It’s hard to focus when the smell of chicken and sausages grilling outdoors reminds you that you haven’t had lunch. We are playing two sets under a big yellow tent next to Kew Gardens Rail Station. It’s the second time I’m playing with the Hanwell Ukulele Group (HUG) at Kew Village Market. The famous Kew Gardens is nearby. I am wearing a blue Hawaiian dress over a white T-shirt, hiding behind a row of tall English guys.
How do you make a song last longer and sound more interesting? I call it the three-minute rule. A song needs to last at least three minutes for it to register in the listener’s ears. That’s my rule, after testing my audiences in a variety of settings. A short piece simply doesn’t register. How to you prolong and add variety to a song? This happens often in our ukulele jam sessions, in which we prepare for our gigs. Here are some ideas for all songs, whether you accompany with ukulele, guitar, or piano.
What are the different ways to end a song?
One thing is clear. It is powerful when everyone in a group ends a song in a clean way, with no single ukulele trailing behind when everyone else has stopped playing. Having a leader indicate the end through specific gestures helps. As there are many ways to end a song, it makes sense for everyone to end it in the same way.
Going to your first ukulele jam session may be a daunting experience if you go alone and don’t expect to know anybody there. Like crashing a stranger’s wedding party, you simply don’t know what to expect. If it’s a small jam session, you will feel like an intruder for it would seem that everyone else knows everybody there, except you. If it’s a large session, you might feel totally invisible and unwelcome.
What can you do to make your first ukulele jam an enjoyable experience?
“What? I just need to know three chords to play a song?”
“Actually, you can play ‘Frere Jacques’ with just one chord. There are many songs with only two chords. I have identified at least thirty of these.”
I tell my ukulele students that 80% of all songs use only 20% of all chords. I apply the 80-20 rule to many situations, often to help with management of expectations.
So far I have collected over 60 songs that use only C, F, and G or G7 chords. My list of three chord songs that use three other chords, such as Riptide (Am, G, C), is nearly as long. This is wonderful news for beginners.
If you are as fanatic about playing the ukulele as I am, getting to and from a jam session could be an issue if the venue is relatively far and inconvenient and if it’s the first time (in case you get lost). If the jam experience is worth it, you’d find an alternative way to get there to make it less painful and arduous. I’m always surprised when seasoned ukulele players drive more than an hour through rush hour to come to our weekly ukulele jam sessions. It’s not always easy to find parking in our area. The first time, they say they are curious. If they come again, it’s a compliment. We’re doing something right.
What exactly happens in a ukulele jam session?
The word “jam” conjures up images of people playing music together, on different instruments in a frenzy. As ukuleles come in different sizes, they naturally sound different. Often there are complementary instruments such as the cajon, bass guitar, tambourine, kazoo, harmonica, and violin. The word “jam” also sounds loud rather than soft but it doesn’t have to be. Coining the words “jam session” makes it sound more sophisticated than the technical description: a group play and sing along. It’s not karaoke, because it’s not about people taking turns singing on the microphone, rather, everyone plays and sings together. As you may expect, not all jam sessions are the same.