Tuesday, February 17, 2015

UE #130 Clawhammer Ukulele - What's that about?! (Part 1)

Clawhammer Banjo is a technique with a curious name and a distinctive sound that also works on ukulele. Today I talk about my personal Clawhammer journey and next time I'll describe the art of Clawhammer and how to adapt it for ukulele. (And, if you want to learn how to do it, my DVD Essential Strums for the Ukulele shows you how.)  

I once talked a bank teller into giving me £300 sterling, even though my account was nearly empty, because I "needed" to buy a banjo. It was 1984 and my second year of Applied Physics at University. My passion for banjo had been ignited by a dreadful sounding tenor banjo that I'd dug out of my parent's attic (dreadful to others that is - to my ear it was the music of angels) and I made the life-changing decision to blow the money I'd saved for a car on a five-string banjo instead.

At that time I was doing my industrial placement at WIRA in Leeds, England. WIRA stood for Wool Industries Research Association. (If you've ever watched James Bond films where they're testing the latest spy gear, working at WIRA was a lot like that, only wool-related. The laboratory hummed and snapped with machines that caused wool to pill and break. Meanwhile technicians in lab coats walked back and forth on carpet tiles all day long to test the tiles' durability. My job was to develop a laser activated industrial yarn machine. It never worked while I was there but I've since been told such machines are now the industry standard. By the way, that's all I'm telling about the seamy undercover world of wool. In fact I've already said too much, I may have to muffle you.)

The striking looking stockroom guy
at WIRA (striking because he had one blue eye and one brown) also happened to be a part-time musician. When I mentioned my desire to play banjo he said one word, "Bluegrass?" I had no idea what Bluegrass was but it sounded brilliant so the very next day, a Friday, I was downtown buying a banjo during lunch-break.

I picked out a Yoshi; a Japanese copy of a Gibson Mastertone (again, no idea what that was but it sounded cool beyond words.) I also bought fingerpicks and a book called Bluegrass Banjo by Peter Wernick. They lay on the counter as I wrote the cheque. The man took the cheque and said, "You can pick it up next Wednesday." "Whuh?" I replied, "I need it now!" This was technically only true in the sense that, in my obsessed state, I truly believed I needed to start my banjo career immediately. "I'm sorry." said the man, "But the cheque has to clear."

I ran to the National Westminster Bank to get cash. The bank teller took my cheque and walked off. He came back to tell me, "You only have twelve pounds in your account."
I was ready for this, "I know, but I have to buy a banjo. I've got the money but right now it's in my building society account in my home town. On Monday I'll withdraw it and put it in my bank account."
To further strengthen my case, I added, "I promise."
He heard my plea and stared at my impassioned face a moment before saying, "I have to talk to the manager."

The teller came back to tell me, "We've called your building society to verify you have the funds. We'll give you the money but please transfer the funds into your bank account as soon as possible on Monday."

I still can't believe that this transaction actually took place. Imagine a bank handing over that much cash to a youth with only his word for collateral (I didn't even have an ID card in those days) but at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable outcome. I got my banjo and carried it everywhere for several years.

My unsuccessful attempts to master the ultra-fast fingerpicking style of Bluegrass lasted about a year. My failure was in large part due to my Bluegrass Banjo book not containing the floppy record that was supposed to accompany it. I persevered however. Every song in the book was a mass of black dots (with typically 8 or 9 additional notes for every melody note) but because I didn't know how the songs sounded I gave each note equal weight. I practiced this musical morass for an hour or two every night for a year. Imagine the bemusement of my fellow house-mates being treated to a daily deluge of loud and apparently random notes. Oh the suffering I must have caused. 

Then, in Liverpool's Central Library, as if ordained by fate, I opened an arts magazine to behold a tiny ad for 5-string banjo tuition with Sara Grey, who taught the Frailing/Clawhammer techniques (two more irresistible names with opaque meanings.) Sara Grey, I later discovered, was a professional folk performer from North Carolina and the Frailing technique came to me as easily as Bluegrass had been impossible. I quickly learned my first song, I think it was Sandy River Belle, she'd also taught this tune to Don Mclean (of American Pie fame) who, if I remember correctly, recorded it on one of his albums. From there I soaked up a new song every week, mostly Appalachian Mountain tunes such as Shady Grove, Waterbound, June Apple, Kitchen Girl... eventually a long list. Sara changed my life. She gave me a student rate for the lessons, lent me her records and took me along to her live album recording. Hanging out with the musicians before the show and listening to their hilarious banter was formative in my decision to make music professionally. Within 18 months I was earning coin playing old time banjo music to Brits on the streets of Exeter, Liverpool and Sheffield.

