As I tiptoed past the gate of the Midori condominium complex in Seattle’s Central District, the hard sound of a cold rain gradually dissolved into the warm hum of dozens of nylon strings, backing a cast of singing voices. Sixteen musicians aged 60 to 90 years enthusiastically plucked away at their ukuleles to the familiar nostalgia of popular holiday tunes.
For students of Keiro Northwest’s Ukulele 101 class, music is more than a form of artistic expression. It is a bridge to powerful and lasting friendships.
Keiro Northwest is a nonprofit organization that includes a nursing home, assisted living facility and educational programs, all geared toward helping Seattle’s older residents of Asian descent. Since 2004 the organization has promoted ukulele lessons among its educational programs.
Ukulele 101 begins each April and takes a year to complete. There are about 67 players in total, and each year about 18 players join. While the class falls under the Keiro Northwest umbrella, it is open for anyone in the community to attend for $35 a year.
The program was founded by Jack Akamine and his wife, Helen. Jack Akamine, who has more than 50 years of experience playing ukulele, decided to begin teaching the stringed instrument after retiring from life as a dentist, with help and encouragement from friend AC Arai.
The initial band was talented but quite small, and Arai said there was a need to create a more inclusive group.
“Helen and I desired a larger band where all were welcomed regardless of ability,” she said. “Everyone graduates in the Ukulele 101 class, no one fails.”
Akamine, Arai and instructor John Iwai then started the program’s Kimochi Band. Kimochi is a Japanese word that roughly translates to “from the heart.” The concept emphasizes effort and emotion over talent, which is the underlying principle in their performances.
At retirement homes, auctions and festivals across the city, band members aged 66 to 99 years play their hearts out in classic American standards, popular Chinese and Japanese songs and modern hits. The band embodies the spirit of community.
And community is the operative word. Arai stressed the diversity of the group, which primarily includes players of Japanese, Chinese and Filipino descent, but also contains a few white musicians.
Watching the Kimochi Band play through a set of festive songs in Midori’s commons room, the uninformed witness would be more inclined to believe they were sitting among a group of longtime friends than a structured class.
After playing a few songs as a full ensemble, instructor Dick Nagaoka turned the floor to smaller groups that each volunteered to showcase a project of their own. The performances were varied, consisting of Christmas standards, instrumental compositions and an 1893 protest song against American occupation of Hawaii.
But the band is not just a place for members to feel welcome as they express their creativity. Ukulele 101 is conducive to lasting, meaningful friendships reinforced by music.
Holding a ukulele that belonged to longtime member Esther Furugori, Arai recounted Furugori’s passion for the group. Arai spoke and played at Furugori’s funeral, and her solemn recollection made apparent just how cohesive the band is.
While the Akamines left the program several years ago, the lessons continue to grow, and have split into several different groups, to ensure each class remains small enough to foster a productive learning environment. Graduates, in turn, often enjoy the instrument so much that they branch out in their playing.
“Many of our members belong to up to five different ukulele groups,” Arai said. “They’re gung-ho to learn more and take additional lessons. It’s a good feeling to know how one small class can be productive.”
While it is easy to sum up the importance of the lessons in warm cliches like friendship and creativity, Arai believes there are more tangible benefits.
Arai believes that the groups have helped players live more healthy lives while feeling less lonely. Research in England suggests that she may be corrent.
A Psychology of Well-Being study published in 2016 found a recurrent correlation between making music in a group and increased mental and physical health.
The study involved 39 participants that were referred by hospitals and psychologists, and each took part in weekly group drumming lessons, which ran for about two months.
After the lessons, participants showed better recovery in mental and physical respects as well as less severe accounts of depression and anxiety, relative to the start of the lessons.
One of the illuminating features of the study is that participants focused on the therapeutic benefits of not just the music, but the community around that music.
That word — “community” — came up again and again in the testimonies of the English participants.
In terms of the drumming, several participants referenced the power of nonverbal language in communicating with one another, and many said that the group became a refuge in which they felt safe and included, according to the study.
Ukulele 101 treasurer Sue Tanaka emphasized the importance of finding a hobby, especially for those that have left the working world. Since retirement, Tanaka has found fulfillment in numerous activities including swimming and playing pickle ball. She has been with the Kimochi Band for nearly a decade.
“I thought since I retired I’d like to do something positive to keep myself busy,” she said. “We’re all seniors, we’re trying.”
Tanaka said the fellowship between members is one of her favorite aspects of the group, and she believes the support of friends has been beneficial to the mental health of the people in the band.
Even I could not resist the intoxication of friendship and solidarity that filled the room. Upon learning of my own musicianship, the Kimochi players urged me to take to the mic.
After adapting my guitar playing to the smaller Hawaiian instrument, I sang one of my original compositions. I quickly understood why so many students choose to stay in the band. The reception and support of each member adds to a warmth that encompasses the room.
That kind of shelter is what the Akamines and Arai intended when they developed their lessons.
Longtime member Margaret Liston said Arai’s love of the ukulele music and its players also was an important factor in the program’s success.
“It’s her personality that holds all this together,” Liston said.
But Arai, who volunteers her time, was reluctant to take sole credit.
“Each person contributes in some way to keep the program running,” she said. “I feel very fortunate to have been able to start these bands with everyone’s help.”