Healthy Aging

How I Became Obsessed with Finger-Picking Brain Training


My reason for buying a ukulele had nothing to do with the fact that flocks of hipsters in knit caps and flannel shirts are flaunting these mini–guitar cousins. I bought a uke to maintain my cognitive health. Living through my mother’s spiral into the abyss and eventual death from Alzheimer’s Disease scared me into considering the things she did or didn’t do that could have contributed to her affliction. By purchasing a ukele, I was taking action on what scientists say may ward off degeneration.

I came up with the idea after reading an article in one of the many health magazines that jam my mailbox. The article said I should cook my scrambled eggs with coconut oil, douse them with turmeric and throw in a generous handful of Omega 3-packed walnuts. It also said I must jostle my aging brain out of its comfort zone and get more social, struggle through word puzzles or take on a musical instrument. The article depicted a Baby Boomer woman, like myself, surrounded by friends on a beach, fireside, strumming a guitar. The image spoke to me, because I had talked for years about wanting to resurrect my rudimentary guitar knowledge. Wasn’t it only yesterday that I’d impressed my first boyfriend with that opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven?”

This was my call to action.

So I climbed the attic stairs to retrieve my old high school pastime. I found the red fleece-lined case, but as soon as I opened it, I noticed that the strings had sprung loose and years of extreme heat had warped the neck. Ever hopeful, I lugged my neglected instrument to a local luthier, who said, “Beyond repair. But I’ll take it for parts.” He offered me $30 and walked me past a row of possible replacements hanging in soldier formation on all four walls. Their dangling price tags started at $400 and went well beyond the $1,000 range. I worried about investing in something that may end up in the attic like my old guitar, conducting heat and providing a den for overwintering mice. So I hedged. That’s when he said, “Ever consider a uke? Starting at only $100, they’re a steal.”

Without waiting for an answer he perched one on his belly and plunked. My ears perked to the twang. It was a miniature guitar tuned to bright and happy. And with just four strings to a guitar’s six, to a 30-year musical drop-out like me, it seemed doable. I was sold. I departed with what felt like a toy slung over my arm, a caricature of what I’d walked in with.

I’m now hooked. I’ve discovered that most songs learned on guitar can also be rendered on a uke. And so I scan YouTube ukulele tutorials, trying to reclaim my stringed-instrument skills.

I assumed it would be like riding a bike. Not so. Fingering chords, reading tablature and memorizing repertoire has been just the ticket to working my mental muscle. Months and many practice sessions later, I’ve yet to master the “Stairway to Heaven” introduction.

The ukulele has also broadened my social horizons. I’ve taken part in picking and strumming parties. Last summer I attended a ukulele workshop along with 70 older strummers jammed into a local library activity room. The instructor, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a big smile, stood before us, demonstrating a variety of ukuleles. I sat with my own resting on my lap, riveted as he finger-picked “You Are My Sunshine” on a banjolele, which is half ukulele and half banjo, but twangier.

I’ve always wanted to play the banjo, I thought as I watched the instructor. That’s when he joked, “Be careful. Ukes are like potato chips. You can never have just one.”

Deb Adamson is a former syndicated columnist with Gatehouse News Service. Her essays have appeared in national magazines including E The Environmental Magazine, People Places and Plants, and Home Education. She is also a published children’s book author.


2 responses to “How I Became Obsessed with Finger-Picking Brain Training

  1. To all of you staying focused on learning new stuff I commend your diligence. I wish I could but lately my 73 year old body is preventing me from doing new things. If I survive this bump in the road I plan on doing!! God willing.☺

  2. Thank you. I enjoyed this article.

    I also took up music a few years back, just before I turned 65. The pension money, while no great fortune, was the first “money of my own” that I had had in many years. First I bought myself a violin, then a decent bow. I saved carefully and finally, after several years had squirreled enough to purchase the best mandolin I could afford.

    There were several reasons for picking up a second instrument and putting away the violin for a few years. I had no idea the violin was so difficult and let’s face it, neither my fingers nor my brain are quite so nimble as they were decades ago. I miss it though. If I had a teacher I might even give it another go.

    So for now the mandolin is my instrument and I love it. It’s ok that the speed at which I play jigs and reels might frustrate even the must patient of Irish dancers. And yes, Irish instrumental tunes are my passion. It would be nice to have a little group to play with occasionally but that hasn’t happened. I seem to be a bit of an anomaly hereabouts, an old lady still doing art and music and every day learning something new.

    My dream is to see an active community of artists, musicians, etc. of all ages develop around the shores of Chaleur Bay in Canada. I imagine all sorts of wonderful cultural activities like festivals and workshops. That hasn’t happened yet either, but I believe that someday it will.

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