As I walked the streets of Ann Arbor after moving to town twelve years ago, I breathed in all the energy, diversity, and uniqueness of my new home. Optimism about my future life here blossomed further a few years later, when I walked into the gym and announced to my gym buddies that I had received a ukulele for my eightieth birthday and was excited to learn how to play.
Two others working out at the time said they had been thinking about taking up the uke but didn’t know how to get started. Then Mike Brooks, never skipping a step on the treadmill, said, “I can help you.” And just like that, the Brain Plasticity Ukulele Collective (BPUC) was born.
The three of us began meeting with Mike and practicing together. It wasn’t long before word spread and others asked to join. In the seven years since that lucky day at the gym, the band, with Mike’s guidance, has grown from the original three novices to twenty-one members of all ages, backgrounds, and musical experience. The music we play is just as diverse, including rock, swing, blues, and even classical.
Rheumatologist Gene Su joined us after retiring from St. Joe’s. “I was once in an orchestra and wanted the experience of playing again with others,” he explains. “It’s the banter, the laughter, and the sense of community in the band that makes me happy.”
Kathleen Baxter, innkeeper of Baxter House B & B, first took up the ukulele in college and later used it to accompany her kindergarten students in song. “I got by with a dozen chords,” she laughs, “campfire style.” Her interest in the ukulele was revived after attending one of our holiday concerts.
“I was grieving over the loss of a friend and found music to be the perfect antidote,” she says. “With Mike inserting music theory, song arrangements, new compositions, and laughter into each lesson, we are all growing as individuals and as a band.”
“Probably one of the most memorable and fulfilling experiences for the band was when we played eight mini-concerts in two days during last summer’s Tiny Tops concerts that replaced Top of the Park,” says Leona Foster, who runs Leuk’s Landing, a sanctuary for cats with feline leukemia. “We rented a bus to transport us around the Ann Arbor area to perform four back-to-back concerts each day. We have also played for events in Dixboro, Ypsilanti, and Grosse Isle, and, before the pandemic closed things down, performed regularly for residents of the memory care unit at the Glacier Hills community.”
Foster says she took piano lessons as a child but “begged my mom to let me stop. She gave in, and I never played again. But since joining the band I realize the right teacher makes all the difference.”
Brooks calls his role “facilitator.” He fell in love with rock ’n’ roll growing up in England and has played in many bands since he was sixteen. “But,” he says, “playing with our BPUC band is the most fun I’ve ever had while making music.”
“The operating system of the band is a culture of creativity and a community of mutual support,” says Ellie Serras, longtime civic activist and a flutist with a music degree from the University of Tennessee. Ellie plays riffs on the melody while we strum our ukes, and Mike sings the words and plays the guitar.
A flute and a bunch of ukuleles? Ellie credits Mike for encouraging her to learn to improvise and then helping her do it.
“I was raised in a home where Mozart and the three Bs (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms) ruled,” she says. “I knew of Elvis and the Beatles, but listening to them was strictly prohibited. Through Mike Brooks’s relentless encouragement and help in understanding the art and complexity of improvisation, I now have a complementary set of Bs to admire and bookend my initial musical education—the beauty and brilliance of the Beatles and the blues.”
“Being in the band has been life-changing,” says Peyton Bland, a retired U-M biomedical engineer, and our sound effects man. He says it has helped him understand music in new and deeper ways; introduced him to a new circle of friends; helped him become more outgoing; put him into new situations, such as performing in public and recording music in a studio; and given him an opportunity to learn about producing sound effects and building instruments to make, for instance, the sound of a train whistle.
For U-M pathologist David Keren, the opportunity to learn music theory was particularly interesting. After receiving a ukulele for his birthday a few years ago, he was teaching himself to play when he heard about BPUC through member Mary Schumann, a friend of his wife’s. “I like the challenge of learning new things and working out problems,” Keren says. “It’s fun for me, and I believe it’s also good for my brain.”
Those of us who are older are inclined to agree—it’s why we included “Plasticity” in the name we gave ourselves. And “Collective” perfectly describes the culture of the band.
As Mike puts it, “Community, learning, and laughter form the band’s heart and soul while furthering the imagination of our collective possibilities and our tonal and cognitive strength. As studies have shown, by sharing music and learning how to play a new instrument, you can drop a brain bomb, fire up the synapses, and rewire some neural pathways.
“In other words, along with the fun we are having, our brains are getting a great workout.”
The Brain Plasticity Ukulele Collective will be joining forces with Blueshouse!, also led by Mike Brooks, at a benefit for the Ark on June 17.