Ukulele jam sessions: what to expect

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.

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Maui College Chorus: Earth Songs

Maui College Choir prepares for spring concerts entitled Earth Songs.

First I met the conductor, Celia Canty. Then I saw the college choir perform. Next I wrote reviews.

Now I accompany the singers, arrange for them to perform, and blog about their upcoming performances.

Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, April 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

I asked Celia about her choice of songs for the Spring 2012 concert. “They all have to do with the earth,” she replied in a recent interview. “The songs are from all over the world, and the choir sings them in original language. But ‘earth’ also has another meaning, too — as in planting trees, jasmine flower, etc.”

In the beginning, the choir was a collection of  individuals with separate voices and universes. After weeks of rehearsing, they blend into one single sound. It requires hearing oneself and hearing others. Celia Canty, who has perfect pitch, can hear if someone sings out of tune. She says it’s both a blessing and a curse to have this ability to hear absolute pitch, as it’s sometimes called.

When we arranged to have the college cable TV crew film the singers, it was intended as a concert performance with no audience. I would have preferred a video of a rehearsal, for that’s far more interesting than a concert. At a rehearsal, one gets to learn. One gets to see how the raw material becomes refined into something beautiful. See the video below of a rehearsal of the popular Chinese folk song — Jasmine Flower, which Puccini used in the opera Turandot and which I once arranged for harp (PDF) because I loved it so much and wanted to play it.

Watch short video clip: Celia Canty rehearses Maui College Chorus on harp

Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty
Maui College Chorus, Spring 2012. Photo: Lloyd Canty

Performances (all free):

  • 13 April 2012 @2:45 pm Preview for Academic Senate Meeting, UHMC
  • 19 April 2012 @3:45 pm Roselani Place, Kahului
  • 27 April 2012 @7 pm Iao Congregational Church, Wailuku
  • 3 May 2012 @4 pm Kalama Heights, Kihei
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012
Maui College Chorus Concert Program, Spring 2012

Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt

Musicians meet each other through music and collaboration. Anne Ku performed and recorded the Impromptu for solo piano before she met the composer Kim Diehnelt in Chicago.

As a sightreader, I have an insatiable appetite to discover new music. Now and then, I receive a score that I want to sightread and perform for others. Such was one by the Chicago-based conductor Kim Diehnelt. Her music preceded her.

Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt
Impromptu for solo piano by Kim Diehnelt

This is one way musicians get to know each other — through music.

At first I thought she was a conductor. She thought I was an agent or arts manager. Once I premiered her piece in Maui, I then got to know her as a composer.

Over an afternoon snack at Chicago O’Hare Airport recently, the first time we met face to face, I asked her about this piece.

The Impromptu was born out of a desire to capture a moment. Although a unique moment, it may very well be one we all have experienced.  A friend shared a brief description of a morning scene where Bach’s Prelude No. 1 flows from the radio, a glance towards the piano where this piece sits open, a memory from long ago surfaces. In a flash, all these combine into a new awareness of how the current self may meet the tasks of the day.

It is the moments of Between-ness that fascinate me. I hope performers – and listeners – will savor the ‘between-ness’ created with the appearance of each new note.       

Because I love the wine-tasting approach to music, the back page of the score has remarks similar to a wine label – “Austere counterpoint of quiet, timeless reflection punctuated by pauses of full, warm harmony. A captured moment – it lingers in the morning air.”

What’s interesting is that when Kim Diehnelt composes an ensemble work, she actually sees the score as an ensemble — not from a keyboard like many composers do. We discussed the importance of readability for playability down to the size of the measure. If it’s too long, the player may think it’s slower than usual. As a conductor, she knows what she’s looking for and what she wants to hear. When she sits down to compose, she can see it and hear it.

Listen to my recording of Kim Diehnelt’s Impromptu below.

Impromptu by Kim Diehnelt, as interpreted by Anne Ku (recorded on Steinway Grand model A, 1909 New York) in Utrecht, Netherlands, 4th August 2011 (mp3)



From entertainment to art: review of Maui Choral Arts

Maui Choral Arts Association spring concert 2011 in Kihei, Maui was entertaining to an appreciative audience. Even more so, one listener viewed it as art. This review describes why and how.

Last December I reviewed the Christmas concert of the Maui Choral Arts Association (MCAA) in Kihei. It was an entertaining performance, launching the holiday season for me and my partner who had just arrived in Maui the previous month for a long sabbatical.

Last Saturday 19th March 2011, on the eve of the biggest full moon in 24 years, we attended the spring concert of MCAA “Sing On, Sing On!”  The location was the same — Kihei Baptist Chapel. The choir members were largely the same — same size, same make-up. Yet the Lei of Stars Maui Choral Festival Concert was entirely different from the December concert.

How best to put it? My partner said, “There is a thin line between entertainment and art. They have crossed it.”

There was no question of the entertainment value of this well-attended concert. The programme was varied enough to please anyone. From the opening blessing and chant of deep voiced Jimmy Aarona to the familiar “If Music Be the Food of Love” that was also sung at the December concert, we heard famous choral works of Verdi’s Nabucco and La Traviata as well as Haydn’s The Creation. The harp was awakened with two solo harp interludes by artistic and executive director Celia Canty, who is the founder and resident conductor of the Festival Chorus and Paradise Singers. Several soloists stepped out of the choir to sing Verdi and Haydn.

Maui Choral Arts Spring Concert 2011 in Kihei, Maui
Maui Choral Arts Spring Concert 2011 in Kihei, Maui

From the flowing Hawaiian song “No Ka Beauty O Honokohau” with a young hula dancer Makena Pang on stage to the exciting and syncopated Israeli folksong “Zum Gali,” the singers sang with unmistakenable passion and love. It was sheer joy to see, hear, and feel their enthusiasm.

We as the audience were not mere onlookers. The conductors spoke to us and involved us. In recognition of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Canty invited us to sing the first piece “E Ho’omaluhia” or Dona Nobis Pacem. We were also invited to sing the last piece “Aloha ‘Oe.”

The singers sang to us. Audience engagement led to a very appreciative audience, particularly of the conductors’ acknowledgment of the accompanist Angie Carr behind the Baldwin grand piano and the individual soloists.

If an interesting and diverse programme coupled with audience engagement is essential to entertainment, then what is art?

Guest conductor Dr Donald Neuen from UCLA worked with the choir for several consecutive days before the concert. Although we were not present for the intensive rehearsals, we imagine them to be somewhat like those from the movie “As It is in Heaven” in which a conductor changes the choir, the way they perceive themselves, the way the view the music, and the result is art not entertainment.

One example of this was demonstrated in the prequel to Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. After briefly introducing the composer’s background, Neuen asked the men to sing a passage with crescendo and decrescendo. Because it was so repetitive, he asked them to sing the same passage again, adhering strictly to correct rhythm and articulation but without any variation in dynamics whatsoever. He did the same with the female singers. This short exercise gave a glimpse into the sort of extensive nuances Neuen asked of the choir members in the rehearsals —-  weaving colourful layers upon each other to paint an art work that does not just impress but take us on a journey far from the familiar.

After the concert: Celia Canty, David Neuen, and Angie Carr
After the concert: Celia Canty, David Neuen, and Angie Carr

For those of you who missed this concert, mark your diaries for their season finale concert on Saturday 30th April 2011 at 7 pm in the same location: Kihei Baptist Chapel. Strangers in Paradise will present an evening of music from broadway, movies, and opera. More info, visit Maui Choral Arts Association.