About 13 kids and their parents turned out June 21 for a weekly ukulele lesson being offered this summer by Lee Urban of Ukuleles Heal the World. From left are brothers Peter, 11, David, 7, and Sam Rank, 14, with Urban. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Playing the ukulele is a simple joy. It’s easy to play and is a relatively inexpensive instrument.

Those are just some of the reasons Lee Urban has developed a passion for the small, four-stringed instrument that until recent years was almost exclusively associated with Hawaiian culture.

Sisters Maddie, 10, and Rowan Conley, 6, hold matching blue ukuleles during a music lesson held at Portland’s Reiche Elementary last week. Lee Urban is offering the weekly sessions this summer in the hopes of building enough interest to start a local ukulele youth orchestra. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

This summer Urban is sharing his ukulele love with students and their parents during weekly lessons, which will be held 11 a.m.-noon every Friday through the end of August at Reiche Elementary School in the city’s West End.

The music camp, which Urban has dubbed Friday Morning Ukulele Sessions, or FRIMUS, drew an initial turnout of 13 kids and seven adults for the first session June 21.

There is no cost to participate in the drop-in program, so there’s no need to sign up or commit to attending every week. Urban said he hopes most participants will have their own ukulele, but he will also have some to loan out.

Urban’s ultimate hope is that enough Portland students will show up this summer and have so much fun playing that they’ll be interested in becoming part of a new ukulele youth orchestra he wants to form.


Urban, who is a former Portland planning and economic development director, first picked up the ukulele five years ago.

What he most likes about the instrument is that enough chords to play a song can be learned in 10 minutes, “but it’ll take forever and a day to master. Thus, (it becomes) a lifelong friend as you learn new chords, new songs, and new techniques.”

Urban has become so convinced of the ukulele’s ability to not only “spread smiles” but to also “enhance self-confidence and self-esteem,” that he’s created a nonprofit called Ukuleles Heal the World. The organization’s mission is to share the power of the ukulele with others and hopefully spread peace and goodwill along the way.

Donations to Ukuleles Heal the World can be made on the organization’s Facebook page. Urban said all proceeds go toward supporting ukulele music camps, including purchasing ukuleles for kids to use.

In addition to the weekly music lessons Urban is offering this summer at Reiche Elementary, he also partners with LearningWorks to provide after-school and school vacation ukulele camps during the academic year.

“Learning to play a ukulele is great fun, but for kids who don’t always have the same advantages that other kids have, they can gain a real sense of personal satisfaction that they’ve tried something and succeeded. There are no such things as mistakes in ukulele land, so it’s all about every day being a fun day filled with success,” Urban said.


Lee Urban is offering free weekly ukulele lessons this summer at Reiche Elementary School in Portland’s West End. Kate Irish Collins / The Forecaster

He initially began playing the ukulele because he thought it might help his arthritic fingers become more flexible.

Urban said some of what makes the ukulele so special is that it’s small, which makes it portable, and “you don’t need to spend lots of money to buy one. A starter uke can cost only $40 or $50.”

During the weekly lessons at Reiche Elementary, Urban said he’ll focus on the basics, such as how to properly hold and strum a ukulele and how to sing and strum at the same time “all in a very informal and fun environment.”

His goal is for the students and their parents to “have lots of fun while feeling very proud of themselves that they’ve learned to play the ukulele.”

In terms of the ukulele youth orchestra, Urban said while in places such as Hawaii and on the West Coast “lots of young folks play ukuleles, there don’t seem to be so many young people uke’ing here in New England.”

He said most ukulele groups in the area are largely made up of seniors, which makes it even more imperative to create a new generation of ukulele aficionados.

During the first session last week Urban showed participants how a very different sound is produced by using a thumb or finger, as well as demonstrating the proper rest and playing positions.

He also outlined the different parts of the instrument, including the neck, which contains the fretboard. Urban then spent the second part of the lesson teaching the participants to play “Row Row Row Your Boat.”

“Everything we’re doing is building on what we did before,” Urban said.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

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