Uke Can Do It: Musical Groups Help Colleagues Thrive

Feature Story
Pehnee Poblete strumming a ukulele
Pehnee Poblete

Portable and easy to play, the ukulele is having a moment. There are festivals from coast to coast, and even famous rockers such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam have recorded ukulele music.

Kaiser Permanente employees are joining this movement, too. Groups in the Southern and Northern California regions have discovered the joys of playing the instrument, with an added benefit: making music together is great for their well-being.

Pehnee Poblete, a project manager for Kaiser Permanente Southern California, was interested in learning to play an instrument. But she wanted to combine her love of music with a desire to stay healthy. “I had seen an ad from the American Health Association talking about how playing an instrument while standing up can burn calories,” she recalled. “I started thinking about playing an instrument at work to get that health benefit.”

Meanwhile, Lynn Watson, production manager for health education at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, was inspired by a similar Kaiser Permanente poster of a young woman playing a ukulele with the caption: “Ukuleles = Healthy: Music can lower blood pressure.” She immediately thought about the ukulele she purchased in Hawaii several years earlier that was collecting dust.

Live audio recording of Sonic Uke in Burbank

Burning extra calories and lowering blood pressure aren’t the only benefits music may provide. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting music can affect our mental and physical health. Music has been shown in studies to reduce depression, anxiety and the need for sedatives. Another study found that music helps relieve chronic pain. And joyful music has been shown to improve blood flow through arteries.

So when colleague Erwin Villalva approached Poblete last April about bringing their ukuleles to work and playing at lunchtime, she agreed without hesitation. Up north, Watson began taking ukulele lessons and teaching interested colleagues during lunchtime.

And just like that, two ukulele groups began to form. Today, Sonic Uke in Southern California and KP Be Well Uke in Northern California continue to welcome new members.

Live audio recording of KP Be Well Uke in Oakland

Ukulele group members are frequently asked about their instruments as they ride the elevator and walk to practice. Both groups meet twice a week, where members drop by to practice, teach newbies how to play, and learn new songs together. And there’s no such thing as “you’re doing it wrong.” Victoria Thomas, Sonic Uke vocalist, reflected and said, “It’s not about our level of technical musicianship. Our getting together to sing and play is just an outburst of fun.”

Kaiser Permanente co-worker Dani Perkins appreciates the group support. “I’ve tried many times in the past to learn music-making, and have always dropped it because I was ‘too busy,’ or it was ‘taking too long to learn,’” she said. “But with Sonic Uke, we have been in it together right from the start, and we hold each other accountable.”

“Music helps to relieve the day-to-day stress of the job,” stated Terry Minogue with Kaiser Permanente Creative and Production Services. Many others echoed this sentiment. Jessica Gruner, who works in finance operations, has found that “playing music with others has been one of the best creative outlets.”

Sandi Eng can personally attest to the health benefits of playing the ukulele with her music family. “I’ve always been borderline for high blood pressure. A while back, I had foot surgery and was homebound for three months. My son gave me a ukulele to help me pass the time,” she recounted. “Once back at work, I discovered and joined Oakland’s ukulele group. When I went to my next doctor’s appointment, my blood pressure was the best it’s ever been and the only activity I’d added to my schedule was playing the ukulele.”

Not only do both groups share their music-making experience with one another, they also enjoy performing and spreading good vibes. “The real benefit comes from both imparting music appreciation to others while taking the time for our own well-being and thriving through positive expression,” stated Sonic Uke founder Poblete. Carmen Cannon, with Kaiser Permanente National Claims Administration said, “I love the uke group because I’ve met new people I would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise.”

Performance onlookers often ask how they can join. When Jacquelyn Quinn, who works in human resources and Linda Nakamura, a Kaiser Permanente benefits accountant, saw one of KP Be Well Uke’s performances in Oakland, they signed themselves up right away. Quinn noted, “When we started the club, we only knew the C chord and now we can actually play songs!” Nakamura remarked, “Glad to say we have progressed past just playing the C chord to other chords, but C will always be our best friend.”

“Playing the uke makes me happy,” concluded Ronel Illenberger, another Southern California Kaiser Permanente employee. “I have yet to see a sad ukulele player.”

By Caitlin Dong, National Public Relations and Communications

Note: Sonic Ukers wish to thank Andrew Thomas for the audio recording and mix.