Tuesday, May 26, 2015

UE #135 The Jam Master

Most musicians are familiar with jamming; an informal musical get-together where people play instruments and sing simply for the fun of doing it. 
Steve McNie (pron. Mik-Nee) has elevated jamming to the level of art form. 


I arrived at the first ever CanadaUkes festival (subtitled Weekend at Ralph's!) in Ontario knowing the festival would begin Friday night with a three hour long jam session led from the stage.

"That seems a little long," I thought.

As fun as they are, being trapped in a room where a jam has gone way past its "best before date" is, for me, a dreary way to pass the time. But what I experienced was a ukulele jam that was both entertaining and enjoyable while at the same time bringing out a level of cohesive musicality in the participants that I've never heard in all my years visiting music festivals.

Lifting an informal jam to the level of performance requires a particular set of well honed skills and I found myself studying the elements of Steve's work that make it so frightfully good:

No Books
The first thing you notice is the big projection screen at the back of the room. There are no songbooks. A songbook has the advantage that you can take it anywhere, make notes in it, flip it open anytime and play your music any way you please. But, for group playing, the projection screen has several advantages. First of all, before the jam occurs, Steve creates charts of well chosen songs which show words and chords but also display key nuances of timing. He artfully manages this without making the charts look confusing and cluttered (an achievement you don't truly appreciate until you try it yourself.)

Since we're reading from the screen all heads face upwards which greatly improves the quality and uniformity of the sound. Everyone is able to follow Steve's crystal clear direction, which would be difficult with eyes looking down into books. Intros, endings and cut-offs are crisp and sharp. Changes in dynamics, tone and style are communicated with simple gestures. All this is able to happen because everyone is literally reading from the same page.

Familiarisation with the Song
Getting scores of ukulele players of all abilities to play an informal song that hangs together like a rehearsed piece is achieved by first work-shopping the trickier parts of the song. This includes getting familiar with the start and the end of the song as well as running any chordal or rhythmic parts that may trip people up. But it also means spending some time "looping" certain sequences so that everyone gets familiar with the feel and pace of each song before it begins. He infects everyone with his obvious love of the music as we find the groove and sit there for a while playing a sweet chord sequence over and over again as our ears and bodies all synchronize with one another.

Adding Ear Candy
Steve is immensely musical (he's trained in cello and accordion) and he shares his relish of certain chords and chord changes that are like nectar to the ears. He often  makes chord adjustments to songs by replacing the original chord with, say, a minor or major seventh that he deems to sound particularly sweet on uke. Attention is also paid to the quality of the singing and basic harmonies are quickly taught and encouraged. 

Benevolent Dictatorship
To make it all work requires focus from everyone and Steve happily admits that his approach is somewhat dictatorial. But it's a very good-natured sort of dictatorship. First of all the soft quality of his voice makes the instruction come across as soothing and kind. With only gentle pressure and no hard words you automatically want to do as he says. The instruction is clear, focused and efficient while maintaining a bubbling sense of humour and fun.

Gentle Discipline
Before I ever met Steve I'd heard that his jams have a "no-noodling" rule. Noodling is a term for playing your instrument when your attention ought to be elsewhere - such as listening to someone onstage. But if it is a rule I never heard it invoked. Only a few times did he politely ask us to refrain from playing while instruction was being given, "because it will sound better if we all play it together."

Unity
Every song began out of silence (rare to the point of non-existence at all other ukulele meet-ups) and finished with a clear and unified ending. The theatre's professional sound technicians, who are used to audiences who sing out of tune and who can't clap in time, spoke of their amazement at the exceptional sound made by so many people. Admittedly this is partly due to the large number of attendees who regularly attend Steve's weekly jams and classes and who've become more skilled and cohesive than any large group of (mostly) baby boomers have a right to be. 

