KUS - Our First Public Performance

Category: Ukulele
Tue, 31 May 2011, 17:54

Not long after I put out the call for ukulele players in Kingston, I got an e-mail from someone who wanted us to perform at her event. I had to reply that we hadn't even had one jam yet! The Kingston Ukulele Society started jamming in September of 2010. But it took until March 2011, before someone suggested that we should work on a core repertoire. And so we began to think about performing in public.

In April, we started jamming at the RCHA Club, a great place that's very supportive of local musicians. A new venue meant a new schedule, with jams on even-numbered Wednesdays. An unfortunate consequence of that schedule meant that there would often be three week gaps between jams. How can we survive such a long time between jams? Well, I think we should do something different in those long intervals. For example, we should perform at an open stage or open mic.

Well, it so happens that every Sunday at the RCHA, there's a folk open stage. I suggested that we do a set on May 29. I didn't know how many of my fellow ukesters would join me. But I figured that if no one did, I would just do a solo set. Fortunately, a few days before, I started getting confirmations from people. First, Mary said that she was interested, even though she hadn't been to any jams. That was fine. After church on Sunday morning, we ran through the song list. If no one else showed up, we could easily do a duet. But later in the afternoon, I got more replies.

Kingston Ukulele Society at the RCHA, May 29, 2011
Colin, Jane, Mary, Hans, and Heather performing at the RCHA.

All together, we had five ukulele players spanning the stage. As we started into the opening chords of our first song, (D, D6, and Dmaj7), some people in the audience recognized the song and started clapping. We knew something special was about to happen. As we played Neil Young's "Harvest Moon", the mood was electric. I had trouble concentrating on my part since I got distracted by the wonderful music we were making!

I then introduced the people on stage: Heather, who was the first person to answer my initial call for Kingston ukulele players, and then Mary, Jane, and Colin. Our second song was "Tower of Song" by Leonard Cohen, followed by "You Are My Tech-Shine", a traditional song with new words written by someone at our church.

The audience certainly enjoyed our short performance, and later we were asked if we'd be the feature act for a future folk evening! Well, that now puts a bit more pressure on us! So far, we've been a very informal gathering of ukulele players. But definite gigs require definite commitment from members of the group. Do we have the critical mass to get enough ukulele players to show up for shows? And do have enough good material for a longer show? I think the answer to both questions is Yes!

Over the past year, I've seen improvement in practically all the ukulele players that have jammed with us. Although I always try to bring at least a few easy three-chord songs to each jam, most people don't seem to get fazed by the more complicated songs I throw at them. But then again, we don't need tricky songs for a show. What we need is a good selection of fun, entertaining songs that we can all learn easily.

Anyways, I think we all had a good time that evening. There's something magical about a person playing a ukulele. And even more so with a group of ukuleles. I hope that we'll have more opportunities to play in public.

Cheers! Hans

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Ukulele Chord Alternatives

Category: Ukulele
Tue, 09 Nov 2010, 17:25

We all know that there are multiple fingerings for each ukulele chord. There are the open, or first position chords, which typically have a few unfingered strings. Then there are the barred chords, or second position chords. Often, although published chord charts indicate particular fingerings for certain chords, other fingerings may turn out to be easier for a particular song. In this missive, I'll list a few alternatives for a couple of chords, and show how the alternatives work better in one particular song.

First, let's consider the easiest of all uke chords, the Am7. I know of at least 4 ways to play the Am7:

0000 2433 5430 0453

The first is the form everyone is familiar with, and the second is the the normal barred form. But by rearranging the notes, you can come up with the other two chord forms. I like the 5430 form of Am7 especially when the next chord is Em. For that transition, you just shift your fingers across the strings.

Now, lets consider a less common chord, D9:

2423 5420

Often when looking for alternatives, look at switching around the notes on the G and A string. In the standard form of the D9, the notes A and C# are played on the G and A string (respectively). But why not play the A on an open A string? Then, to get the C#, just finger the 5th fret on the G string.

Now on to a practical example, with the Paul McCartney song My Love. (Click on the link and print the song.) It's a slow song, and can be strummed with just one down-stroke per beat.

Look at the first three chords: Bbmaj7, Am7, and D9. For the Bbmaj7, use the normal 3210 fingering, with index, middle, and ring fingers on the E, C, and G strings (respectively). When you reach Am7 after two bars, just keep your fingers in the same shape and move them all up two frets. Then, for the transition to D9, slide just the index finger down the fret board to the second fret.

Here's what that chord sequence looks like:

3210 5430 5420

That's a nice easy set of finger movements, and sounds great too.

