When she was 50, Clare Innes of Hinesburg went to Hawaii. She came back with a ukulele and a passion.
Then Innes looked up some ukulele chords online and learned two chords.
She took her two chords to gatherings of the Vermont Ukulele Society in Bristol, which is where the group met every other week until the pandemic sounded the death knell — or at least the prolonged coma — on in-person hootenannies.
“They play all kinds of crazy songs with crazy chords. I’d see my two chords come up and I’d play them, then I would just kind of hang in with the beat,” Innes said. “That’s kind of how I learned the ukulele — chord by chord, song by song, strum by strum.”
Next, she hooked up with a bunch of people who play bluegrass music and whose favorite thing is standing out in a field and swapping songs.
They looked at Innes and her miniature Hawaiian guitarish instrument kind of sideways but welcomed both anyway.
“I feel like that’s how I became more of a nimble player,” Innes said. “It’s been a hurricane force of ukulele ever since.”
Mandolin player Don Gould said Innes came to a party on an unseasonably warm St. Patrick’s Day with lots of people from all over standing around the yard jamming. Gould said Innes was clearly struck by the possibilities of connecting musically with people she’d never played with before.
“It was like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when Dorothy opens the door, for Clare. She was looking around saying, ‘Wow.’ It was something she didn’t know existed,” Gould said. “She went from being a real beginner to now being an instructor and one of the best performers from that meeting.”
As she learned the ukulele, she also found she had a passion for sharing what she’d learned, so two years after she started playing, she started teaching and spreading the gospel of strumming the ukulele — or uke to the abbreviating hip.
The force of the ukulele attraction swept her along and absorbed her time, so she acquired her proficiency quickly. “It’s been sort of in dog years, the intensity took me,” Innes said.
It may seem that her passion for her instrument came late, and she said it is great when you find your passion earlier in life “but whenever you can find it, it’s just a wonderful thing to follow because it just opens up whole new worlds.”
As far as passions go, the ukulele is not a bad hankering to have. It’s not an intimidating instrument. Its four nylon strings are easy to manipulate into chords.
It’s also inexpensive. She recommends for people wanting to know if the uke is right for them to buy a good used ukulele, which should cost $50-$60.
“At a good yard sale, you can drive quite a bargain,” Innes said.
The ukulele is the perfect instrument for people who have always wanted to learn to play an instrument or for people “who have a song in their heart or an adventurous spirit.”
Besides playing the ukulele, Innes found that teaching people to play struck a very harmonious chord as well.
Innes instructs students of all ages, even some in their nineties. Innes said, if you can hold a ukulele, she will teach you how to play it.
Most of her classes are online now, but before COVID she taught group classes through Champlain Valley Union High School’s Access program, the continuing education program at the University of Vermont, town recreation departments or libraries.
Most of her classes include about eight people but she’s taught classes of 20 people of all different skill levels. She also does private one-on-one classes.
Because COVID has normalized teaching online, she has students from all over the world — Ireland, Mexico, West Coast, Maine, North Carolina.
In her eight years of teaching, Innes said she has probably taught 600 people how to play, in the process earning the moniker of Ukulele Clare.
But Innes is not just a champion of the ukulele and discovering your musical muse, she’s an advocate for finding the passion that is uniquely you and following it.
“You feel it when you strike gold, when you finally get to that thing that just so speaks to you,” Innes said. “Whenever you can find it, it’s just a wonderful thing to follow because it just opens up whole new worlds. It runs you into people you never would have met. You learn things about yourself.”
Before her ukulele fixation, Innes said she was shy about singing in public. She tried the piano, the guitar, the banjo, even the mandolin, but none of them connected with her. After she started playing the ukulele, her bluegrass friends egged her on to play and sing in public.
“My first song was Gillian Welch’s ‘Orphan Girl,’ and after her performance, Innes said she was amazed to find: “I didn’t die. My ukulele didn’t explode. I was just hooked.”
She discovered she had a primal urge to make music: “It just really allows you to connect with other people in such a sweet way and to connect to that part of you that enjoys making music for the sake of making music, you don’t need to have a purpose.”
To find out more about classes or jams, check out ukuleleclare.com.