Steve makes the process of "getting good" at a song a complete joy and the results speak for themselves. My only regret about his work is that so few people outside of Toronto get a chance to experience what I now think of as the ultimate jam. Talking to him later I suggested he offer some version of the Steve McNie ukulele jam to other festivals. So if you're involved with a club or festival why not think about coaxing him away from Toronto for a while? Or, if you're ever in Ontario, Canada, head on over to the Corktown Ukulele Jam (Wednesdays 8-11pm) or The Annex Ukulele Jam (Mondays 8-11pm) and check it out for yourself.

Contact Steve McNie via www.torontoUKES.com 

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

UE #134 Hey! Leave Tiny Tim Alone

I've been feeling somewhat irked by things said about Tiny Tim. And, in today's newsletter (more of a rant really) I just want to say, "Lay off him!"

This year's Reno Ukulele Festival was better than ever. Doug Reynolds, the ambitious festival director, created an Ed Sullivan style variety show that was performed in the Nugget Casino Show Lounge. Unless you are close to someone who has put on a festival or a major show then you probably have no idea of the work involved in pulling those things off. That Doug attempted both in the same weekend was ambitious to the point of folly. Although he drastically increased his chances of success by having great help from volunteers, musicians and, in particular, his daughter Jessica who is both a talented organiser and a gifted performer.

I really enjoyed the show. As well as ukulele performances from myself, Dominator, Ken Middleton, Michael Powers and Victor & Penny, Doug also brought in Jacques: a Quebec magician who spent months creating a floating ukulele illusion that was quite breathtaking. Jacques also made Jessica appear from an empty cardboard box before making her levitate during a Phantom of the Opera sequence.

The show followed the format of a mid-sixties Ed Sullivan show complete with ads for products such as washing powder and Alka Seltzer. The goal was to recreate the feel of the show as if, say, there had ever been an all-ukulele episode. Playing the key part of Ed Sullivan was an impersonator called Tom LaGravinese. Tom had the look, the voice and the eerie ability to inhabit the persona of the dour TV star while improvising various bits of stage business. But Tom came with a bonus. Doug was delighted to learn that, among Tom's rich cast of characters, was Tiny Tim. Tom appeared as Tiny Tim for the finale of the show, when, to the music of Tiptoe Through the Tulips, magician Jacques produced him from an empty trunk.

It was indeed a grand finale - I thought. Tom is somewhat shorter than the towering Tiny Tim but in all other respects, thanks to wig and prosthetic nose, he climbed out of that trunk looking and sounding as if Tiny Tim had been fully resurrected. Wonderful!

But, at the moment when Tiny Tim made his appearance, it struck me that the audience reaction was somewhat muted. I had expected a resounding roar of approval. Firstly for the magic trick and then in joyful recognition of the iconic figure who had just been brought back to life. The fact that I didn't hear such a roar got me thinking that the memory of Tiny Tim is not as loved as it deserves to be.



And when I think about it further I know this to be the case. It has become common, often at ukulele festivals but other places too, that when Tiny Tim is mentioned someone will remark that Tiny Tim did a huge disservice to the ukulele. They say he single-handedly put an entire generation off the instrument because millions of people came to associate ukulele playing with being a weird freak. Whenever someone says this I always notice that the person saying it is usually a talentless nobody without any idea about entertainment and what it takes to make it to the top as a performer.

Who said it was Tiny Tim's responsibility to further the popularity of the ukulele anyway? As far as I'm aware that was never his motive or agenda. So by what measure can he possibly be held responsible for turning millions of born ukulele players off from ever picking up the instrument? If Tiny Tim put people off the ukulele then it is only because they were a bunch of herd-following brain donors who were too lazy or stupid to think for themselves.

People are such suckers. You see it in so many ways every day, all the time. I dare say that sports, politics, religion and nationalism all began as beautiful, and indeed, sacred ideals. But somehow along the way a few manipulative people figured out ways to get huge numbers of other people to shut down the thinking part of their brain and go along with what they were being sold.

