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.
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.
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.
The only instrument that did not suffer a downturn in sales in London during the recent recession was the ukulele. The person who told me this has been researching ukulele clubs in the U.K. for her doctorate thesis. I have a hunch that it’s like chocolates during difficult times. People still want to reward themselves and feel good. The ukulele is that instrument. Am I right?
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 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.