Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

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.

 

 

 

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.

How to take a workshop.

June 29, 2016

Two and a half weeks from now, I will be teaching at a Uke Festival in Bend, Oregon. As I get ready for the trip, I think about what I will be teaching and how I can encourage everyone to make the most out of the many workshops they will be attending.

Perhaps one of those students will be you.

Let’s start with the simple, obvious truth: you aren’t going to learn everything that is presented to you. Not in one 45 minute class with a dozen other people plunking around and asking questions. Not even in one 45 minute private lesson all by yourself with the full attention of the teacher. Multiply by a whole day or weekend filled with workshops, and you may feel like you haven’t learned anything.

But you will be exposing yourself to a variety of ideas and techniques. And like a photographer that shoots dozens of photos hoping to capture one amazing moment, you too, can aspire to come away with one or two epiphanies* over the weekend.

Here’s my suggestion:

Take those classes and workshops. Don’t stress about what you’re not learning, but rather let all that information find it’s orbit around your brain and see if there isn’t something that does make sense. Notice and observe. Don’t mentally discard anything – some of that info may make sense later.

Take another class. What does that teacher have to say? Think of it as gathering miscellaneous parts of a larger machine. Some of the individual parts may not make sense, but when you put them all together – later – they will.

Take another class. Challenge yourself. Maybe it’s too hard for you – that’s okay. Pretend you’re a fly on the wall of a secret meeting of advanced musical beings. Or pretend you’re an anthropologist – observing how other talk and behave.

Just participate. You never know what will stick, and what you will learn.

And have fun.

 

 

*An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is an experience of sudden and striking realization.

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