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.

The Sheepherder Band Leader

August 16, 2017

I am often asked if I can help a “play along” group sound better and how the leader can be more effective. I came up with this way of explaining the leader’s role:

Think of a sheepherder and his herder dogs. The role of the herder and his/her dogs is to keep the herd together. When a couple of sheep wander off, the herder’s job is to bring them back to the others. Without that control, soon the herd would split into smaller herds and become unmanageable. Their job is to have an overview of what’s going on, notice these things happening, and correct the problem before it becomes too big.

The herder knows which direction to take the herd, so he/she pays attention to their location so that the herd can be lead in the proper direction. He/she looks ahead and anticipates what is needed. As beautiful as the surrounding landscape may be – the sheepherder can’t kick back and enjoy the scenery as much as they’d like to, as their job is to keep a watchful eye on the herd.

So to the leaders of play along groups – remember that your job is to lead the group.

As you guide your players through the song, you need to be able to detect when one or two players stray from the beat or the arrangement of the song, and bring them back to the rest of the group. Sometimes a gentle reminder of “We’re at the chorus” will do, or some other indication of where they should be. Sometimes you need to indicate that everyone should vamp – repeat the main chord over and over – until order can be restored. Bring those stray sheep back to the herd so the larger group can continue on the right path.

Like the sheepherder that has to choose which valley to guide the herd to, your job is to anticipate the upcoming change from verse to chorus, and let everyone know what to expect. Sometimes it happens by itself, but at other times, everyone needs a cue. That’s your job.

As much as you’d like to get everyone started and then pick up your instrument and sing along – as leader, you need to stay on guard all the time. If you want a break to play and have fun – ask for someone else to lead.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun and participate – it just means that your primary role is to lead.

Your herd depends on you.

Thoughts?

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.)