And it used to be that ukulele people were not like that. You always knew a ukulele person would be a cool, intelligent, fun person to know because they could think for themselves. And you knew this because the rest of the unthinking herd was blind to the ukulele. To most people the ukulele was not worthy of attention. This was not the fault of Tiny Tim or Lyle Ritz or Don Ho or George Formby or anyone. It was a sign of the times. Rock and Roll was in and plinkety plink was out maan, I mean, waaay out.

So leave Tiny Tim alone. He was an extraordinary genius. His overarching goal was to achieve fame and he succeeded superlatively. Every part of his persona, every act and affectation was consciously added piece by piece to make him what he was: the ukulele carried in a shopping bag, the high voice, the long hair, the make-up, the suit, the blowing of kisses, the songs: all were contrived towards his goal of becoming famous. He put it all together and put himself out in the public realm until he succeeded. THAT is amazing. If you think it isn't, go on, I invite you to go ahead. YOU create a captivating and original personality and live in it until you become a world renowned star.

But it wasn't just a look. Tiny Tim was a magnificent performer. Numerous people have told me stories of seeing him live on stage in both large and small venues. They went to poke fun and jeer at him but by show's end his performance had them standing on their chairs yelling "Tiny! Tiny!" He was so dynamic.

So stop blaming Tiny Tim for the fact that a whole generation ignored the ukulele. It's not his fault. It's the fault of lazy thinkers who go with the herd and who are too self involved to look around and notice that what they believe is largely a pack of lies.

© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

UE #133 The Best Way to Strum

I’ve taught hundreds of strumming workshops. But at the start of each one I always have to go over something very basic: namely, which finger should a strummer use to strum with? I continue to be surprised at the different ways players find to strum. What is completely natural and intuitive to one person feels foreign and uncomfortable to another.

My default strumming method is to use my index finger but I've found that others, most notably many who play Hawaiian music, prefer to play almost exclusively with their thumb. And then recently I met one student who uses both her index and middle fingers together and another that uses all the fingers of the strumming hand. In Australia I met several who strum downwards with the index finger and upwards with the thumb. With so many ways to strum (not even considering use of the many picks available) how do we choose which is best?

Let's delve into the pros and cons of using differing digits for delivering music:


Index Finger Strum
Strum with the tip of the index finger and control the accuracy by pressing your thumb on the last joint of the index finger. It's as if your finger-end is the pick. Strum down with the back of the nail and strum up with the pad of the finger.
Pros - It enables fast and accurate strumming with a large dynamic range. It's relatively easy to switch from this strum to other types of strum or individual note picking.
Cons - Some people get pain from their finger hitting the strings or the edge of the fretboard. This is especially true for beginners who play overly hard or who haven't developed good accuracy. In some cases damage to the finger and/or fingernail may even occur.



Thumb Strum
Strum down with the pad of the thumb and up with the thumbnail. After the index finger strum it's probably the second most popular way of strumming that I've come across.
Pros - This is a strum generally favoured by players who like a mellower sound and a slower strum. Instead of strumming with the whole arm, accuracy comes from using the flexibility of the thumb while the hand, supported by the fingers on the uke body, is held stationary. 
Cons - It's generally hard to strum loud or fast with the thumb and I also find it difficult to maintain accuracy when strumming freehand (i.e. strumming with the whole arm.) For some of the techniques I teach, such as the syncopated George Formby split stroke or the fast samba, the thumb strum simply cannot keep pace as the tempo picks up speed.

Strumming with Two or More Fingers
Strum down with the fingernails and up with the pads just like the index finger strum.
Pros - This is a great way to play for people with smaller or weaker fingernails. The extra finger surface minimizes pain and finger damage. It's also good for louder playing.
Cons -It's harder to play quietly. 

