On Saturday November 3rd, 2018, ukulele players that regularly attend ukulele meet-ups in Boston, Arlington, Cambridge, Plainville, Waltham, Somerville, and Dorchester will come to Milton to perform together. These ukulele enthusiasts will provide live music at Eustis Estate, the newest addition to Historic New England, at the Second Annual Blue Hills Great Estate Foliage Weekend in Milton, Massachusetts. The two-day event includes 30-minute landscape tours at 11 am, noon, and 1 pm on the estate’s 80-acres (as well as many outdoor activities like cider making demonstrations, apple crafts, apple tasting.)
Leading a group of ukulele players to play and sing together in front of an audience is quite different from 1) leading a group with whom you’ve been rehearsing for awhile, 2) leading a group without a separate audience listening, and 3) playing in the group as a member and not as a leader of the group. This morning I had the first time experience of leading my West London ukulele group in an outdoor performance at a charity event in Southall. It was a last minute invitation to lead, confirmed only this morning. I didn’t have time to think but made plenty of assumptions.
What did I learn?
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.
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.
Some of my confident piano students admitted to “nerves” or “stage fright.”
This is not uncommon for first time performers.
When you google “concert etiquette” you get tips on how to behave as a member of the audience. This article is not about that. It’s about how performers should behave so that the audience will appreciate the performance.
I asked my piano students how they felt when the performing student didn’t bow or look at them when he/she got on stage and off/stage. They weren’t quite sure.
Giving concert is all about real-time crisis management. There are many surprises: venue, instruments, acoustics, staff, audience, traffic.
Recently I found myself describing the busiest period of our duo’s life as that of real-time crisis management. Each concert was real-time. Each concert held surprises. We could never fully anticipate what might go wrong. It took a lot of practice (giving concerts) to get good at dealing with the unexpected.
Performers need to perform to an audience. Busking is a way to play outdoors to an audience though payment is not guaranteed.
My instinctive reaction to Bekkers’ declaration “I’m going into town to play on the streets” was multi-fold.
- Don’t you have something better to do? Your list of joys is long and winding. We have so much to do before we travel again. Shouldn’t be rehearsing our new repertoire? Can you really afford the time to go busking?
- Does it make economic sense? There’s no certainty how much you will make, why risk it?
- Are you hoping someone important and influential will discover you and make you famous? What are the chances of someone like that being there just when you are playing?
- Outdoors in town is noisy and not an ideal environment for the classical guitar. Will you play at your optimal? Will people be able to hear you?
- Surely you should be playing in a concert, on a stage — inflated value of scarcity — and not out in the open where anyone can hear you and not pay for it.
Maybe I am just jealous that he can take his guitar anywhere he wants and play it. I need a piano which I cannot carry. When I stayed in hotels, I played on the pianos available but I didn’t expect to be paid. Before I bought my Steinway, every time I spotted a grand piano I’d want to try it. But that was not busking.
Bekkers sensed my reservations.
“I’m a musician,” he said. “I have to perform even when there are no concerts booked. I would rather be outside playing than indoors studying. You know it’s different playing to an audience than to yourself.”
Soon after he arrived on the island of Maui in late 2010, Bekkers practised his daily scales and exercises outdoors in the nearby park. Later he took the guitar to the beach. That was not busking. That was outdoor study. How is busking different? [See next post.]