Later on in the verse, there's another example with the Dm6 chord:

2212 5210

The first chord diagram is what you see on most published chord charts. But it requires an awkward bit of fingering. Since we're moving from Bbmaj7 to Dm6, the second form turns out to be much easier. Moving from Bbmaj7 to Dm6, we already have most fingers in place. All we have to do is put the pinky finger on the fourth fret of the G string. The following chord sequence illustrates:

0000 3210 4210

Ukulele players, like most people, should be lazy. We should always be on the lookout for easier ways to play our songs. Sometimes, we can substitute an easier chord. But also, we should look for alternative fingerings. And here are a few examples I hope you find useful.

Cheers! Hans

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Busking in Support of Joe's MILL

Category: Ukulele
Mon, 13 Sep 2010, 14:38

Ever willing to push the limits of my comfort zone musically, I eagerly plunged into volunteering for a couple of busking sessions a few weeks ago. The idea was for area musicians to busk for a half hour on Kingston's market square and donate the proceeds to the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library.

uke player

Now then, I'm the first to admit that I'm not the greatest musical performer. But I also admit to an ulterior motive, to try to raise awareness of the ukulele in this city. So I picked out about 20 of my best songs, and went downtown.

My first session was at 11AM at the corner of Brock and King, at the north end of the market. On market day, this is the busiest, and noisiest, corner. Most people just walked by, few willing to admit to the presence of a street performer. I was relieved about 40 minutes later by a guy playing blues on a resonator guitar.

I then signed up for another session, but at a quieter corner of the market. Fewer people walked by, but there were a few sitting close by listening to the performances, sometimes commenting on the songs. This time, Roger, the librarian at Joe's M.I.L.L. joined me on acoustic bass for a few songs, which was much appreciated.

What did I learn from this? First, I'll never make a living by busking on the ukulele! But more importantly, I now know first hand what it feels like on the other side. I've always enjoyed listening to street musicians, and generally, I always try to be supportive, even if I don't have time to stay and listen. But most people just pass by quickly, not even wanting to risk the shortest eye contact. While I was performing, frankly, I didn't care that much about the loose change thrown into my ukulele case. I just wanted at least some small acknowledgment from the passersby.

So my point is this: Be kind to street musicians. They've all practised for years to get to the point of being able to perform in public. Even if you can't spare some change, at least say hi, or offer some sign of support. It doesn't take much effort on your part, but can mean a lot to the performer.

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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Learning From The Masters

Category: Ukulele
Sat, 17 Jul 2010, 16:46

The past months have been quite busy for us. Back in February, we made the decision to move from Toronto to Kingston. But it took us until May to get our house in Toronto in shape to be put on the market. The last week was a mad rush for us, cleaning every room in the house. What does this have to do with ukulele? We set the second Saturday in May as our deadline since I wanted to be in Kingston that weekend for a James Hill ukulele workshop.

With hours to spare, we had our home listed, and we were off to Kingston. We looked at a few houses, and later put in an offer on one of them. In the afternoon, though, I was in a roomful of ukulele players learning from the best ukulele player and teacher in Canada.

James Hill started the workshop with a couple of songs, and then led the class in some more songs. The lessons were geared more towards beginners, but he told the more more experienced players to pay attention to his teaching techniques. In the question and answer portion of the afternoon, someone asked for tips on playing the dreaded E chord. His advice was simple: Practice. And keep practicing. He spoke about the need for practice while he effortlessly alternated strumming first and second position E chords.

One of his pieces of wisdom I remember was this gem of advice: "An amateur musician practices a piece until he gets it right. A professional practices until he can't get it wrong."

In June, we started having some free time again, and I was able to get back to the Corktown Ukulele Jam in downtown Toronto. The June 16th jam was shaping up pretty much like any other. After the break, we had just finished a song when someone appeared at the door. Our host, David Newland, recognized him and introduced him. To say we were all in shock would be an understatement. No one expected to see Jake Shimabukuro at the jam!

Jake was invited up to the stage, and literally took over the rest of the evening, starting out with three songs. As anyone who's seen him play can attest, Jake's mastery of the instrument is incredible. If he were merely a technically great player, he would, of course, be well known in the ukulele community. But he adds such an incredible depth of emotion and feeling into the music that you can't help getting drawn into it. When I hear him play, I wonder if I should be inspired to practice more, or give up the ukulele since I know I'll never play as well as he does! (No, I'll never give up the uke. It's one thing that keeps me sane!)

He then opened the floor up to questions. He talked about his ukulele, and he talked about music. He talked about performing at the Hollywood Bowl, and meeting Queen Elizabeth. And he talked about jazz, and about the need to put everything into your performance.