Strumming Down with the Index and Up with the Thumb

I wasn't really aware of this technique until my recent visit to Australia where I saw several people using it. I met one teacher, Paul, in Sussex Inlet who recommends this to his beginners as a way to strum that prevents damage to the finger from overly hard and inaccurate strumming.
Pros - It's an interesting technique because you get additional control from the action of the index finger flicking down on the down strum and the thumb flicking up on the Up strum. It takes a bit of getting used to but you may also press the index and thumb together into a single point so that whether you strum down or up you always have a fingernail making contact with the strings.
Cons - Similarly to the thumb strum this technique does not adapt itself easily to faster and more intricate strums.

Use of Picks
Rest the pick on the top side of the index finger and hold it in place with the thumb.
Pros - A host of different kinds of picks can be purchased. These range from felt picks which make the strum muted and soft, to nylon, metal and other materials that provide a louder strum and sharper attack.
Pros - Picks offer great variation in available sounds. They also prevent pain and damage to fingers. 
Cons - They're easily dropped which is very inconvenient in the middle of a show. Keep spares close at hand. Using a pick makes it hard to switch quickly to finger styles of playing.

Which Strum is Best?
Would it help if I said all of the above? It's true. If you want your sound to be varied and interesting then you must vary your strums. Become adept at different playing styles. If you are a thumb-strummer I encourage you to go out of your comfort zone and try using one or more fingers. And, if you never use your thumb, try it now, it may add a whole new dimension to your sound.

Spending some time playing in ways that feel strange and foreign can pay off. Benefits include increasing your dynamic range as well as improving your strumming accuracy and your playing speed.

And... the many possible ways of strumming are not limited to the above list. If you have another way that works for you then go for it - and tell me about it too!  


"Ask not what your country can strum for you, ask what you can strum for your country."
Ralph P. Shaw


© Ralph Shaw 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

UE #132 Clawhammer Ukulele - Part 3

In Part 2, I described how to make the “Bum-Shik-Ca” or “Claw-ham-mer” sound that is the basis of the Frailing or Clawhammer strum. Once that is working, i.e. when your rhythm is uniform and even, the next stage is to bring more melody notes into the strum.

Melody notes only happen on the “Bum”, that is when the fingernail strikes down, since the brush-down plus thumb pull (a.k.a. “Shik-Ca”) is essentially background sound.

You can imagine how playing a melody note only on every “Bum” would lead to somewhat predictable tunes. So, fingering techniques for the fretting hand have been developed that help us to get more than one note from every “Bum”. They are called Slides, Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs.

Two notes for the price of one: Playing Slides, Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs.

Slides are played by sliding your finger either up or down the string immediately after it has been played. Let’s say your finger is on the third fret of the first string. Immediately after striking the string slide the fretting finger from the third up to the fifth fret. Do so in the same time you normally play a single beat so that your “-Shik-Ca” comes in its usual place. You can reverse this by sliding down from the fifth to the third fret.

Hammer-Ons
are played by “hammering” your finger onto the string as soon as it has been played. For example: play the open first string, then immediately hammer down on that string. Do so with the middle finger of the left hand in the space between second and third frets. Instead of Bum-Shik-Ca the sound is now more like: Bum-ba-Shik-Ca. (Or, if you’re now into rhythms named after woodworking tools (à la claw-ham-mer) might I suggest: Black–n-Dec-ker.)

Pull-Offs are the reverse of hammer-ons. But it’s not enough to simply lift your finger from the string after it has been played. You have to give the sound some extra help by plucking the string with your fretting finger as it comes off the string. For example: play the first string while pressing between the second and third frets. Then immediately pull the fretting finger off the string in a downward motion so as to pluck the string with the finger-end. This also gives you a Bum-ba-Shik-Ca / Black–n-Dec-ker rhythm.

Practice these individually and then alternate between hammer-ons and pull-offs while throwing in a slide here and there. Make sure to sustain the clawhammer feel throughout without changing speed.

