Leading a ukulele group performance

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?

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Song sheets: the barebones to guide music making

On my first day of taking the intermediate ukulele course in Hawaii, I was surprised to witness the entire class playing and singing along. We were sight reading and sight singing, skills that take years to master for musicians.

That morning at Maui College in January 2016, all we had in front of us was a single sheet of paper that contained the lyrics, chord names, and chord diagrams. No music notation. No Italian words about tempo and dynamics in italic. No tablature. No abbreviations. No other music symbols. How could a single sheet of paper with minimal information guide music making?

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Guitar meets piano; guitar orchestra & ukulele club

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.

Nearly two decades later, the guitarist is conductor of a guitar orchestra while I have founded my own ukulele group. How do we combine the two? Is it possible?

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Getting to and from a ukulele jam session

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.

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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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Ukulele repertoire: song selection for ukulele groups and clubs

How do ukulele groups approach the task of song selection to serve the dual purpose
of attracting and retaining members and audiences? This question addresses both repertoire development and concert programming.

  1. Members are those who attend the meet-ups to play ukuleles and/or sing along
  2. Audiences are those who attend the performances, and may sing along from where they sit or stand but don’t play with the group

Does the responsibility for choosing songs, finding, creating, or altering existing song sheets, making them available online or in print, as links, individual song sheets, compiled songbook, etc rest on one individual such as the leader?  Does an official “gig book” or “song book” exist for the group, from which participants call out their choice of song? Or does a new songbook or song list get compiled for each gathering? Alternatively, do participants bring copies of the song sheet of their own choosing to distribute to others?

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Hey Jude on ukulele

As usual in our jam sessions, we get bolder and bolder the later it gets. By 9 pm, the ten chords in “Hey Jude” don’t look formidable anymore. How can we sing “Let It Be” and exclude “Hey Jude” the last number in the Beatles Carpool Karaoke? Besides, Paul McCarney sings it in the same key as the song sheet from San Jose Ukulele Club.

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