In the run up to St Patrick’s Day, I was looking for songs suitable for our “Fun with Ukulele” jam session at the local library in Dorchester, Massachusetts (part of Boston). St Patrick’s Day is celebrated like any other big holiday such as Christmas and Fourth of July in Boston. Coincidentally, Austin-based Kevin Carroll had just published “Ukulele Ceilidh: 18 Traditional Celtic Tunes arranged for Ukulele Session Playing.” The 67-page spiral-bound book is an amazing resource for the ukulele player.
The ukulele literature for children is entirely different from that for adults. A picture paints a thousand words. Children’s books have color and pictures. Big fonts. Pictures. Fewer words, Shorter words. Shorter sentences. Landscape orientation. Easier on the eye.
Most newcomers to the ukulele jam scene that’s popping up all over the world use their instruments to accompany themselves singing songs they already know. These strummers may eventually cross to the other side where the instrument becomes the focus of attention. Welcome to the the world of pluckers, also known as fingerstyle playing. As a first step, they may start by reading tablature, where each number indicates the fret to press on the corresponding string.
Classical guitarist and ukulele expert Paul Mansell’s “Classical Uke” contains twenty short pieces transcribed for the beginning ukulele plucker. Easy to sight read and follow, these pieces whet the appetite of any ukulele enthusiast.
Who is a non-beginner? Someone who is comfortable with his instrument. Ukulele players , often self-taught or have taken a few beginner workshops, are non-beginners if they already know how to tune, play the basic chords from memory (C, F, G7, Am, C7) and strum instinctively. They know how to read a chord diagram. They know how to look at a song sheet and finger the chords indicated with the lyrics.
What would a “ukulele for the non-beginner / busy adult” course include?
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.
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.