In the next issue of the Ukulele Entertainer I'll describe, in my own words (and without an accompanying floppy record) how to play the Clawhammer/Frailing techniques on ukulele.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, yes I did put £300 in the bank first thing on Monday after getting my banjo. It never crossed my mind not to do that (boy was I naiive in those days!)

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

UE #129 Getting “On” (Part 2)

Audiences can’t be relied on to lift us up and pull us along. So today I have some thoughts about generating our own performance energy.

I am always impressed by actors who can seemingly call up any emotion they care to. I once saw the curtain open on a play to show a man in the middle of a blistering yelling match with his (offstage) partner. It certainly grabbed my attention and I can only imagine what the actor must have gone through to prepare himself to be in such a state. It’s an extreme example of the kind of thing that all performers need to be able to do. 

Prepare for What You’re About to Do
Mentally transform yourself into the onstage you. Find out what helps you to rise to the occasion. Most performers find a quiet sense of inner focus before releasing their energy. This may be in a quiet room, going for a walk or by finding our inner quiet amidst a crowd. The very act of dressing can be a mental preparation that forces us to slow down and focus.

Be the Boss

You need to be in charge of the room. Some people do this more readily than others but I am living proof that the ability can be developed even by someone who is relatively shy.

The boss is confident in his abilities while being aware of his limitations. The boss is free to try out ideas and isn’t afraid of making mistakes. The boss is well prepared but knows that if mistakes are made they also have skills to turn the situation around. The boss is adept at making others feel at ease. Whatever the boss says or does is right. That is real freedom.

Attaining such a level of bossness is a long term process of personal confidence building. Experience is important. What works for you in one venue may be ineffective somewhere else. There’s a resilience that comes from the repeated practice of putting yourself out there and shaping your environment.

Channel Someone Great
In my book The Ukulele Entertainer I talked about “channeling” other performers. If you see yourself as an unworthy nobody that no-one in their right mind would want to watch, try being someone else instead. Most great performers have constructed onstage public personalities that are larger and less complicated than their real selves. Play around with this idea at home. Think of someone well known who you admire and act-out how they would do your show.

By introducing and singing your songs as someone else you give yourself the feeling of being a somebody who is larger than life. Notice what differences there are between this borrowed persona and the way you normally perform. Do you like the new you? You can choose to keep some aspects and drop others as you move towards creating your onstage self.

Energy from Stimulants
Dutch Courage (alcohol) may reduce nervousness but it also affects the ability to think. It’s not a clever trade-off in my opinion, especially if you have lyrics, chords and other stage-work to remember. Similarly, other drugs that performers use to help them perform better in one area usually negatively affect some other area. So I don’t recommend them. Not even caffeine. I know of bands that drink wine and coffee to get a pre-stage buzz but personally I find adrenaline is quite enough to get the job done thank you. Performers who kick-start themselves with lots of caffeine tend to come across as looking slightly insane rather than filled with energy.

It doesn’t sound fun to be high and onstage when paranoia or some other fear kicks in. I recently heard Carlos Santana talk about playing his song Soul Sacrifice at Woodstock. We hear it and think what great musicianship it is but Santana hears it as being very raw. He and most, or all, of the band were high on mescaline. So did he enjoy his experience performing at Woodstock? No. His abiding memory is terror. As he played he was praying to God to get him through the experience, promising never to perform like this again. 

I don’t judge those who use chemical stimulants to perform. Sometimes the trade-off in a given situation may be worth it. But long term use tends to be problematic.

Energy Does Not Equal Power

Imagine a hose shooting a powerful jet of water in a single direction. Now imagine that same hose dropped to the floor and spraying water around in every direction. Obviously the first scenario is the one that delivers real power. Holding your energy in stillness will often keep the attention of your audience better than twitching, pacing, jerking and generally throwing yourself around. The sense of possibility, the feeling of anything could happen is often more effective than physical activity. This was brought home to me once watching a Barbershop singing contest. The judges gave more presentation points to a quartet of heavy-set men who barely moved than to four supple and skinny guys with clever and well-rehearsed movements. It was a valuable demonstration of less-is-more.

