Throwback Thursday: Cancer Survivors Become Inspirational Ukulele Duo

Noel Tardy and Kate McLennan

From the Making Music archives

Whether you call it fate or sheer luck, ukulele players Noel Tardy and Kate McLennan, first met over the Internet. Exchanging e-mails back and forth, they corresponded for about two years before they came together as a duo in 2012. Their meeting through Tardy’s ukulele store website led them to discover they had many things in common.

“We both held the same interest in wanting to share music that we think is healing and a spiritual expression of who we are in order to let other people know that there is hope and love and community out there,” explains Tardy.

Today, both are cancer survivors and dedicated to helping others find hope through music.

Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Tardy studied classical guitar at Texas Woman’s University, but went to work in accounting. When she picked up the ukulele about 12 years ago she couldn’t put it down. She founded the Lone Star Uke Fest and the nonprofit Ukes in the Classroom program to teach music literacy to children. Now that she’s retired, Tardy is dedicated to music full-time. She has her own ukulele shop in Dallas, UkeLady’s Music Store, where she teaches private lessons and holds workshops.


McLennan has been making music ever since she was four or five years old. Her very first instrument was a ukulele, but it was long forgotten after years of playing guitar. McLennan was a music minor, theater major at the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation, she became a full-time singer/songwriter, creating several albums with partner Ruth Huber. In 2004, following recovery from leukemia, she became an ordained minister.

Kate McLennan lives in Wimberley, a small, artsy community near Austin, where she is a minister presiding over weddings, births, memorials, and celebrations. She says that music is a part of everything she does as an interfaith minister and licensed clinical social worker.

“I’ve always found music to be profoundly healing and that’s a big part of my mission,” says McLennan, explaining how her music helped pull her from the brink of death. “The leukemia escalated and I died. I was on life support for seven days.” During that time her mother and partner played her music, and through almost six months of isolation, the music sustained her.


As she began to heal, too weak to play guitar, she rediscovered the ukulele. “I love it so much—I love the ease and the portability and the magic,” she says, adding that she has a passion for sharing that “magic” with others. “Part of my focus has been a kind of spiritual practice, teaching people that playing your instrument is a spiritual path, if you choose to look at it that way—the devotion to it, the moment to moment attention to grow with it.”

Likewise, Tardy credits music as helping her recover from stage 4 metastatic papillary cancer. She also relied on McLennan to help her through the hard times. “I knew her history of overcoming leukemia, and when I was diagnosed, she was the first person I called. She became my support person,” says Tardy.

Noel Tardy and Kate McLennanRecovery from cancer reinforces the pair’s commitment to helping others heal through music. They decided to combine their missions forming Spirit Runners Music. McLennan describes Spirit Runners’ mission as: “celebrating hope and healing through music and through sharing our stories.” Together and separately the two musicians bring the power of music to a wide variety of venues, from hospice facilities to hospitals to cancer support groups to churches, and even international festivals.

McLennan is the dominant songwriter for their original songs that often carry a message of hope, healing, and sometimes a little humor. For example, their song “Living by the Numbers” is about the constant monitoring of numbers—platelet counts, blood levels, calcium counts, etc.—that goes along with treating a serious illness.

When the two paired up they never dreamed they’d be taking their act overseas, but they’ve so far had opportunities to attend a ukulele festival in the Czech Republic as well as an ensemble festival in Madrid. Both trips were serendipitous, to say the least.

The trip to the Czech Republic came about when one of Tardy’s ukulele vendors, a sponsor of the event, mentioned to the director that he had a customer in the US who was also Czech. That customer was Tardy. “It was awesome to get to see the country my grandparents came from, as well as to be there to perform music. The cool thing about music is that, even with a language that is different, they still understood what we were singing and saying. That is part of building bridges with other people,” says Tardy. Spirit Runners was the only group from the US at the festival.

The trip to Madrid came through a college classical guitar ensemble that Tardy had been playing ukulele with. One of the professors was in charge of a trip to Madrid to attend an ensemble festival. “We were asked to be guest performers for the group, so we got to present our original music, as well as play with the ensemble,” Tardy explains, recalling how one woman in particular, who was a cancer survivor, was touched by the music. “That’s what it’s about for us—touching people and helping to inspire.”

“It was just so incredible for me to feel that connection; to watch people being moved through the power of music. Even though English is different than Spanish, the language of music was the common bond,” McLennan adds.

Back at home, Tardy and McLennan continue to share their music and message to anyone who needs it, both together as Spirit Runners, and independently.

“Creativity is basically what got me over the hump to get on my healing journey. My goal is to take that experience and share it with other people and see if I can help them through their hard times,” says Tardy. She teaches ukulele in a children’s hospital two days a month, an experience she calls eye-opening. “It’s amazing the lessons I’ve learned from these kids.”

McLennan says that seeing her music received in these settings is rewarding in itself. “The most rewarding for me is when it’s a listening audience that receives it, and that laughs and cries and is moved. It’s wonderful. It’s blissful!” she says.


Cherie Yurco is a former editor at Making Music and has worked as a freelance editor and writer for over 20 years.

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