When the Circuit Breaker restrictions were in place from April till June this year, many found it difficult to cope with the lack of social activities.

Physical meetings with our friends became video and phone calls, if at all.

In particular, certain groups like seniors who are not as tech-savvy often found it challenging to continue to interact with loved ones online.

But one 72-year-old ukulele enthusiast, Dick Yip, found a way to continue his jamming sessions in the digital space, with the help of his wife and close friends. 

String theory

The ukulele was not commonly played in Singapore until around the 1980s.

But years before that, in 1963, a 15-year-old Dick Yip chanced upon the string instrument when he when he visited a friend’s house.

The ukulele’s small size intrigued him, and that friend offered to sell it to him for $20 - way below its cost price.

But Dick’s family was struggling to make ends meet at that time – his father worked in construction and was a sole breadwinner in a family of 13.

Despite not knowing much about the instrument (and not having the cash on hand), he made a deal with his friend to pay for it in instalments.

Despite having no one to teach me how to play the ukulele, I was determined to learn it myself. I was very excited when I first held the ukulele.
Dick Yip, 72, founder of the Minstrels

Then came the question about learning how to play. How was he to do this, when he didn’t have the means to pay for lessons?

First, he tried his luck at a music shop at the old Capitol theatre to see if anyone there knew how to play it. No one did, but he found a 12-page black and white booklet that contained some songs, a few chords and some instructions on how to play.

He spent the next three months experimenting with different chords and strumming techniques. Thus began his lifelong love affair with the ukulele.

He says, “It was a difficult journey to start learning the ukulele in the 60s. However, I managed to do it after constant practising. I became one of the first few ukulele players in Singapore.” 

Dick’s musical journey has been supported by his family members, particularly his wife, Daisie, as well as the Minstrels – a group of seniors who jam together every week at Serangoon Community Club.

Dick had started this group in 2008, with the simple mission to “enable a Senior to befriend the humble ukulele as a constant companion”.

A key objective of the group, he notes, is to raise the self-worth of seniors, cancer survivors and cancer patients through music and performance.

But as stricter COVID-19 restrictions kicked in in March this year, the weekly jamming sessions with the Minstrels were affected.

When Singapore implemented the Circuit Breaker measures in April 2020, Dick decided to move these sessions online.

Chord in the act

Getting started was not easy – Dick and Daisie had to set up the online jam sessions by themselves at home during the Circuit Breaker to get things started. 

With the help of their friends, they learnt to set up Facebook Live sessions, and managed to get hold of a projector from the Community Club. They got together some digital sheet music, and once again, loyal Minstrels and friends from overseas started joining in this weekly online jam session.

“There was lot of prep work to be done. I would go to the website, like YouTube, to listen to the song for the different styles, then make adjustments. You need to think of the seniors playing, and adjust the song to the right style,” says Dick.

Their first Facebook live session was fraught with problems. 

 

The screen was upside down! There were technical issues as we had to juggle between the song requests.
Dick, on challenges he faced during his first FB Live session

Daisie chuckles, “I had to provide a whiteboard for him to see any messages from the viewers, while managing the IT controls when the sessions happen.”

While it was hectic at the beginning, the couple soon began to look forward to their weekly jam sessions with their friends.

Tech it easy

It was challenging to get their friends comfortable with the digital space initially. Daisie says, “We told them, be brave and just try. We ask for help and we survive it. It’s ok to make mistakes and learn.”

“It’s the new world. We need technology so we can stay connected.”

Every Wednesday, the Facebook Live session starts at 7.30pm. During the 1.5-hour session, the jolly bunch of seniors would typically play around twenty songs together – be it birthday song requests, requests from audiences, or just some old favourites.

The group has enjoyed around 40 jam sessions to date.

Through their unselfish contributions, Dick and Daisie have given us hope during this pandemic. We can still be together as one big ukulele family.
Janette Chan, a member of the Minstrels

Dick in particular, thanks his wife for standing by him. “Without her support, I would not be able to do the FB Live and bring this joy and comfort to everyone.”

The couple are also grateful for the encouraging messages and continued support from their family members, friends and their live audiences.

“Even friends from far away like Scotland and London, and friends joining in with their spouses. It’s what kept us going during the pandemic,” Dick smiles.

Ms Janette Chan, who has been with the Minstrels for 2 years, says: “Nothing beats physically playing in the Theatre at Serangoon CC, but we are happy. We still can sing and request for our favourite songs to be played.

“Through sharing jokes and stories through our WhatsApp group, we keep each other's spirits high.”

This article is part of a series of stories of individuals who have showed support to fellow Singaporeans during this fight against COVID-19.