Around Town

‘Friends’ group sponsors free ukulele lessons

WESTFIELD-Playing the guitar in bands around New York City never felt comfortable for Julie Stepanek, so when her family moved to Massachusetts, a neighbor introduced her to a ukulele and she was hooked.

“I had left New York City with my husband and 2-year-old son but was still commuting two days a week to New York City to support my family,” said Stepanek. “I had been playing a guitar for a decade and there was no love between me and my guitar.”

Stepanek said she dedicated 10 years of real effort to learning the guitar but it didn’t make her “very happy.”

Julie Stepanek will be featured giving ukulele lessons during two free Zoom presentations next month, sponsored by the Westfield Athenaeum. (SUBMITTED PHOTO)

“Once I started playing the ukulele, I was absolutely hooked,” she said, adding, “ukuleles make everyone very happy.”

Stepanek is hopeful that her enthusiasm for playing the ukulele will resonate with area residents during two free Zoom presentations next month, hosted by the Westfield Athenaeum.

“The Friends of the Westfield Athenaeum were so generous to sponsor the class and the ukulele purchase, we hope to create groups who can jam together,” said Becky Blackburn, public services librarian. “If anyone has a ukulele they would like to donate, we would be happy to accept it.”

Blackburn noted the Athenaeum currently has 12 ukuleles to loan to library patrons.

“So if someone is interested and can’t attend they can still try one out,” said Blackburn, noting there are many videos on the internet that also provide instruction.

The free lessons on Zoom are slated Nov. 4 and 18 at 7 p.m. and registration is required. Persons interested in attending one or both of the classes can register by calling (413) 568-7833 or visiting

Blackburn noted the lessons are intended for ages 12 and older.

Tina Otero, a page at the Westfield Athenaeum, tries out a ukulele in preparation for free Zoom lessons offered next month. (BECKY BLACKBURN PHOTO)

“The Westfield Athenaeum offers music programs often, but COVID has limited that for 2020,” said Blackburn. “This feels like a good way to get people involved from the comfort of their own home.”

Blackburn added she too likes the idea of learning the ukulele because “it is easy, only four strings, and students can pick it up quickly and just start having fun.”

Stepanek said she has found “people hunger for more music in their lives,” and she can teach anyone everything they need to know in one lesson.

“While I was teaching a lesson at the Woburn Public Library, a woman in her 70’s popped in to say she wasn’t taking my class because she had already done so and said, ‘it changed my life,’ said Stepanek. “I’ve found that some people always wanted to play an instrument but never did and now I’m seeing people of all ages wanting to learn and it is wonderful.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Stepanek covered 25,000 miles annually traveling to libraries across the state, sharing her love of the ukulele to young people and those who are young at heart.

“The ukulele is small, relatively inexpensive, and sounds good,” she said, adding, “When the pandemic started, people who would come to my ukulele programs asked if we could do something online.”

Stepanek agreed and for six nights a week, she had between 20 and 60 people jamming from their homes on their ukuleles.

For area residents who have a ukulele they would like to donate to the Westfield Athenaeum, contact Becky Blackburn, public services librarian. The Friends of the Westfield Athenaeum purchased this glow in the dark ukulele for an upcoming Zoom presentation. (BECKY BLACKBURN PHOTO)

“People were on lockdown and in shock,” she said. “It was a social thing and gave me structure for my life which turned out to be psychologically healthy for me. To be able to help people that way at the end of the day saved me.”

Stepanek said her Nov. 4 program will teach the mechanics of playing the ukulele, including how to hold the instrument, strum it, change the sound of it, make chords, and learn a few easy songs.

“A useful song to know is ‘Happy Birthday,’” she said.

On Nov. 18, she will once again review the basics of the instrument and introduce a few songs.

“I want to be sure everyone leaves having a good experience,” said Stepanek.

Blackburn noted there are 100 Zoom slots for the classes.

Stepanek encourages parents to consider introducing the program to their children.

“I think kids really dig it and it looks like a guitar,” said Stepanek. “I’ve had parents tell me the kids take the ukulele in the car. It is a very special little instrument.”

Over the past few months Stepanek has also found comfort in her “play-alongs” on Zoom.

“I post the lyrics and chords on the screen and every one is muted except me,” she said. “I am singing and playing the ukulele and give instruction and explain how I am playing the ukulele.”

Stepanek added it is always “more fun” to play with other people.

“They are having a fun hour and we need some fun hours in our day,” she said.

Blackburn shared a similar sentiment.

“I will definitely be there to learn the ukulele because I love the sound and it seems fun,” said Blackburn. “I would encourage people to try this class, no one will hear you on your couch and you may uncover a hidden talent!”

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