Whether you choose to move around or not, do it with focus and attention. Make your energy one-directional and aim its full force at the audience.

The Ego is a Poor Judge of Power
If in the middle of a song you hear your inner voice saying, “I am really nailing this one, there’s going to be a standing ovation for sure.” Don’t be surprised if the song ends to a less than lukewarm smattering of applause. Conversely you might feel awkward and unsure of what you’re doing only to later discover the audience found the performance extremely moving.

That great actor’s actor Laurence Olivier once sat in his dressing room after receiving overwhelming adulation from what had been an incredible performance. Another actor asked what he’d done to elicit such a moving response. Olivier responded with bewildered grief, “I don’t know.” Sometimes all we can do is develop our art and present it the best way we know how. What the audience feels, if anything at all, is entirely out of our hands.

Take a Chance
I’ve often observed that the first performance of a song can be the best ever. Doing material you’re not entirely comfortable with seems to generate sparks that oft-repeated material doesn’t. Perhaps something in our focus or body language gives the sense of walking a tightrope that the audience picks up on. So be brave, don’t be afraid to try something new.

Perform As if Everyone is Having a Fantastic Time – and They Will!

I perform outdoor street shows at the Granville Island Market. In the off-season crowds can be hard to come by and you may sometimes see me performing to the empty benches on the periphery of the market square. As people bustle by and glance my way I wonder if they think, Who is that loser of a musician without an audience?

I deal with this by introducing songs, making jokes and bantering with passers-by as if the benches were groaning under the weight of happy onlookers. I truly believe that doing so makes me appear cheerful and interesting and not nearly as deranged as you might suppose. Very soon, like particles of grit at the centre of a pearl, people begin to stop and form the nucleus of a gathering audience.

Performers deliver escape and fantasy so be free to create an imaginary world and make it real for yourself. When done right the audience will gladly buy into and share your reality.

And Remember:
As performers we have immense energy. That’s why we’re called stars!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

UE #128 Getting “On” (Part 1 of 2)

Since it cannot be measured no-one can prove it exists. But, anyone who's experienced performance energy knows it to be as real as the warmth of the sun, a slap in the face or a tender kiss. Today we take a look at this phenomenon called energy. 

(btw. I'm thrilled to announce that I'm off to Australia again: Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and more! I'm also putting together some USA west coast dates and summer music festival bookings - so keep checking my website for details!)

In my four years of Physics study I developed a specialized understanding of what energy is. In short, energy is everything. It exists as potential energy (such as a ball atop a mountain) or as kinetic energy (from the ball rolling downhill.) Sound waves, light waves, and surf waves are some means by which energy travels. Energy is measurable and its amount and movement can be described by mathematics. It's a real thing.

So when I got into acting and music it frustrated me no end that my new acquaintances would discuss energy without any clue of what they were saying. It so bugged me to hear these arty-farty types blather on about energy when what they were talking about was some metaphysical invention that had no basis in reality. But, it's funny how, if you spend enough time with someone's opposing view, you eventually come around to their way of thinking. And so, over time, I changed. But is energy even the right word for it? If science can't even detect performance energy then what business do we have giving it such a name?

I actually think that energy is a tremendously good word for what a great performance has. How often have we heard of performers being electric, on fire, shining like a beacon, in the flow, sparking, a smouldering presence, having the power to hold an audience or simply just being intense, hot or on.

"That comedian/singer/ukulele player was really on tonight." You might say while exiting a show and everyone would get your meaning. We don't need an App to tell us when a performance is on or off we instinctively just know.

For performers the state of being on is highly desired.
If we can get ourselves into the magical realm of on we can do no wrong. Being on is like a grand opening of the consciousness where all our practice and rehearsal bypasses our fearful self-critical brain and becomes a servant in a glorious palace of gold making our performance mightier than we ever dreamed possible as we find ourselves uplifted, flowing and communicating as one with the audience in a most intimate and connected way. It's nice when it happens, I'm just saying.

It is possible to develop ways of accessing our performance energy but all the energy in the world won't endow you with skills you never had. So the first part is to know your stuff and get good at what you do. Have confidence in your material and your ability to reproduce that material in a consistent way. Once you're at that point you're ready to perform with energy.

