning into his laptop and greeting students livestreaming his ukulele class.
“This is the A chord. It’s your peace sign fingers, your pointer and your middle finger,” he said, positioning the neck of the instrument closer to the camera. “Let’s play together. I’ll count you off.”
A graduate of the University of Minnesota’s School of Music and an in-demand local side man, Donskey is now occupied with teaching gigs using the first instrument he learned to play.
“I borrowed one from my high school when I was 14,” he said. “It’s accessible. And it’s just a little silly. When you hold a ukulele, there’s no way to frown.”
With its four strings and bright sound, the ukulele is finding a growing following among Minnesotans who have been grounded by the pandemic and have time for a new hobby. It’s easy to learn and available for a song; the cost of the plucky instrument starts at around $30.
Newbies can watch a bevy of YouTube tutorials or sign up for online classes offered through various Minnesota community education programs, music shops, even MacPhail Center for Music.
These players join an existing group of musical Minnesotans devoted to the ukulele. In recent years, ukulele concerts, seminars and festivals have attracted local fans who like to play or listen to the instrument. Clubs from the Twin Cities suburbs to the North Shore have regularly met to play together; now the amateur musicians have shifted their strum-and-sings to online platforms and Facebook Live.
A ukulele world
David Remiger is one of the merry leaders of the Minnesota movement. “The ukulele brings me such joy and pleasure. I can’t read music very well but the song sheets make it easy for the average player,” he said.
Known by the handle Ukester Brown, the retired Remiger took up the instrument early in his career as a UPS delivery man.
“I played on breaks to stay in the present; otherwise your brain is thinking about the next 10 stops. Making music allowed me to rest and relax. And the truck had amazingly good acoustics,” he said.
“My boss started calling me Ukester and Brown is for the uniform I wore for 30 years. Now my wife is known as Mrs. Brown. We get a kick out of it.”
At the dawn of the digital era, Remiger dipped a toe into what he calls the “ukulele world,” with a website to share his song sheets. Later he used it to upload his videos, promote his teaching and set up community singalong gigs.
“When the internet was a newborn, players were able to find each other. We all thought we were the only one,” he said. “Now I’m part of a worldwide community. I have friends all over the world and have traveled to teach and played at a bunch of festivals.”
Remiger finds the instrument easy on his hands and fingers; he knows lifelong guitar players plagued with arthritis who have shifted to the ukulele.
On the other end of the age scale, musical educators suggest that children can begin playing about age 4; they’re big enough to grip the instrument and understand the chords.
Parents are heading into Twin Town Guitars in Minneapolis to check out the store’s wall of ukuleles of different sizes, colors and price points, snapping them up for their kids and themselves.
“We’ve seen a big bump,” said store owner Andrew Bell. “It’s not a major investment like a drum kit or a keyboard and they can scamper over to a guitar or a bass once they learn. The principles transfer.”
He employs 30 musician-teachers, including Donskey, who offer online individual, group and parent-child lessons.
“A teacher at the other end of the screen looking at your technique and giving feedback is invaluable,” Bell said. “We prefer teaching face-to-face and doing live showcases, but there’s no way to do that safely now.”
Popping up again
Long associated with Hawaii, the precursor to the ukulele arrived on the islands in the 1880s with Portuguese immigrants who worked the sugar fields and played what was called a four-stringed machete. Renamed the ukulele, it grew in popularity; even Hawaii’s king and queen were accomplished players and favored it at royal events.
Since then the ukulele has ridden numerous waves of popularity, embraced by Jazz Age musicians and working its way into the bluegrass scene.
The miniature instrument got a boost with virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s strummed version of “Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World,” which became early viral videos.
Since then, Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and Jeremy Messersmith have featured ukuleles on some of their hits and in their concerts; Grammy-winner Billie Eilish recently partnered with Fender to market her signature ukulele.
“The sound is so heartwarming. It’s a cheerful antidote to the dark wintry season we are entering,” Bell said.
Meghan Thompson looks forward to Thursday nights. That’s when she picks up her newly purchased ukulele and joins a few other beginners for Donskey’s virtual music class.
“I live alone in an apartment and I work all day from home with back-to-back Zoom calls,” she said. “Thursdays are a bright spot.”
Although she hasn’t played an instrument since she put down her junior high clarinet, she’s already able to string together enough chords to fake her way through a few introductory songs. For now, her only audience is Cindy, her newly adopted rescue terrier, who offers no criticism as she practices “You Are My Sunshine.”
But Thompson imagines a time when human ears will hear her strumming.
“I have some musical family members who bust out the guitar at Christmas or when we get together. I’d love to participate in that beyond singing along,” she said. “Someday we’ll all be back around the fire pit again having fun, won’t we?”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.