All through the evening, I wondered about something. And I'm sure others wondered the same thing. Finally, someone asked: "Could you play While My Guitar Gently Weeps?" Here's a video of his answer:

Seeing two great ukulele masters within the span of six weeks was an amazing stroke of good fortune. I'll never forget seeing them both show off their abilities.

Hans

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Ukulele Jam Around a Campfire

Category: Ukulele
Thu, 17 Sep 2009, 13:09

One person suggested we do "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". Another added that the last time they did that song in public, people thought they were a religious group. I then commented that my wife sometimes thinks we're a cult. But someone else pointed out that it isn't a cult until you get naked.

We sang that song anyways on the ferry ride, along with four or five others. Not a lot of people cross the Toronto harbor on a Wednesday evening in September. So at 6:15PM, just one ferry services all of the Toronto Islands' ferry docks, first Ward's Island, then Centre Island, and finally our stop, Hanlan's Point. That gave us plenty of time for ukulele playing.

We were the first to arrive at the fire pit, an hour before the official start of the evening's jam. Some of us used the opportunity to eat our dinner. For me, it was a roast beef sub. As the sky grew dark, we impatiently awaited the arrival of the bigger half of the Corktown Ukulele Jam. Rather than taking the ferry, they decided to cross the harbor on a pair of large voyageur canoes.

With all of us together, the fire was lit, and we began our evening of singing songs, telling stories, and playing ukulele. David told us stories of the feats of the voyageurs, and led us in some traditional Canadian camp songs. Various snacks, including a big bag of marshmallows, were passed around. Insects were biting, but no one complained. All too soon though, the evening had to end. The last ferry leaving Hanlan's Point at 10:15PM wasn't going to wait for us.

We all had a wonderful time. I left the gathering feeling refreshed and rejuvinated. Making music around a campfire is an almost mystical experience. Sharing music with others is uplifting to begin with. Add in the dark sky and the fire, and the experience becomes something almost religious in nature. And so perhaps we are just a few layers of fabric away from being a cult!

Anyways, many thanks to David and Steve for organizing last night's campfire jam. I can't wait to see what great ideas they come up with next!

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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On Stage at the Corktown Jam

Category: Ukulele
Mon, 07 Sep 2009, 11:36

I'm not the kind of person who spends his time in bars. But most Wednesday evenings these days, you can find me at the Dominion on Queen, in the Corktown neighborhood of Toronto. I'm easy to find. Just look for the middle-aged guy wearing a green baseball cap with a Corner Gas logo. And carrying a ukulele.

uke player

The ukulele is the reason most people visit the Dominion every Wednesday. That's the day the Dominion hosts the weekly gathering of the Corktown Ukulele Jam. And at the jam a couple of weeks ago, I did something for the first time I never imagined I'd ever do - I performed a song on stage.

I started going to the jam earlier in the Summer. At first, my thought was that you'd never see me up on stage. And yet, once the evening was over, I started thinking about songs I could perform. The more I thought about songs to play in front of the gang, the more I felt I had to go through with it. That is, although I didn't have to do it, I found myself more afraid of chickening out than moving forward.

Let me try to explain: I'm not the most outgoing person, and I've had to deal with anxiety issues for years. I've learned a few things about dealing with my anxiety - when to face up to my fears, and when to walk away. I knew I was now facing some uncharted territory when thinking about getting up on stage. But I also knew that walking away from that territory was no longer an option. These were fears I now had to face head on.

Looking back, my performance was a blur. As a first timer, my main goal was basically to get through my song without soiling my pants, and I at least met that goal. I'm sure my nervousness showed through, especially at the start. And I messed up a line once, but it was in the chorus, so perhaps no one noticed. That's probably because I got distracted by the sound of my amplified voice. (There's so much to think about on stage!) On the plus side the audience laughed at the right points in my song. And I even remember hearing some people in the audience singing along with the chorus.

Will I do it again? I think so. The more you do something like that, the better you get. You can't expect perfection the first time out. I'll do a bit better next time. And a bit better still the time after that. I'm still practicing songs with the intention of doing them on stage.

I know there are lots of ukulele fans at the jam who don't ever want to solo on stage. I can certainly understand their reluctance. After all, there are some really good performers who regularly show off their abilities. But while I know I'm not in the same league as many of the great uke players at the jam, I know we all have to start somewhere. The only way to improve is to practice, and extend the limits of our abilities. Also, we can't forget that this is a very supportive bunch of people. When you do go on stage, everyone wants you to do well, but they also don't care if you make a mistake. Knowing that makes a big difference.

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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