I just finished reading Howard Kaylan's book Shell Shocked: My Life with The Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa etc... (btw. for ukulele content, the book mentions two ukulele players, Ian Whitcomb and Tiny Tim) I learned that as well as being tremendous vocalists on their songs Happy Together and Elenore, Howard Kaylan, and his musical partner, Mark Volman provided backing vocals on countless hits by T.Rex, Alice Cooper, the Ramones and many others. One time they were recording the vocals for a song called Hungry Heart by Bruce Springsteen. Singing in the studio with The Boss were Howard, Mark and Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band.

But there was a problem, when they listened back someone was singing flat. They returned to the studio floor to try again but the problem persisted. Howard and Mark were worried. They were being paid big bucks to give The Boss world class backing vocals and each prayed it wasn't they who were letting him down. Producer Jon Landau called from the control room, "Um, Bruce, you wanna come in here for a second?"

It turned out that Bruce Springsteen was the one singing flat. To rectify the problem Jon Landau had a surprising idea that shows his instinctive feel for how energy works. He told Bruce to strap on his guitar. The vocals were tried again and everyone was pitch perfect. You have to realize that Bruce did not play the guitar but his feeling of being The Boss returned once he had that axe hanging from his shoulder. This is not an unusual phenomenon. Many musicians find their greatest work happens live and reproducing it in a studio without the focus that an audience brings is next to impossible.

There's something about performing for people that can sharpen us, feed us and give wings to our talents. But we cannot presume it to happen. We also need to create that energy from within and next week I'll talk about how to do that.

Next Week: Getting "On" (Part 2) I offer some ways to help lift and energize your performance.

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

UE #127 Christmas - why do we do it?

As I get older I find I become less and less interested in the season of good will and all its trappings. I no longer race around looking for gifts. Two years ago, when my daughter was eighteen, she told my wife and me, "No gifts."
She said she didn't need any more junk or useless possessions and had no use for unwanted gifts. This release from the burden of gift buying came as a happy relief. We gave her a little cash instead - that was still welcome! Of course I still look forward to a gift or two for myself since I'm not quite so spiritually developed as she.

Christmas is the best time of year. And, it's the worst time of year, depending who you ask. It's a time when memories of either magic or tragic childhood Christmases are triggered once again. Emotions run to the surface and spill over causing us to wallow blindly in well worn feelings. 

My own Christmas memories tend to be of the cozy warm glow type but I've met plenty of people who don't feel the same way. One friend told me his mother passed away just before Christmas when he was eleven years old and the sights and sounds of Christmas reignite his deep loss on an annual basis. That can't be much fun. [or That doesn’t sound very merry at all]. Another friend said his father was a happy likable man all year round but exploded in rage and misery every Christmas day. Good grief.

You have to think what is the point of it all? Is all this Christmas malarkey really necessary? Why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we bother?

Every year as Christmas approaches I ask myself these same questions and every year I am answered in the same way. No matter how grumpy I am in the run up to yuletide my mindset gets completely turned around every year and for the same reason. It's the singing. This is the one time of year when a whole lot of people of all ages know a whole lot of the same songs and have a terrific time singing them together. It really is that simple. The joyful benefits of singing together are not to be underestimated. It's a powerful and friendly force.

I am so lucky to be an entertainer in December. I feel so good after my gigs that I can barely contain my joy. Kids, adults and old folk dress up, sometimes in silly santa hats, red noses and antlers, and sing and laugh and dance around. They smile and sing and jingle those daft little bells. It's wonderful to be the instigator of such hilarity. I go home and regale my family with stories of what I experienced. I think I get more of a festive feeling from these gigs than I do during Christmas itself which tends to be pretty low key in comparison.  

So my message to you this year is, no matter how you feel about the seasonal shenanigans, get yourself out to a place where you can belt out some songs with a bunch of friendly folks. I mean it - it's the best cure for the wintertime blues. 

"The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music."
George Carlin, Brain Droppings

If you're near my city of Vancouver here are some opportunities to come and sing with me. Even if you don't play ukulele please come and enjoy the merriment at The Vancouver Ukulele Circle! As well as singing together there will be a wacky quiz plus wonderful performances too.

Friday December 12: 8pm to 11pm: Christmas singalong at the Billy Bishop Canadian Legion (1407 Laburnum Street, Vancouver)
They've had "an OVERWHELMING response" for the early evening dinner bookings so seating may be limited. It's a good time to jostle and rub elbows but if you wish to sit while you sing maybe you should consider coming to Tuesday's ukulele circle instead! 

