The unstoppable Ukelele Steve by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Live, in-person musical performances have stopped during the pandemic. Some musicians have gotten creative in finding ways to perform and get their music to their fans. One of those musicians is Steven Gilbert, professor emeritus of psychology at SUNY Oneonta, also known as Ukelele Steve.

Gilbert began his performing career in 2014, but he always loved playing music. “Playing the ukulele while singing great old songs have always brought me joy – in a nerdy, embarrassed way,” he said in an e-mail interview. “But for most of my life, I did it furtively and sporadically, with long periods of total neglect. When my uke would break, years might pass before I got another one. Sometime in the early 2000s, my children bought me a really fine baritone uke, and I found myself playing more and enjoying the challenge of learning more songs and improving my capacity on my instrument (more chords, more keys, a little picking, better strumming, etc.).”

Then came the fateful day when Sylvia Diamond, president of the Jewish Community Center’s Friendship Club, asked if he would do a program for the group. What came to mind? Why, he could play his ukulele and sing songs the seniors would know. The reaction to his performance was greater than he expected. “They loved it,” he said. “I loved doing it. I started calling the recreation directors at local senior living centers, offering to sing for no supper. Within a year, I was regularly playing at three or four facilities. By the end of 2019, I was regularly playing at 12 facilities. My songbook – the songs I rehearse and perform – has increased to around 150, and my ‘gig book’ is a monster spreadsheet, on which I record every song I perform at every gig (so I can offer a reasonable variety at each).”

Then the pandemic began and the senior living centers closed their doors to visitors. That brought an abrupt end to his performances. Gilbert missed performing, though, and then one winter day inspiration struck. “One day in March, sequestered at home, I was pining for my performing days and wondering how I could bring a little joy to my seniors fan club,” he said. “Could I make videos of some of my songs and send them to the activities directors at my performance venues? Would they play them for the residents? And what about my little fan club at Temple Israel, might they be interested in seeing some of these videos? I decided to record a couple a week and see.” 

The response was so great that he continues to perform. Gilbert posts his work on his personal Facebook page and sends links to a Google Drive account to several e-mail lists he’s cultivated. “I post each of the songs I record on Facebook, but to my ‘friends’ only,” he noted. “Posting to ‘public’ obviously would reach more people, but some of them may be inclined to respond with abuse – this is social media! – and that downside risk is greater than I wish to accept. Instead, I send the links to my videos to several e-mail distribution lists: a) my family (immediate and extended); b) activities directors at my performance venues; c) Temple Israel; and d) assorted friends and acquaintances whose e-mail addresses have made it into my AOL address book over the years. My best guess is that between Facebook friends and e-mail lists (and taking into account the very considerable overlap of the two). I reach about 400 people. My estimate is that about 150 of them view the videos I sent.”

Gilbert looks for songs to perform on YouTube, which he calls “the eighth wonder of the world.” He uses several criteria to pick the songs: 1) He has to love them, 2) he has to be able to perform them (Gilbert notes that his vocal range and ukelele skills are limited.) and 3) people his age and older have to like the songs. “I do lots of 1950s hits,” he added. “Classics from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. Folks songs. Protest songs. Gospel songs. Elvis. Beatles. Songs people keep asking me to sing. And songs that keep popping up in my mind’s ear, and won’t relent until I learn them and officially enter them into my songbook!”

The songs are recorded in Gilbert’s basement and he tries to do them in one take. He’s not always successful and will do a little editing to get rid of mistakes. Even though he practices before he starts recording, Gilbert noted that he usually makes at least one mistake during the actual performance. “When this happens, I don’t stop the video recording,” he said. “Instead, I simply stop singing, go back to a sensible place to resume the performance, and restart my singing and playing at that point. If I make another embarrassing error, I’ll do the same thing again. A third error is nature’s way of telling me that I’m not in the right frame of mind, and I stop, discard the recording and return an hour later to try again.” When finished, he does his editing and then uploads the video to Google Drive. Next comes posting it on Facebook and sending the link to his e-mail lists.

Gilbert said he is having a grand time performing. “Gertrude Stein reportedly said, ‘I hate writing but I love having written,’” he said. “That’s not true for me. I love every part of this enterprise. The actual process of recording the video, however, is stressful. But in the words of John Lewis, of blessed memory, it is good stress, necessary stress. My two favorite parts of the process are: (a) working up the song – experimenting with different ways of playing and singing – getting it right; and (b) receiving feedback (on Facebook and e-mails). When I know I have brought a little joy to a few people, amid the privations, sadness and anxiety that have enveloped our world, I feel blessed.”