Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with someone who can’t hear you?

August 17, 2016

I was teaching a workshop the other day and was having a hard time hearing individuals when they asked questions. People were talking between themselves, or doodling on their instruments. I had to ask everyone to please listen, as whatever question was being asked was important to the person asking it as well as to me, and that we would all benefit from the answer I was to give.

It then occurred to me that this was yet another analogy about playing music: that we have to be able to hear what is being said (played) in a musical situation in order to be able to respond accordingly.

In a band, we must ask ourselves: can we hear everyone? Can we hear the singer, bass player, drummer, and/or other “strummers?” Do they need to “come up” (be louder) or do we need to “come down” (be quieter)? (Often, it is the latter of the two.)

If we can’t hear what is being said, how are we to know how to respond?

I am sure we’ve all experienced a conversational situation where someone doesn’t hear the actual question, and responds with something completely out of context. Sometimes it can be quite humorous, but most often it simply stops the conversation until everyone gets back on track.

Have you ever noticed  in a playing situation, where someone (or several people) don’t seem to be listening and playing with the rest of the group? Perhaps they are soloing and doodling around while someone is singing, or not ending with the rest of the group.

This is a perfect opportunity to ask them, “Can you hear everything? The bass? The other players? Should we move closer together? Do we need to be louder? Can you play a little softer?” Whatever it takes to bring it to the group’s attention.

Soon it will be second nature to you all to insist that you hear everything – all the time.

I know where to buy the record…

July 30, 2016

When I go out to see a band or solo performer, I’d like to think that I am witnessing something special – that my presence in the audience actually matters – that the performer takes into consideration all these eager ears and faces and performs for them… me! I want to be able to say, “You had to be there.”

But I think sometimes, that in a performer’s eagerness to honor and prove their dedication to a particular artist, they merely copy the song: the arrangement, tone of voice, and delivery. But what is often forgotten, is that a recording artist often performs their songs differently. Their live version is actually live, versus their studio recording. Their acoustic version differs from the electric. There are multiple ways to play any one song.

And I remember hearing once, that a really well written song is one that can be interpreted many ways. A Beatles song, for instance, could be played in any style and still be recognized, sung to, and enjoyed.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t work hard to learn all the key parts of a song, practice the heck out of it, and deliver an amazing cover. That has its rewards both for the performer and the listener, but remember: we can buy the “real” tune anytime we want to hear it the exact way the original artist recorded it, but we can never buy the moment we sat or stood in front of you and you “blew us away” with your heartfelt, original and confident delivery of a song we thought we knew, but had never heard it played so personally… to us, the audience, on that special night.

Don’t just go through the motions – deliver the emotion.


Practice By Yourself

July 22, 2016

How likely is it that someone is going to want to hear you play a particular passage of a song, a plucking pattern on just one chord, or scales, over and over for five or ten minutes before moving on to another repetitious snippet of music for another equal length of time?

“My God that’s monotonous,” they are likely to say. “ Why don’t you play a real song?”

But playing a song may not be what you need to work on.

Sometimes, what really is needed, is to focus on just one chord change, one strumming pattern, or a particular picking technique – and repetition is the key to building the muscle memory needed to flex your new skill while “playing a song.” What you need is encouragement and support – not the opposite.

So honor your commitment to being a better musician by setting aside some private time to practice and fine tune the details of your playing. Then, when you’re all warmed up and those new skills are better ingrained – you’ll be able to invite others into your space to play them “a real song.”

Playing by Numbers

July 20, 2016

Have you ever painted a picture by numbers?

I remember the one I did when I was very young; it was a scene of a flock of ducks flying over a pond, out in the countryside. But though it may have had its rewards, painting by numbers didn’t really teach me how to paint. Had the outlines and numbers disappeared, I would have been left with a blank canvas and a palette of colors I had no idea of what to do with, and though I may have been learning how to wield a paintbrush, if I were to really want to be a painter (and an artist), I would need to learn much more about composition, shading, and proportions.

I observe many new users playing by numbers – that is, to be following a set of directions: play 3 strums of C, 8 strums of F, 8 strums of C, 8 strums of G, 4 strums of C, 4 strums of C7, etc. Playing this way may, at first, help you to play along to “This Land is Your Land,” but should you miss one count, or miss one “strum” of any one chord… well, you would likely to be get lost. You’d be staring at a page full of instructions yet not knowing where you were, or where to look.

On the other hand, had you known that those “8 strums” were actually two bars of 4 strums each, and that they weren’t necessarily even called “strums,” but rather beats, you would have had a better sense of where you were and able to get back to playing. You would have recognized those three odd beats at the beginning as simply the last three of four beats of a full measure before starting the song. Soon, you would have been noticing the composition of the overall picture:

simple this land is your landNow, on your way to better understanding how a seasoned musician “looks” at music, you would be able to add new techniques and flourishes as you learn them: rhythmic enhancements & variations, dynamics, and even chord substitutions – much like the seasoned artist knows how to add shadows, light, and depth to his or her paintings.

So go ahead and paint, er…. I mean, play by numbers, but don’t be afraid to actually learn what you are doing as you do so. And though another “paint-by-number” player may be eager and willing to help, ask a more experienced player if they would be willing to give you a few tips here and there, or take a few lessons from a professional to get you started.

That painting I did of those ducks – I wish I still had it, as I was sure proud of what I did, and how far I have come.

There is no magic pill.

July 2, 2016

Do you really want to be a better player? Really?

Often, I am approached by someone who claims to want to improve their playing. We schedule a lesson, and I “hear where they are at” regarding their playing.

Sometimes it’s easy to help them immediately – I can see that they need a better way to shape a chord, or I write out a clear chart showing where chords actually change in a song.

But more often, I hear that they need to work on their rhythm. A chord is easy to learn: you look it up and play it. But rhythm is what makes a song sound right. It is the pulse of the song – the very element that keeps it together. So I start them from the very beginning and explain how to count and I give them some very basic exercises to work on. I even assure them that it’s okay to continue to work on their song, play, have fun, but to spend a little time on this exercise. Very few do.

Some of these extremely eager students suddenly disappear – having gotten “too busy.” Why?

Yes, it occurs to me that it could simply be that they don’t like my teaching style, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they were hoping for some magic pill – a lesson where I disclosed “the secret” to playing great, and that they would leave an amazing player.

“I want a new strum,” they ask me, but when I start to teach them how, they lose interest.

“What can I do to make this song better?” they ask. But when I tell them that the song is pretty good, except for the timing and feel, they move on to another song, as if that was the problem. (Perhaps they thought I would suggest sitting differently, or that they should wear a different outfit.)

There seems to be the thinking that the ukulele is an easy instrument to learn. Sure, it’s small, only has four strings, and is easy to begin to make music on, but the actual playing of music is something that takes time – on any instrument.

It takes commitment to think about what you’re doing, practicing the individual elements of a song, observing, listening

There is no magic pill, ukers. If you want to get better, then work at it. It can still be fun.

By the way, I do have several students who are committed and work at what I give them and you know what? They’re AWESOME! Every week they improve, and every week I get to show them new material. They are getting what they asked for.

That’s the real magic.