Also known as “from participation to presentation”
Getting together to play music together is akin to everyone chatting musically at the same time. In my ukulele jam sessions, we accompany ourselves on our ukuleles to songs we pretty much know how to sing already. It may seem like sight reading, for we don’t usually practice or know what we will be doing beforehand. In one two-hour jam session, we could go through as many as thirty songs without a break.
There is a subtle difference between a jam and a gig. While there may be onlookers watching and hearing us from the sidelines, we aren’t playing to an audience other than ourselves. A jam session is participatory music making, where everyone is participating by singing and or playing. A gig, on the other hand, is presentational where we play to an audience.
There are any number of ukulele groups that meet regularly to play and sing together, each with its own modus operandi, culture and tradition. Recently, I made a deliberate attempt to visit every ukulele meet-up in and around Boston to get a taste of the variety. They meet once or twice a month in public places such as libraries and community centers, outdoors in the park, and private spaces such as photo galleries and restaurants. These meet-ups vary from low energy (sitting around a table in a senior community center or living quarters) to high energy (sitting or standing up to do high tempo songs).
Ours in Historic Lower Mills meets every week to run through a 20 to 36 page songbook I’ve compiled according to a theme defined by subject or artist. Such thematic jam sessions offer the benefit of focus and some degree of anticipation. For the Beatles Carpool Karaoke, for instance, I wrote a blogpost, identified the songs in the Youtube video, found and linked the song sheets, listed the chords for each song (as an indicator of difficulty and voice range), and announced on the Ukulele Union of Boston (UUoB) Meet-Up page and via my ukulele e-mail newsletter.
After selecting and compiling songs for sixteen themes as varied as Earth Day, 12-bar blues, and ABBA Gold, I have reached a point where I’m torn between continuing on this trajectory of choosing new themes and spending my time enlarging our repertoire versus choosing songs for our gig book to prepare and perfect for actual performances.
Such lies the difference between jamming and gigging. As long as we play for ourselves and for each other, we are content with sight reading, playing without preparation, playing and singing each song once without repeating to correct or improve passages. Nearly all ukulele meet-ups I’ve visited go through a song only once during the session. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality, unless the purpose is practice for a performance.
I often compare my ukulele jam sessions with my guitar orchestra rehearsals. My ukulele group meets each week for two to three hours, going through new songs each time, thus exploring many songs and themes. Since our launch on the night of the super blue blood moon (31st January 2018), we’ve met 22 times. If on average we get through 20 songs each time we meet, that’s 440 songs in less than six months!
In contrast, members of the Boston Guitar Orchestra meet three times for three-hour rehearsals plus a one-hour dress rehearsal before each concert. We play three pieces for each concert. Each piece is usually split into four guitar parts, with guitar one playing the melody and most rigorous passages and guitar four in the first position (low notes). Compared to song sheets for ukulele, guitar scores are very detailed, showing not only Western music notation (notes, dynamics and other indicators) but also fingerings, positions, and string number specific to the guitar. It requires hours of practice to learn your part. You only get to hear how it supposed to sound when you play together, unlike the sort of unison singing done in ukulele groups.
Safe to generalise, classical guitarists pick and pluck (different parts in a guitar orchestra) while ukulele players strum and sing (somewhat in unison in an ukulele group).
Song sheets for ukulele contain lyrics and chords, the minimum amount information needed to sing and accompany a song on a four-string instrument. Even with suggestions for strumming patterns, indication of riffs and chord diagrams, there is little else to ensure everyone plays and sings in sync or with musicality.
With a critical ear, I watched the videos of our first ukulele gig and noticed that we didn’t always play or sing in sync. There was little if any change in dynamics or tempo. While the acoustic steel-string guitar kept the tempo steady with its emphasis on the second and fourth beats, the instrument overpowered the eight ukuleles in volume. Each time I watched the five videos, I discovered more possibilities for improvement.
Having experienced the rigour of rehearsing to perform as a member of the Boston Guitar Orchestra (BGO) and in my own chamber music groups (e.g. Bekkers Piano Guitar Duo) and the coaching of our founder and leader in the Hanwell Ukulele Group in London, I was curious how my ukulele group can improve enough to give more public performances.
I invited Robert Bekkers, conductor of the BGO, to give us a taste of his coaching in our ukulele jam session.
Continued in next five blog posts: