It’s a mouthful, but every single word is significant. Today is the official summer solstice in 2018, otherwise known as the longest day of the year. Yesterday, being the Wednesday that my ukulele group meets each week, we gave our first public performance for the senior residents and staff members of a nearby building. Sunset is that magical time when you know the deadline of darkness is approaching, and everything must get done by then. To make it participative, we called our gig a singalong so the audience would be encouraged to join us in the singing. Standish Village is an award-winning assisted senior living residence, housed in a historic landmark building (no. 24 in this document), in Historic Lower Mills, just a short walk from Walter Baker Artists Lofts where we regularly meet to jam (or rehearse).
What’s noteworthy? One person had just learned how to play the ukulele three weeks ago in my crash course, four others had never performed on the ukulele before, and it was our first performance as a group.
Ours was a singalong without having to read the lyrics, thus allowing maximum audience engagement. We chose songs with lyrics that’s familiar to the audience, or at least, can be learned very quickly. These songs have the following characteristics:
- Familiar melody
- Rhythm and tempo to move and groove to
- Repetition: words, phrases, melodies, gestures
- Predictable structure: existence of patterns
- Words that are easy to remember and pronounce
- Variety in tempo, mood, and genre
We started with 34 songs in our rehearsals and narrowed down to 18 for the one-hour outdoor performance. In other words, we weeded out songs that were unfamiliar, with complicated rhythms and words, and high diversity of words. We consulted with an experienced music performer for senior residents and learned that “Blue Suede Shoes” was a hit. Including that song meant dropping out “Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode,” a close contender but too similar (i.e. also blues, same tempo and genre).
To encourage beginning ukulele players to join us, we chose the first six songs to require only the basic chords of C, F, and G or G7. In fact, “He’s Got the Whole World” only requires F and C7. Because most of the players were new at performing, we chose the path of least resistance: keep it simple and doable. After a few tries, we dropped Iz’s classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World” medley as it had nine chords (as many as Blue Hawaii) but far too long and vocally demanding for this first gig. As it’s a signature piece for the ukulele community, we decided we needed more time to get it right.
The most difficult to play were those with most number of chords and less frequently encountered chords like G+, GM7, and G6. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” was easy to sing but not so easy to play. The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” and Morecambe & Wise’s “Bring Me Sunshine” were lesser known and somewhat challenging for beginners.
To add variety, Charlie switched to the harmonica for the riffs in “Sunny Afternoon” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” John and I blew our new purple kazoos for the riffs in “Sweet Caroline” and “Bring Me Sunshine.”
After we shortlisted the eighteen with enough diversity of tempo, mood, and genre, we looked into the order of songs. We decided to start with something upbeat and easy, to serve as warm-up for the voice.
For each song, we asked the following questions:
- Do the audience know it? How does singing the song make them feel? “Hey Good Lookin'” and “You’re Sixteen” will make anyone feel young and beautiful.
- Is the song meaningful? For Boston residents, “Charlie on the MTA” and “Sweet Caroline” for sure!
- Can and will the audience participate — sing the chorus that’s predictable? or meaningless words like “Doo Ron Ron” ?
- Can we play it?
- Can we play AND sing it?
- Can we sound together in the strums and articulation of the lyrics?
- Is it the right tempo? If not, let’s try again until we get the right tempo.
- Is it too long? or too short? If too long, what can we cut out? If too short, where can we repeat?
- How can we make it more interesting? Repeat the chorus a cappella. Use the kazoo in the instrumental interlude. Sing a section very softly, e.g. towards the end of “Blue Suede Shoes”
- How do we begin and end? Play the Hawaiian vamp twice to get into the mood of the Hawaiian songs.
- How can we end together? Slow down, cha-cha-cha, single down strum, tremolo on a single chord, cadence.
- What do we need to look out for? Pay attention to? Skip a line or repeat the last line three times, etc. Watch out for the typo in a particular song sheet.
We fitted the highlight of our one-hour performance about half-way through the programme. It’s the first time we had a hula dancer join our group. Atsuko drove nearly two hours to join us to dance the hula to Hawaiian songs, when she wasn’t playing the ukulele and singing. As the three Hawaiian songs were relatively slow in tempo, we put them in around 20 minutes into the set. For most of us, it was a new experience to play and sing Hawaiian songs. The residents mimicked Atsuko’s graceful movements in their chairs.
As everyone had arrived early, we began the concert at 6:45 pm (instead of 7:00 pm) and ended promptly an hour later. Our honorary guitarist, Vira supplied the bass tones and fullness of her steel string guitar to complement our eight ukuleles. Toi, our guest from Maui filmed our performance with her equipment, with high resolution photos and videos which we will upload on our Facebook Page soon. After the concert, we walked into the Standish Village building to view their current exhibit of portraits and stories of the female residents, now and then. Poignant and beautiful!
- Original 34 songs in Sunset Singalong Songbook
- Shortlisted 19 songs in Solstice Singalong at Sunset Songbook
Songs from the outdoor performance:
- Blue Hawaii: https://youtu.be/rEmNmUnZCS8
- Tiny Bubbles: https://youtu.be/82d6S_z-6k4
- Blue Suede Shoes: https://youtu.be/ir0uLLSdPiY
- Hey Good Lookin’: https://youtu.be/YLzaZ0cajiA
- Sunny Afternoon: https://youtu.be/KdRAaz9tL1Y
Next rehearsal is Wednesday 27th June 2018 as we journey across America in anticipation of Fourth of July with songs about Boston, New England, …. all the way to San Francisco. RSVP Meet-Up.
Next ukulele workshops at Walter Baker Artist Lofts, 1231 Adams St, Boston, MA:
- Saturday 23rd June 2018 from 10:30 am to Noon: crash course for complete beginners RSVP Meet-Up
- Wednesday 27th June 2018 from 5 to 6:30 pm: workshop for beginners RSVP Meet-Up