Perfectly Imperfect

May 5, 2017

I teach music to a lot of people these days, and the most useful tip I can give them is to learn how to be imperfect.

We all stumble. We all make mistakes. But it is in how we handle those mistakes that shows our true character – and experience.

For example: I have seen many an open mic performance, where the singer/player makes one little goof, then makes a horrible face, and then apologizes for that mistake. We all heard it – but now we are remembering it. Had the player just skated on past it, minimizing its impact – chances are we would have moved on to the rest of the performance and forgotten all about it.

Forget a lyric? Make one up. Improvise.
Sure, we want to “tell the correct story” in our lyrics, but what’s more important: start, stumble, stop –  or keeping a nice musical flow? Chances are – if someone does notice that you made up a word here and there, they would also notice the skill and cleverness you demonstrated in a tight spot.

Forget where you are in the song? Vamp!
Vamping (playing a chord or chords over and over) is a very useful tool. It keeps the music and the performance going, while you gather your thoughts. (It’s also a great way to start songs, as it gets everyone’s attention and sets the mood.)

The point I am trying to make, is that all but the very most experienced musical geniuses make a mistake here and there, (and even then, I think they do, too.) But the reason you don’t notice those mistakes so much is because attention isn’t drawn to them. They have practiced being imperfect.

Here’s a practice tip I find useful:
Practice a song you like, but don’t refer to the lyrics. Start with the words you know, and when you forget something – make something up that fits in with the chords you are playing. Keep trying – sometimes it will be silly and nonsensical, but you will be amazed at how at times, it will actually be pretty clever. You can even try singing complete nonsense, and see how musical you can make it.

Practice being perfectly imperfect.

Clean your windows. (Why the little stuff matters while performing.)

May 10, 2017

When you look out of your home through a clean window, you see the trees, the yard, the street, or whatever it is that lies beyond.

But when your windows are dirty, you can’t help but notice how much better it would look if they were only streak-free. Of perhaps they have a thin film of dust on them, hardly noticeable –  until you wipe them clean and then wonder why you hadn’t done that long ago. Everything is so much better now.

And so it is with performing a song at an open mic or concert – clean up that stuff that is keeping the audience from “seeing” you clearly.

Is your instrument in tune? Even if you tuned it last week, tune it again. (People actually say “Well, I tuned it last week.” That’s crazy.) If you use a capo, make sure it is seated properly and not making your strings buzz. Failure to do either of these things is like purposely hobbling your horse before running a race. Why would you do that?

Be prepared, look as confident as you can (I know it’s hard), and do your best. Be aware of where your mic is, and sing into it. If you have to look down at your music stand, then place the mic where you can both sing into it, and see your music.

Make a mistake? If you think everyone heard it, then apologizing and drawing attention to it only makes it more noticeable. Better yet – if you make a mistake – keep going and pretend no one noticed it. Your clever recovery will make a good impression on everyone and soon, their attention will move on the rest of your song.

When you’re finished with your song, let that last note receive its due credit. Don’t run off the stage while people are still clapping for you. (Sure, you may want to run and hide, but a few more seconds only feels like an eternity. Take a bow and soak in the love.) 

Playing and performing is hard enough. Even when it isn’t obvious what the problem may be, the audience feels something isn’t quite right, so make sure you aren’t accidentally making it harder on yourself.

Do you have thoughts on this idea? Have you noticed little things you could have “fixed” before performing? When watching someone else play – do you “see” things you think they might have done better?

Remember – this isn’t about judging, or shaming yourself or others – it’s about learning and improving.

 

Iron out that wrinkle – a way to practice.

May 4, 2017

Let’s imagine you are getting ready for an important meeting, and you need your suit or dress needs pressing.

You pull it out of the closet, lay it down on the ironing board and begin. You do all the easy parts first, and then notice a significant wrinkle.

Question: Do you take the time to iron out that wrinkle, or work around it and pretend no one will notice?

If you want to look good, you would be wise to spend a bit of time ironing out that specific wrinkle before moving on the the rest of the garment. It’s not going to go away by itself.

So why do I so often notice, that many uke (and guitar) players practice songs by starting and going full throttle until they hit a rough spot, then chuckling about how “that is a hard chord”, then moving on, pretending that the problem will fix itself somehow?

If you really want to learn and get better – you’d be wise to stop at the “wrinkle” in the song, and work on it. Iron it out. Forget the rest of the song for the time being and work just on the problem area, over and over, until you’ve smoothed it out and you no longer notice any difficulty.

