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North Hills

Steel City Ukuleles turns average folks into musicians

| Tuesday, March 13, 2018, 4:03 p.m.
Kathy Short and Linda Cusick play ukulele while Jim Cusick provides drum accompaniment at the Ross Township Community Center.
Photos: Kristy Locklin
Kathy Short and Linda Cusick play ukulele while Jim Cusick provides drum accompaniment at the Ross Township Community Center.
Toniaray DiGiacomo, left, of Hampton, Marlene Parrish and Kitty Brunkhorst strum their ukuleles at the Ross Township Community Center.
Photos: Kristy Locklin
Toniaray DiGiacomo, left, of Hampton, Marlene Parrish and Kitty Brunkhorst strum their ukuleles at the Ross Township Community Center.

Every time Linda Cusick picks up her ukulele she smiles.

“It's fun, it's easy and it's a quick learn if you practice,” she said.

Cusick is a member of Steel City Ukuleles and facilitates jam sessions at the Ross Township Community Center on the first and third Thursday of each month.

From 1 to 3 p.m., seasoned pros and novices alike sit and strum. On a recent afternoon, players belted out beginner favorites such as “Clementine” and “Oh, Susanna” followed by the Willie Nelson-penned classics “On the Road Again” and “Crazy.” The four-stringers are often accompanied by a drum, a guitar, a few kazoos and lots of laughter.

Toniaray DiGiacomo, of Hampton, adopted the hobby last year, but admits she's no expert. “I can play a C-chord,” she said with a giggle.

Marlene Parrish wedges herself between DiGiacomo and fellow newcomer Kitty Brunkhorst. She guides and encourages the pair as they tackle Neil Diamond's “Song Sung Blue.”

Parrish helped establish Steel City Ukuleles in 2012 and considers herself to be the group's “den mother.” There are now more than 400 members and the club is growing bigger as more folks discover the diminutive instrument, which is lightweight and easy to transport. Famous musicians, including Taylor Swift and Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder (whose 2011 album “Ukulele Songs” was nominated for a Grammy) are shining the spotlight on the humble melodymaker.

According to the National Association of Music Merchants, ukulele sales tripled from 2009 to 2016, reaching 1.4 million units annually. Cusick, who had never even touched a “uke” before 2015, now has three of them in her Ross Township home.

Parrish's obsession started at her son's music store in Wisconsin.

While minding the family business one day, she picked up the toy-like instrument and started plucking away, creating her own Hawaiian luau in the snowy Midwest. Upon her return to Pittsburgh, she signed up for a ukulele class at Carnegie Mellon University. Even after a decade of playing, Parrish still takes lessons to challenge herself and keep her mind sharp. “Anybody can play,” said the Mt. Washington resident. “It's a simple rule of four; you have four fingers, four strings and four frets. Your left hand is playing cords, your right hand is setting the rhythm, your foot is tapping and your brain is cookin' the whole time. Studies show that music is a great way to prevent dementia.”

On March 15, Steel City Ukuleles is hosting the first of its monthly “test drive” events at Burgr'z on 8 in Gibsonia for folks who want to give the instrument a whirl. Loaner ukuleles and basic instruction will be provided.

Parrish all but guarantees that newbies will be making sweet music within 10 minutes of their arrival.

“It's a social instrument,” she said. “You pick up a uke and you start playing ‘You Are My Sunshine' and pretty soon you're having a good time!”

For more information on Steel City Ukuleles, visit

Kristy Locklin is a Tribune-Review contributor.

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