In the run up to St Patrick’s Day, I was looking for songs suitable for our “Fun with Ukulele” jam session at the local library in Dorchester, Massachusetts (part of Boston). St Patrick’s Day is celebrated like any other big holiday such as Christmas and Fourth of July in Boston. Coincidentally, Austin-based Kevin Carroll had just published “Ukulele Ceilidh: 18 Traditional Celtic Tunes arranged for Ukulele Session Playing.” The 67-page spiral-bound book is an amazing resource for the ukulele player.
Who is a non-beginner? Someone who is comfortable with his instrument. Ukulele players , often self-taught or have taken a few beginner workshops, are non-beginners if they already know how to tune, play the basic chords from memory (C, F, G7, Am, C7) and strum instinctively. They know how to read a chord diagram. They know how to look at a song sheet and finger the chords indicated with the lyrics.
What would a “ukulele for the non-beginner / busy adult” course include?
One of the most popular songs for beginning ukulele and guitar players is “You Are My Sunshine” which was first recorded in 1939 and has become the official state song of Louisiana. At the minimum, you need three chords to accompany yourself singing. To spice up the harmony accompaniment, you can add minor, sevenths, major sevenths and even a diminished chord. To spice up the rhythm, apply accent (emphasis) and syncopation in your strumming. Watch different versions of videos of this popular song to get ideas for what you can do.
Very little original material has been written for the ukulele, compared to the piano and other instruments. As such, most of the music for the ukulele consists of transcriptions. The journey to make a song sheet work for ukulele groups to read and use is one of reducing and simplifying the musical material to its barebones. After interviewing various transcribers who share their song sheets online for my research, I now share my way of transcribing songs for the ukulele.
A thought occurred to me while playing for the recent half-marathon. We ukulele players shouldn’t be having song breaks when marathon runners don’t. When we are the foreground music, such as a concert or gig, it’s natural to have beginnings and endings. It not only gives us time to flip to the next song sheet but also let the audience react with applause.
For background music or as support for marathons and other races, however, we need to keep going. How does one keep going when the average song length is 3 minutes?
On my first day of taking the intermediate ukulele course in Hawaii, I was surprised to witness the entire class playing and singing along. We were sight reading and sight singing, skills that take years to master for musicians.
That morning at Maui College in January 2016, all we had in front of us was a single sheet of paper that contained the lyrics, chord names, and chord diagrams. No music notation. No Italian words about tempo and dynamics in italic. No tablature. No abbreviations. No other music symbols. How could a single sheet of paper with minimal information guide music making?
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.