05/18/14

Song arrangements for CPLUG


CPLUG songbookI have arranged several songs for our local ukulele group (CPLUG – the Collingwood Public Library Ukulele Group) over the recent months, and put them online for our members and for any other ukulele aficionados. The most recent was prepared for our May 21 get-together. Links are below.

Some of these are my own arrangements based mostly on my reading of the original song sheets or the music itself, others are based on those of other modern groups or players (albeit generally changed or updated by me).

I search online for variations of songs – other arrangements – so I can make sure the one I put together is both playable by the group, and sounds right (to my tin ear).

The songs offer a mix of old and modern material – modern I suppose being relative, because none of the songs I’ve arranged are post-2000 (yet). Mea culpa, but they are those of my own preference and my taste in pop music tends to thin out post-1990. If anyone in the group wants modern recent songs, he or she is going to have to work with me to help make it work.

Not that there aren’t good musicians and songwriters today, just that the majority of stuff I hear on the radio is derivative pap that fits into formula-istic, computerized play lists. What passes for R&B today is especially dreary. Nothing like the great, powerful music that R&B was in the 60s and 70s. And to me the “new country” is equally sleep-inducing: repetitive and vapid. Trucks, booze, girls in tight jeans… rinse and repeat…

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05/13/14

Practice makes perfect


Ukulele practiceWhenever I’m asked for advice from new ukulele players on how to get better, or what secret they need to know to play better, I tell them it’s simple:

Practice.

Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice.

That’s really all these is to it, whether you believe in the 10,000 or 20,000-hour path to accomplishment hypothesis. You gotta practice.

Only when you have practiced enough will your fingers be loose enough, your callouses build sufficiently, and your wrist be flexible enough to play without strain. When you’ve practiced enough you will be able to make chord shapes without having to look them up. You’ll know where to find Bb and D# on the fretboard without stopping to count frets.

Practice. Easy to say, but what with all the distractions – the dog, the TV, the phone calls, the internet, Facebook, the phone again, the neighbour’s kids, the sunny day, the grumbling tummy, the empty coffee cup begging for a refill, the unfinished blog post you’re writing… it’s hard. I find it easiest to go somewhere alone and quiet, and just sit down with some music and work away at it. Close the door and keep the world out for a little while.

I also find it useful to walk around the house with a ukulele, just noodling, fingering the strings, trying chords, maybe even playing a song or two while upright and walking. Sometimes you come up with something interesting when you start out with unstructured time.

I also find just walking around while playing something without really focusing on practice is meditative. It helps me think; clears my mind and makes issues clear. And it helps my motor skills.*

But practice isn’t just noodling around for an hour or so every day. It takes focus, concentration and effort: you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. However, it also needs to be varied and fun. It shouldn’t be a chore you begrudge putting time into. Set tasks, change songs or try to explore different rhythms and strumming patterns. Pick a song you don’t know and learn it: make it a challenge to yourself.

As Dr. Christine Harper tells us:

Constant repetition is boring and our boredom is telling us that our brains are not engaged. But instead of listening to this instinctive voice of reason, we blame ourselves for our lack of attention and yell at ourselves to “focus!”… In a random practice schedule, the performer must keep restarting different tasks. Because beginnings are always the hardest part, it will not feel as comfortable as practicing the same thing over and over again. But this challenge lies at the heart of why random practice schedules are more effective. When we come back to a task after an intervening task, our brain must reconstruct the action plan for what we are about to do. And it is at this moment of reconstruction that our brains are the most active. More mental activity leads to greater long-term learning.

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05/8/14

How many chords?


Chord builder wheelHow many chords does a musician need to know? How many does an amateur musician who plays mostly popular, folk and blues music, need to know?

My first answer has always been, “all of them” because you never know when you need them. But that’s not realistic. After all, there are thousands of chords you can play on a guitar or piano and you simply can’t memorize every one. Well, at least I can’t.

I know a lot of the basic forms: majors, sevenths, minors and so on – but I sometimes have to take a moment and think out something like a B#m7 or a Gsus4. I rely partly on the memory of the basic shapes, and partly on my understanding of how the fretboard works (so I can move a known shape up or down the neck as necessary).

But what about on ukulele, with its four strings – as opposed to the guitar’s six strings (and the piano limited only by the number of keys two human hands can press simultaneously – ten). Surely that must be easier? Well, not much, it turns out. What happens when a chord has five notes and you only have four strings?

Sure, if you stick to a few basic songs and a handful of major keys, you can probably get by with memorizing a couple of dozen  shapes and be able to play a lot of contemporary music. But I am also playing some old songs from the 20s and 30s; songs that have jazz chords. Ninths, sixths. Suspended. Chords you don’t find a lot in modern pop music.

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05/4/14

Reading music and music theory


reading musicI write about reading a lot, because I read a lot of books. There are other kinds of reading – other languages, too – that I don’t write much about. Reading music is one of them. It’s a different language; a symbolic language with its own grammar, punctuation and rules. As far as reading music goes, I’m semi-illiterate.