Then, go back and practice the whole song again, and glide right through that former rough spot, making your entire song sound as wonderful as it should.

 

How often do I need to tune my instrument?

February 16, 2017

For those of you who don’t know this, I am the editor and publisher of a Ukulele Newsletter, serving mostly the California Bay Area, but with subscribers all over the world. In this newsletter I have created an advice column called, “Dear Uke Guru,” and there I answer questions sent in from my subscribers. Here is another question I think you might find helpful, depending on your level of musicianship:

 

Dear Uke Guru, 

I just bought a ukulele. How often do I need to use that tuner?

Signed, 
Pitchey Mi

Dear Pitchey,
To sound good, an instrument needs to be in tune all the time. Because there are many factors that affect the tuning of your strings, including temperature and the accidental “bumping” of your tuners, your instrument can stray from its proper tuning easily and often. The Uke Guru suggests that you certainly tune it before you play it – every time. Sometimes it won’t need it, and sometimes it will.

The Uke Guru hears students say sometimes, that they had just tuned it the day before, so “it should be good,” not realizing that they had to put their instrument in its case, put it in the hot (or cold) car, bump it around on the road, take it out of the case into a new environment, and start playing it again. Take the time to check your tuning.
This doesn’t mean that your instrument doesn’t stay in tune – it just means that it may not always be in tune. We make such efforts to learn and play better – why start out with a self-inflicted handicap?

The Uke Guru hopes this helped.

Signed,

The Uke Guru

 

(You can sign up for the Ukelist Newsletter by going to: www.ukelist.com and using the “sign-up” form.)

 

 

Dear Uke Guru, How do I know how many strums to play when I see a chord on my music sheet?

February 7, 2017

For those of you who don’t know this, I am the editor and publisher of a Ukulele Newsletter, serving mostly the California Bay Area, but with subscribers all over the world. In this newsletter I have created an advice column called, “Dear Uke Guru,” and there I answer questions sent in from my subscribers. Here is one I think you might find helpful, depending on your level of musicianship:

Dear Uke Guru, 

You are our last hope – confusion about number of strums. When a song sheet contains a D, is it one strum? Or when a song sheet shows a D/, is it two strums? There seems to be a different opinion about what these mean. Inquiring minds want to know.

Signed, 
All Strummed Out

Dear All Strummed Out,
Thank you asking an important question – one that I’ve heard many times.  The reason you, and many others, find these types of song sheets confusing – is because they are.

The song sheets you are referring to – the ones with the chords over the lyrics – are best thought of as rough guides to songs one should already be familiar with. They contain the lyrics and the approximate placement of the chord over a particular word. The person creating these song sheets does their best to indicate any breaks or special rhythmic sections, but it is very difficult to accurately indicate anything, let alone specific musical information. And there isn’t really a standard – everyone does it a little different – myself included.

That being said, let’s move on to a more important aspect of your question: how many strums one plays. Let’s differentiate between the word “strum” vs. “beat.” A “strum” is merely the act of making a sound with your strumming hand. A “beat,” on the other hand, is a length of time a chord is played – usually 4 beats to a “measure.” How often you “strum” is entirely up to you. If a D chord is to be played for a duration of 2 measures, or 8 beats – you could strum once, or 64 times… these are two different things we are talking about, and indicating what to do is difficult with song sheets, as they are merely guides.

The best way to accurately indicate rhythmic breaks and chord durations is with actual sheet music using standard musical notation. This type of notation informs you on what chord to play when, as well as the notes of the melody and the timing – and then some. Of course, one must be familiar with reading this type of music; it’s not the type of thing a beginning ukulele player would know, unless they are serious about learning everything they can about music.

So, back to your original question: is it one strum or two? I don’t know. I, too, have asked the same question. It’s best to already know the music, and then try to guess what the author meant by his or her markings.

One way I prefer, is to do this to indicate number of beats on a particular chord:

D                                  Bm
/  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     /  /  /  /      /  /  /  /     etc.
la la la la laaaaaa la de da da da….

This example tells you that you are to play a D for two measures of 4 beats each, followed by a Bm for another two measures. Of course, this takes up more room, and it makes lining up words and slashes nearly impossible, so I only use it for trouble spots on a chart that need clarification.

I thank you for your question, and feel that it only points out the need for everyone who enjoys “playing music” to learn more and more about what experienced musicians know when they are playing. You don’t have to dedicate your every breathing moment to study, but learning the basics will open your eyes and ears to a fantastic world of music appreciation and participation.

The Uke Guru hopes this helped.