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Coronavirus

Virtual ukulele circles offer camaraderie for local musicians

Heather Booth and her daughters, Julia and Thora Zaremba, played alongside Jon Kostal and his friends during a livestream performance March 17. Kostal, co-owner of Uncle Jon's Music in Westmont, held a virtual concert to continue the ukulele circle and celebrate St. Patrick's Day.
Heather Booth and her daughters, Julia and Thora Zaremba, played alongside Jon Kostal and his friends during a livestream performance March 17. Kostal, co-owner of Uncle Jon's Music in Westmont, held a virtual concert to continue the ukulele circle and celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

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WESTMONT – At 3 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day, Jon Kostal was live on Facebook. Featured inside his Westmont-based music shop, against a backdrop of guitars, Kostal sat cozily next to a couple friends. The trio were ready to celebrate the holiday, which fell on a Tuesday, and run through their set list of classics.

A few minutes into the virtual concert, Kostal – who donned in a green derby hat for the hour-long performance – quickly swapped out his ukulele for a Guinness.

"Cheers," said Kostal, co-owner of Uncle Jon's Music store, as he held the beer bottle up to the screen and took a sip.

His friends joined him. Altogether, they encouraged viewers at home to take a break, relax, laugh and have a good time. They picked up their instruments, again, and began to strum in unison, jumping to the next song.

That show was quite the change-up for the ukulele circle, a monthly event hosted by Kostal for local musicians. The circle, which began in 2013 as a set of group classes, have now turned into monthly meet-ups that have moved away from Uncle Jon's to nearby cafes and pubs across Westmont. The ukulele circle, Kostal added, brings in a sizable crowd, about 20 people.

In the last week and a half, news about the COVID-19 pandemic has consumed every aspect of life. Schools have been closed, and customers can no longer dine-in at restaurants and bars. Local and big-box grocery stores continue to make headlines, as store hours change to continue to meet the increasing demands of customers. At this point, every individual, no matter the race, religion, age, gender or occupation, is affected.

As a small business owner, a music teacher and a lifelong musician, Kostal knew he had to consider news ways to serve his customers, students and fellow artists.

"The whole idea was just to get people together, and play, and sing," Kostal said about how the ukulele circle came to be.

That, alone, inspired him to act quickly. Kostal created a Facebook event, promoting the St. Patrick's Day's live stream performance and shared downloadable music sheets.

"In essence, everyone that participates will be playing together," he said. "We just can't see each other or really hear each other. But, I mean, we're all playing at the same time. It'll hopefully bring that sense of camaraderie together."

By the show's end, Kostal and his modest crew brought in 507 views, a total of 67 likes and a trail of hearts, thumbs-up and clover emojis throughout the comment section.

Heather Booth, a Westmont mother, was one of the viewers, who played along with Kostal and his small band via Facebook. In the comfort of her own home, Booth and her two children sat side-by-side, sang and played their ukuleles.

"One thing that's wonderful about the ukulele circle, everybody sounds fantastic," Booth said, laughing. She had the events before and loved the experience.

Booth joked that this would be a challenge for her and her children, as they could no longer hide behind professional musicians, and they wouldn't be able to "fade into the background."

But, Kostal, as the teacher that he is, has a rebuttal. Now, is the time to practice, he said.

Kostal shared further that he and other music teachers at Uncle Jon's will continue to host private lessons online with students and extend their delivery services to customers, who may need instruments, equipment, accessories and repairs.

Though nothing will replace the personal connections that both Kostal and Booth cherish, they believe these adjustments are temporary, and they just have to adjust in order to continue living. And, for them, the power of music can't be underestimated.

"Even though we haven't been cooped up for that long, the weight of the isolation, of the quarantine, whatever you want to call it," Booth said, "it's a scary time. Music is just something that brings so much joy to people's lives."

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