I’ve been playing music – guitar mostly – since the Beatles had Ticket To Ride on the hit parade, back in the days of AM radio and 45 RPM singles. But I’m self-taught: no classes or schooling, just a lot of practice and playing. And as a result, my knowledge of musical theory is weak. I know more about the technical structures of a Shakespearean play than I do of a sonata or a pop song. I can read HTML and CSS code with consummate ease, but struggle with a musical score.

What I do know has been cobbled together over the years from playing, listening, asking and some reading. Mostly absorbed by osmosis rather than dedicated effort.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand music reasonably well, but more on a visceral level than an academic one. And I understand some musical theory – well, bits and bats of it – partly because you get to know about it – even if you don’t always have the technical vocabulary – by playing and jamming. Like playing 12-bar blues. You soon learn the rhythms, the patterns, the chord changes – even if you can’t confidently talk about I-IV-V patterns.

I play a lot of chords and can finger them on several stringed instruments – but while I can hear one and tell if it’s a major, minor or seventh, maybe a diminished or augmented, I can’t really tell you the theory behind why that is. My passion for making music far outruns either my talent to do so or my technical understanding of it.

So, what with organizing and running a local ukulele group, and focusing more on music than ever before, I think it’s time to buckle down and learn more about music in a scholarly way. I need to be able to speak about it confidently in front of the group.

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05/3/14

More reasons to read


Brain and readingOn the Inside Higher Ed website, Joshua Kim recently asked the question,

When do you find the time and energy to read books?

That surprised me. What energy does reading take? It’s not like running, or swimming or playing sports.

Sitting down in a comfortable chair, cat on the lap, cup of tea at hand, and a small stack of books within easy reach. Some energy to set yourself up for an hour to two’s reading, but hardly any expended to do the actual reading. Well, maybe a little to move the facial muscles into a smile at the sheer satisfaction one gets from such activity.

And at night; tucked in, dog and cats on the bed snuggled up, cup of Ovaltine on the bedside table, small stack of books within easy reach – a quiet hour or so reading before lights out. Winding down from the day gently. No energy wasted at all.*

Putting a book into each bookstand kept on the counter when we have lunch together, on the weekends. Both of us enjoying a peaceful midday break, reading while we eat. No energy at all.

Taking out a paperback to read on the subway or bus during your commute; reading it in the doctor’s office waiting room; sitting on the front porch in the summer evening sun with a glass of wine and a book: effortless.

Reading is not simply something you learn at school, then neglect for the rest of your life – like algebra or Latin. It’s a skill that you use daily, and to use it well, you have to keep sharp and exercised, like a muscle. As a Northwestern University study found, there’s a difference in being a good and a poor reader:

What makes a good reader? First, you have to know how to read the words on a page and understand them — but there’s a higher-level step to reading comprehension. You have to tie together the words over time, maintaining their order and meaning in your memory, so that you can understand phrases, sentences, paragraphs and extended texts.

I would argue that reading more heightens those comprehension skills, just like exercise improves coordination and muscle quality.

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04/26/14

Just Six Songs?


The World in Six SongsAuthor, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin says all music can be classified into a mere six types of song. That’s part of the premise in his 2009 book, The World in Six Songs. I recently started reading it and it has opened some interesting areas of thought for me.*

A mere six fundamental themes in song, Levitin writes: friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love. And he provides a chapter for each in what is a literary combination of sciences, music, social commentary, cultural anthropology and personal reminiscence. And he offers a lot of conjecture that, while not necessarily provable, is always entertaining and thought-provoking.

That reductionism seems like a challenge to the reader. My first thought was, are these six discrete or can songs overlap and share categories? What about music without lyrics? Soundtracks? Where do they fit? What about non-western music? What about satire and comedy songs? Storytelling songs? Songs of mourning and lament? What about Gilbert and Sullivan?

What about Bob Dylan? I listen to and play a lot of Dylan’s music and there are some songs that I have never been able to classify or explain, even after decades of familiarity with them. Where do you put a song like Stuck Inside of Memphis with the Mobile Blues Again? or All The Tired Horses? The Gates of Eden?

Or Bach’s Goldberg Variations? The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1? Leo Kottke doing Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring on slide guitar? John Fahey’s The Yellow Princess?  Puccini’s Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly? How can a song in a different language you don’t understand move a listener to weep openly? It’s not simply the lyrics. Music reaches inside us in ways we really don’t understand.

And, of course, I immediately came up with my own mental list of songs and tried to fit them into Levitin’s boxes, often without finding a comfortable fit. But that’s part of the fun. Willie the Pimp? the Velvet Underground’s The Gift? The WCPAEB';s Watch Yourself? Too many to list that don’t fit (as I read it) into comfortable categories.

What about Honshirabe? It’s the classic Zen piece for solo shakuhachi; a stunningly beautiful, haunting piece that speaks volumes to the listener about Japanese culture without lyrics. It is powerful enough to stop me in my tracks and force me to sy stand still and listen, and can easily move me to tears. Where does that fit in the six songs?

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