Tuesday December 16: Vancouver Ukulele Circle, Christmas Party. Come raise the rafters of the St James Hall with song! We have drinks and snacks but no liquor license so you'll have to partake of a wee drinkie before you arrive. There are many nearby places on Broadway where you can do that.
St James Hall, 3214 W.10th, Vancouver (at Trutch)
Tuesday Dec 16, 7:30 pm - 10:00 pm (doors open 6:30pm)
Only $8 - kids get in free and there's a balcony too!!
Vanukes website

Sunday December 28 5:30pm to 7:30pm
& Monday December 29 5:30pm to 7:30pm
Burnaby Village Museum, 6501 Deer Lake Ave, Burnaby BC.
Visit the historic 1920's village: ride the vintage carousel, watch the blacksmith and sing and dance with Ralph Shaw out in the Main Street!     
Burnaby Village Website

This Sunday December 14 Christmas Workshop For Ukulele Players:
4.15-5.45pm there are a few places still left for the Christmas Ukulele Workshop with Ralph Shaw. Improve your picking and strumming while learning Christmas songs!
Workshop cost: $20. All ability levels welcome.
To Register: email Jen at the Cutie Circle
Location: Room 4, Pinetree Community Centre, 1260 Pinetree Way, Coquitlam
More Details Here
Bring music stand and chord chart. You may record the workshop for your own purposes.

© Ralph Shaw 2014

Thursday, October 30, 2014

UE #125 Check Out This New Performer!

There's a new performer on the block. Today I take a look at this extraordinary new showman's skills and list 8 things we can learn in order to enrich our own shows. 

You may have noticed I don't write much about other performers. That's not really surprising; most entertainers feel it prudent and profitable to promote themselves at every opportunity - while mentioning others as little as possible. The performer's attitude in this dog-eat-dog rat-race is, "I work hard to get noticed, the others can find their own goshdarn publicity."  

If I've written about other entertainers at all it is generally because their fame and longevity has put their work in such a different category from my own that they don't pose a threat to my lofty career goals. Examples of these include firmly established icons like Lyle Ritz and Chalmers Doane or the equally iconic names of George Formby, Bill Tapia and May Singhi Breen who are perhaps even more firmly established and non-threatening by virtue of being dead.

So it is within this context you may be surprised to find me writing about a young new performer who has recently appeared on the scene; one whose abilities are extraordinary. Every show has people walking away with broad smiles and looking visibly moved.

The show itself is surprisingly static but rarely fails to be noticed and enjoyed. And it doesn't take place on a stage either. The venue is the street, always the same street and in the same location. Those who come across this quiet showman tend to find themselves stopping mid-stride to look and wonder. Even people already acquainted with the performance will often stop to spend a few minutes or simply feel the benefits of having their steps lightened and their spirits lifted as they go by.

A quick list of this young performer's abilities.
The Performer or Performance is:
-    Surprising.
-    Appeals to all generations.
-    The right thing in the right place at the right time.
-    Kind and comforting, yet what comes out is sometimes shocking, sad or hilariously funny.
-    Uplifts the hearts
-    Gives people a sense of having received real value. Everyone, it seems, walks away positively enriched by the experience.
-    Always on
-    Great looking and wears a cute hat.

Astute readers will by now have guessed, from the lack of personal pronouns in the above, that something is afoot. And you're right. Did you believe for a moment I was going to give a human performer some free publicity - ha!

I am talking about a clever creation that has popped up on our street called The Little Free Library.

The concept is simple enough. The library is a cute and well made box with glass fronted doors revealing several bookshelves (the lowest shelves are for children's books.) A sign on the library invites passersby to take a book and leave a book in return. It's really more of a book exchange than a library but let's not quibble.

Setting it up was the work of my neighbour Theresa and frankly I was wary of the concept. Having such a thing on a downtown street seems an open invitation to vandalism and theft as well as offering rich possibility for unseemly and unhygienic objects, besides books, to be deposited on its neat little shelves.

But the other day, as I trimmed the yew hedges out front of our community, I noticed people going by with smiles on their faces. It didn't take long to realize that the transformative effect was being produced by The Little Free Library. As my electric shears clacked away at the hedge I observed nearly every passerby stopping to check out the library. Most of them opened the doors to take a peek inside. Some people took a book. Not everyone left a book but I had the feeling they'd soon be back to return the favour. My neighbour's kids came down the steps to return books they'd read and to see what new offerings were in store. The feeling of delight was palpable. I have rarely in my life seen such a simple object create such universal joy.

