Music education is one of the most expensive investments in time and resource. It requires a serious commitment to reap the benefits of individual music lessons taken over a long period of time (measured in years not months or weeks). Is there another way to acquire musical skills and knowledge?
Most newcomers to the ukulele jam scene that’s popping up all over the world use their instruments to accompany themselves singing songs they already know. These strummers may eventually cross to the other side where the instrument becomes the focus of attention. Welcome to the the world of pluckers, also known as fingerstyle playing. As a first step, they may start by reading tablature, where each number indicates the fret to press on the corresponding string.
Classical guitarist and ukulele expert Paul Mansell’s “Classical Uke” contains twenty short pieces transcribed for the beginning ukulele plucker. Easy to sight read and follow, these pieces whet the appetite of any ukulele enthusiast.
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.
This Sunday 30th September 2018, my ukulele group in West London will be playing for two hours at UK’s number one half-marathon — Ealing Half-Marathon. We will be at the corner of Cuckoo Lane and Greenford Avenue in Hanwell. I missed it last year while transiting in Dublin. What songs will we sing to cheer them on?
When musicians meet, they want to play together. They exchange recordings of themselves. Playing together is a way to establish whether they are compatible, whether they want to collaborate, whether there is a future together.
Such was the case when I met a classical guitarist more than seventeen years ago. He copied a recording of his guitar quartet on CD as a takeaway gift.
The next time we met, I brought the only piano guitar piece I owned — an arrangement of Vivaldi’s guitar concerto for guitar and piano. Eager to find more pieces to play, I visited music bookshops in my travel as magazine editor. He arranged music for us to play. Before long, we had collected and arranged enough sheet music to give a concert. Soon composers started writing for our piano guitar duo.
The subtitle of our first concert at the Makawao Union Church in Maui, in December 2007, was “four centuries of music for piano and guitar” —- which comprised of arrangements, original compositions, and commissions. We released the live recording of the concert as a CD in January 2011.
After spending over an hour working on “Let It Be” and half an hour on “When I’m Sixty-Four” we spent comparatively less time on the remaining three from the 15 songs on the Beatles Carpool Karaoke. While we were familiar with most songs, playing them on the ukulele was another matter.
Our coach showed us how to make an illusively simple three-chord song like “Love Me Do” interesting. It’s sometimes the case that three-chord songs are not necessarily easy to sing or rhythmically easy to play. So far, I’ve compiled more than 60 songs that require only the three chords of C, F, and G. It will be another exercise to play them well.
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.
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.
The one time I was proud of my playing as a member of the guitar orchestra and the combined sound we produced was also the one instance that I had forgotten to bring equipment to video or audio record ourselves. The three pieces we played in the concert of 27th April 2018 were much easier than the repertoire of the two previous concerts. I felt in control. I felt like a contributing member of the ensemble. We started and ended at the same time, no extra noises. My only regret was that I did not record it, and we won’t be giving this concert again.
From the reaction of the audience (loud and instant applause after each piece and the prolonged applause at the end; individual compliments after the concert), I gather we didn’t do badly at all. What makes an excellent performance? The first clue, we had an effective rehearsal only four nights earlier.