Introducing ukulele groups in Massachusetts at Eustis Estate

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.)

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Eustis Estate (1875 – present) at 1424 Canton Avenue, Milton , MA

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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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When I’m Sixty-Four or 64

What next, after “Let It Be”?

Can we squeeze in another song from the Beatles Carpool Karaoke before our usual break at half-time?

Jim, the bassist from Jamaica Plain, scrolled through the song list on my iPad with me and spotted something that’s a bit more upbeat.

I said, “How about ‘When I’m Thirty-Four” ?”

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Let it be real good

As usual, I began our 7 o’clock ukulele jam session with an easy song, one that everyone knows with few easy chords. This being the Beatles Carpool Karaoke, I chose “Let It Be,” using  San Jose Ukulele Club’s version in the original key of C major, with just four chords, rather than the G-major transposition with nine chords in the version in Richard G’s Songbook.

What can you do with “Let It Be” if you already know it very well?

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From ukulele jam to gig

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.

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Effective rehearsal, excellent performance

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.

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Guitar rehearsal in public library

Yesterday, the Boston Guitar Orchestra held its first open rehearsal at the Somerville Public Library. I dare take credit for suggesting it to Robert, the conductor and artistic director. Rehearsing in a public space will draw attention to who we are. This idea was born years ago when I proposed to situate new digital pianos from my innovation grant in the library and other places outside the classroom. Visibility raises awareness.

So what was it like to rehearse in the open?

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Hearing piano practice

Hearing piano being practiced upon is a welcoming sound when one is a stranger in a big city.

In the distance, I can hear someone practising piano. Last night, until about 9:30 PM, it was harmonic minor scales. Maybe it’s a music school. How can someone practice at all hours in a day?

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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

Rehearsals and work-in-progress as previews (trailers)

Rehearsals and behind-the-scenes work in progress lead viewers to anticipate and expect the real thing.

Watching a rehearsal of a choir or the behind-the-scenes of a film production makes me want to go see the real thing (when it’s ready). Like watching a chef prepare a meal, I start to get hungry.

Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer
Not the concert itself, Utrecht Conservatory June 2008. Photo: F. vd Meer

Twitter led me to watch the work-in-progress of The Hobbit which will come out next here. The youtube video is not short by any means, but you grow to love the people working on the set and film.

On Facebook, I played a video of the rehearsal of the 88-member student choir of the New England Conservatory. So much goes on in a rehearsal that is not obvious. For the bystander like myself, I see beauty that is being created. I am reminded of my days as a conservatory student, singing in two choirs per year to improve my solfege. For others, it’s the awe of the director — how he manages to get the choir to produce an impressive sound.

The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam offers free lunch concerts each Wednesday. I remember queuing 45 minutes before one such event, shoulder to shoulder in the reception area, standing like sardines in anticipation of a 45 minute concert. When the doors finally opened about 10 minutes before the concert, we rushed in and exclaimed a unison “wow!”  It was the stendhalismo effect of arriving at a historically important place, feeling the special feng shui and grandiose atmosphere, and all of that we normally don’t get to experience in daily life. Once we sat down, I realized that it was just a rehearsal. Not even a dress rehearsal. But it was the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. They were rehearsing a Brahms violin concerto. All musicians were informally dressed, despite being on stage and in front of a full-house of eager listeners. We fell silent when the conductor raised his stick. I closed my eyes. This could easily be the concert itself. The conductor brought the violinist into his solo. After leading the orchestra to join him in a mesmerizing passage, he stopped at a beautiful chord. I opened my eyes to another unison sigh from the audience — an “Ah!”

The free lunch rehearsal concert ended 15 minutes earlier than I had expected. Yet we all felt satisfied — as though we’ve had our lunch.

That was a live trailer of the concert that evening.

All in all, I’d say that rehearsals, work in progress, behind the scenes and pre-production all lead us to anticipate. When we anticipate, we expect. It makes us look forward to the real thing.