As an entertainer I couldn't help but be impressed by the profound abilities of the library to touch so many different people. And I realized that any of us with ambition to entertain others can learn a lot from this endearingly simple device:

1) Be original, or at least be a new twist on a familiar theme. In this world of instant communication everything is coming to resemble everything else. Only by spending time away from our screen devices and other distractions is there any hope of cultivating qualities such as uniqueness, character and style.

2) Appeal to all generations. True entertainment is universal and has the potential to touch everyone.

3) Be the right thing in the right place at the right time. Find the audience/s and venue/s that work for you.

4) Be kind and comforting but don't be afraid to occasionally be shocking, sad or hilariously funny. In this crazy and jarring world people welcome gentle and soothing experiences. But within that established frame find ways to surprise their minds.

5) Look great. Exactly how you dress up will depend on your performance character but wear something that sets you apart from the audience and tells everyone that something special is in store. A hat should look good and serve a purpose: The Little Free Library has a precious little shingled roof making it look like a mini house while at the same time keeping the valuable contents nice and dry.

6) Give people a sense of having received real value. Just as every great educator is also an entertainer, the reverse is also true. What do people learn and take away from your performance? How will they be changed?

7) Define your stage character (how you look, speak and move) as clearly as possible. Make yourself appealing to others and live in that mode for the duration of the performance.

8) Uplift hearts. Who doesn't want an experience where you walk away feeling that there is hope for us all, that good people will one day be in charge and that maybe, just maybe, there is more glory and beauty in this world than we ever dared to imagine?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

UE #124 Seven Tips to Make You Want to Practice

Regular readers of this regular blog will have noticed that for two or three months my blog has not been at all regular. Since July, thanks to summer performances and other activities, my motivation to write has dwindled down to just about nothing. With this edition I'm aiming to break the ennui and get back onto a more regular writing schedule.

If you're feeling the need to revive your daily music practice habit here are some ideas to get back into it:

Earlier this month I was part of Tutti - an annual weekend of ukulele workshops in Langley, British Columbia, hosted by James Hill. As well as James and me the teaching staff included Chalmers Doane (Nova Scotia), Helene Beaulieau (Quebec), Paul Luongo (B.C.), Aaron Keim (Oregon) and Kevin Carroll (Texas.) As always it was a high energy time of full-on ukulele learning punctuated by regular gatherings in the school gym where all 120+ students and staff met as a group.

At one of these meetings the students had an opportunity to quiz the teachers on any ukulele related issues they had in mind. One student asked for a practice tip from each teacher. Here is some of what was said:

1) Practice for one minute - every day. This is a favourite tip from Chalmers Doane. All you have to do is commit to practicing for one minute every day (including Christmas and statutory holidays.) The only rule is that it be a full minute of concentrated and focused practice. No daydreaming! And the one minute begins AFTER the ukulele is removed from its case. Afterwards you may choose to continue practicing for longer than a minute. But that is up to you. 

2) Keep it fun. Remember it is called PLAYING the ukulele. So make your practice time enjoyable and playful. For example think of your scales as games. Find different ways to play them by changing the timing and the order of the notes. Also reward yourself with music and songs that pique your excitement and make you want to play them often.

3) Really listen to your instrument. This tip came from Helene Beaulieu. When you pick up your ukulele instead of getting straight on with the business of playing just strum the open strings and pay close attention to the sound. Truly listen. How do you feel? What does the sound do to your senses? Think about sound. Remember that practice is not about creating physical movements it is about making sound.

4) Any time can be practice time so keep your instrument/s within easy reach. I wouldn't necessarily suggest this for trumpet, timpani, double bass or bagpipes, all of which require a dedicated practice space. But ukuleles are fairly unique in that they can be transported anywhere and played at low volume in kitchen, car, bedroom, living room or waiting room without causing too much offense. 

5) Get a good instrument. Having a freshly strung ukulele that makes you feel great just to hold and hear will make a huge difference. The pleasure of a well made and great sounding instrument can make you want to spend as much time with it as possible.

6) Practice with performance in mind. Some play music purely for personal recreation but most of us plan at some time to share our music with others. Practicing for performance can mean many things. It can hone the quality of your singing and playing to a higher level. Practicing as if an audience is watching can get you familiar with playing outside of your comfort zone. Make sure to become adept at the trickier parts of songs to prevent falling apart in those places. Working towards a goal of putting the song across to an audience will deepen your connection to the instrument and to your music.

