Striving to be an oasis of island sound in the desert, the Sun City Strummers pull, pluck and strum heartstrings as well as ukelele strings.

The 48-member group, made up of Sun City Oro Valley retirees ranging from the 50s to 90s, meets weekly for jam and practice sessions, performs in concerts once a month and regularly visits schools.

Club president Jean James, who founded the Strummers in 2011, said the talent level in the group is high and continues to improve.

“Probably about 20 of us have gotten so good,” she said. “There are people who are really practicing a lot because they are seniors, and they have the time. We always have people contacting us, and we keep adding new shows to the list. We have so many good players.”

James, 68, took up an interest in the ukelele in the 1960s, when she attended Trenton State College (now known as The College of New Jersey).

“We didn’t even know what we were playing,” James said of her earliest ukelele days. “We just did chords.”

James maintained her love for the instrument, which she and others in the group refer to as “the uke,” and drew a lot of interest when she posted a flier on a bulletin board and a notice in the community’s newspaper, calling for others interested in starting a ukelele group.

The interest, James found, far outweighed players’ experience levels.

“Half of the people did not even read music,” she said. “But it’s such a user-friendly instrument. People pick it up very quickly because they are willing to practice. It makes you feel good. You can be 90 years old, and strumming and singing just makes you feel nice.”

Fran Belinky, 78, has been part of the group since close to its inception. Practice is one of the highlights of her week.

“The group has just grown tremendously,” she said. “The instrument is very easy to learn and to start playing a little bit. Whatever you want to get out of it, you put that much into it. A lot of people put a lot of energy into practicing.”

Belinky said playing the ukelele has a way of calming her nerves and transporting her.

“It’s extremely good therapy,” she said. “You can sit down and pick for 20 minutes, and it’s just amazing.”

Virginia Phillippi, 87, said the instrument has mental benefits.

“It keeps my mind active,” she said. “I’ve always liked music, and this is one good way to keep up with it as you grow into the later years. You may not be as good as you were when you were young, but it doesn’t matter. You enjoy it, mainly because it keeps you thinking.”

James said one of the best aspects of being a member of the Strummers is the opportunity to spread appreciation of the ukele’s uplifting sound.

“Right now it’s really making my life worthwhile,” James said. “It brings joy, not only to the people learning the instrument, but when we go out and play for others — going to schools and all that. It just seems to be that playing that catchy music brings joy.”

Contact reporter Phil Villarreal at 573-4130 or