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.

 

 

 

The other way to practice.

October 27, 2016

There are many ways to practice, and I am guessing that many of you are very good at sitting down with the new song you’ve been handed, looking at those unfamiliar chords, and playing (and singing) the entire song from top to bottom. This is just fine, as it helps you to learn those new chords, and it familiarizes you with the song. But if you’re not careful, it will also teach you to reply solely on that piece of paper (or iPad) and you will have a harder time breaking free.

I lead a class every Wednesday called “The All In Good Time Orchestra,” and for the last two weeks I have been celebrating our recent concert by starting our  rehearsals with no stands – no music! When I announced this via email, I received some concerned replies – students were worried that it was going to be too hard. But something wonderful happened.

I asked them what the chords were for a particular song, and after a few minutes, we had remembered all the chords in the right order and timing. What information some people didn’t know, others did, and together we were playing the song – without the music!

Because we weren’t tethered to that paper, we were now able to look up and really play. We worked on “hearing” areas that needed attention, and everyone could better “see” my visual cues. I noticed the quality of our playing increased dramatically. Sure, we will probably use the written music occasionally, but now it will be to refer to, instead of to hold to for dear life.

And now you too, can take this “other way to practice” and apply it to your musical routine. Take one of your favorite songs and see if you can remember the first couple of lines. Look at the music if you have to, and then try to play just a bit from memory. Play that little part over and over… and over, until it gets to be automatic. Then work on the next part the same way. Then add the two together. Continue through the song. Piece by piece. Patiently.

In this way, you are studying the parts of the song – all the little pieces that make up the larger piece. And by doing so, you are developing the muscle memory needed to play the song without thinking about it. When your fingers go to the right chords before you even know it.

That’s when the magic happens.

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.”