7) Consider the future if you fail to practice now. Here is a slightly sad personal story. In 2002 I bought a white upright piano. My goal was for both my daughter Aletha and I to learn to play. I imagined a future where our home would be filled with Boogie Woogie, Ragtime and singalong parties. But over time Aletha gave up her lessons and I simply forgot to play the instrument. And there it stands to this day untouched and unplayed. And this next part may make me sound a little crazy but I feel sorry for the piano. I imagine it came to our home feeling as I did at the time: excited and eagerly anticipating the music it would be making. Instead it has become a forlorn feature of our household furniture; a despondent repository for old books and bric-a-brac that get loaded onto its sad little lid. For most of 12 years it has stood silent, yearning to be played.

So if you won't practice for you, at least do it for the sake of your instrument.

I'm excited to be communicating again through this newsletter. And I may even have inspired myself to have another crack at the piano before we send it away to "a better place." I'll be sure to let you know!  

© Ralph Shaw 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014

UE #123 Notes from a Fifty year old Ukulele Entertainer

When I tell people I make my living as a ukulele entertainer their next question is: So what does your wife do? When I report that my wife has not had a paid job since 1993 many people are usually floored and proffer effusive compliments about how amazing it is that I have supported my family with a ukulele for nearly twenty-five years.

As I turn Fifty I find myself looking back at the sort of entertainer I used to be in the early days. I'm not the same as I was. It happened slowly, and in increments, but for sure a lot has changed.

For one thing I've become aware of how short life is. At this age I am realizing that there are things I will never get to do. The men in my family tended to live into their eighties. So I can reasonably expect another thirty years, give or take a few. This seems fine until you put it in terms of summers. I love summer and this means I probably only have about thirty more summers to enjoy. They come and go so quickly. How best to spend the time I have left? Do I want to be entertaining at small gigs, festivals and market squares for the rest of my days, or are there other things to do?

Fifty finds me in a state of limbo. Do I still want to continue what I'm doing? In most senses I've become the level of performer I always wanted to be. It took far longer than I expected to get to this point and the financial reward is less than anticipated -- but I made it. So now what?

These days my drive to perform mainly comes from seeing the positive effect my work has on others. I don't learn new songs with quite the same gusto as I used to and I rarely get the "inner high" that performing used to give me. In fact I've reached a point where I could take or leave this career that I've built. I feel that so long as I can put some good in the world while having the chance to meet and amuse people I could quite happily quit this musical treadmill and find some other job. But what?

Most of my university friends are looking forward to nice pensions. I, however, deliberately chose to live according to my own rules. I felt the changes within myself, learned new skills and then sussed out ways to leverage money out of my abilities. There's a scary component to knowing that I have to live this way for the rest of my life. But who knows, eventually all the little tricks I picked up from a lifetime of hustling for a living may ultimately give me an advantage over my friends who will be relying on outside sources for their livelihood.

Everything in my career has trained me like a commando for what I do now. I'm a musical warrior. A strumming SAS combatant; a singing Navy Seal; a soldier of fun tunes; a one man fighting force fully armed with instruments of distraction, capable of being sent into any stress filled situation; ready to disarm and amuse at a moment's notice; ready to free small groups of individuals from their fears and insecurities so they can take on life with a fresh outlook and a new perspective. I could quit but what then?

I'm in good health. I have a daughter who I adore. She lives life to the fullest and takes on challenges that even I find courageous. My wife Kathryn loves me with an open hearted care that surprises me with daily wonder. But aside from the basic needs of life it's the knowing that there will be another performance up ahead that really keeps me going. With or without a ukulele I will always be an entertainer. It's what I was put on earth to do.

So for now, since there are no job offers looming, and since I cannot imagine the job that would have me joyfully waking up at some ungodly hour of every day of every week I suppose I'd better keep doing what I'm doing. Not only that but I hereby pledge to keep getting better at it. So look out! There will be more surprises up ahead. And thanks for reading this newsletter to the end. It means that in some way you support my work or at the very least it interests you. This is much appreciated and all I can say is Thank you!

But a pension would be nice too so please let me know if you hear of anything.

Happy Fiftieth Birthday to me!!

© Ralph Shaw 2014