Since lockdowns cascaded across Europe and America, I have been hosting an online, interactive song session called “Three Chord Thursdays.” Each Thursday, we ukulele enthusiasts (whether vocalists or instrumentalists) meet for an hour to share songs of a particular theme, category, or era. It’s entirely free to join by registering in advance for the login/password details. Volunteers submit their requests to perform in advance. We aim to fit up to 10 songs for the hour-long session in Zoom.
We welcome everybody everywhere in the world. Restated, that’s anybody anywhere in the world.
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?
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.
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.
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.
For some time now, I’ve wanted to start my own ukulele club so that I can craft and steer it the way I like. As I love preparing themed concerts for the piano, why not research, arrange, and organise songs on a theme for ukulele players? By theme, I mean relating to the time of the year (holiday) or current events.
It doesn’t take long to learn to play a few basic chords on the ukulele and join an uke club to strum, sing, and socialize. No other instrument allows the beginner to practice playing in the relaxed company of others and travel the world with it.
Or “play, pluck, and party”
Or “jam, jingle, and joviality”
As an ukulele enthusiast, I consider the existence of so-called ukulele clubs a golden perk of playing the ukulele. I don’t know of any clubs for other instrumentalists that welcome beginners to jam with more advanced players. Perhaps barbershop quartets or multi-instrumental jam sessions may allow for that, but how common are they really? The ukulele clubs’ tradition of group playing is a fun way to push myself to learn new chords and expand my repertoire. I can’t think of a better way to combine practice with socialization.
This past January, I introduced myself in Joel Katz‘s intermediate ʻukulele class by announcing that I was downsizing from the nine foot grand piano to the less than two foot ʻukulele. People laughed.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t giving up the piano by any means. Rather, I was embracing the ʻukulele. It has my namesake after all: KU in ʻukulele.
In truth, I didn’t know what I was getting into. A few of my music students had shared their love of the instrument. One even gave me a hand-built ʻukulele stand as a parting gift. Eventually I succumbed to my usual thirst for novelty and variety.