Make More Melody by Double Thumbing

Double Thumbing is a way of adding ever more melody notes to your Clawhammer playing. Here’s how to do it (try doing this on a C chord to begin with):

1 Strike down on the first string with the back of your fingernail.
2 Pluck down on the second string with your right thumb.
3 Strike down on the first string as before.
4 Thumb the fourth string.

Double Thumbing is played to the same Bum-ba-Shik-Ca rhythm, the same as hammer-ons and pull-offs. What I just showed you is the most basic form. Experiment by double thumbing on different strings (first and third, second and third etc.)

At first you’ll play mostly Clawhammer rhythm with double thumbing only added in occasionally. But as the technique develops you can use it to bring more and more melody notes into your playing.

Melodic Clawhammer style has fewer brush-down strums and more individual note picking. Develop this further and melodies can be picked using the thumb and the back of a single fingernail with barely any strumming. The resulting sound is more comparable to multiple notes of Bluegrass than to regular banjo strumming.

There are countless arrangements of (mostly folk) tunes for Melodic Clawhammer style. The sound is quite similar to Bluegrass, though with fewer notes. Every note is the result of striking strings with either the fingernail or thumb as they work together in the double thumbing technique. It’s neat to be able to play melodic lines in this way but it’s a big step from basic Frailing to playing complex melodies and requires dedication.

In part 1 I talked about my earlier obsession with Clawhammer banjo back when I was a young man. So you may wonder why I haven’t devoted much time to transferring those skills onto ukulele. I’ve wondered that too.

I think my reluctance comes because that switch from banjo to ukulele (about 25 years ago) opened up an entirely new repertoire for me. I was perfectly happy to let the banjo songs go as my musical interest evolved. Nowadays if I use Clawhammer it's generally to add flavour to my sound. I rarely use it for an entire song. Also my body got so trained to play the Clawhammer repertoire on a big banjo that I find it curiously claustrophobic to play those songs on a little ukulele. 

But I cannot deny that I had some happy years playing Clawhammer and, if that’s your thing, I hope you do too!


© Ralph Shaw 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

UE #131 Clawhammer Ukulele – Part 2

It’s the persistent drone of its repeating fifth-string that makes the 5-string banjo such a distinctive instrument. When you first see the fifth, or drone, string – as it’s often called – you never forget it because it’s a strange little string whose tuning peg is found standing alone by the fifth fret on top of the banjo neck. Fortuitously, for ukulele players tuned in the “my dog has fleas” tuning, a.k.a. re-entrant tuning, our instrument has a high-pitched fourth string which can be played just like the banjo's fifth string. It’s this quality that makes the Frailing and Clawhammer banjo techniques accessible for ukuleleists.

Frailing (or Clawhammer) produces a unique and engaging folk sound that combines melody notes with background strums – while continually sounding the bright plink of the high string. The terms Frailing and Clawhammer get used interchangeably for a strumming style that creates a “Bum-Shik-Ca” or, if you like, a “Claw-ham-mer” rhythm. All the melody notes are plucked with the back of the fingernail as the hand moves downward.

How To Do the Basic Clawhammer (Bum-Shik-Ca) Strum

1 Strike down on a string (just strike the first string for now) with the back of your index or middle fingernail. Either finger is fine. This gives you the “Bum” part of the “Bum-Shik-Ca” sound. Bring the hand up again.
2 The curled fingers of the hand brush down the strings using the backs of the fingernails. You may brush down them all or just a couple of the strings.
3 As the hand goes down, the thumb of the strumming hand rests momentarily on the fourth string.
4 As the hand comes up, the thumb pulls away from the fourth-string. (Note: this movement is not the same action as an independent thumb-plucking action. To frail smoothly and at speed the thumb pluck has to come as a result of the upward hand movement and not from a mobile thumb.) The brush-down plus thumb-pull combine to make the “Shik-Ca” sound.

To do justice to the above instructions you really need to hear failing/clawhammer in action. I teach the technique on my DVD Essential Strums for the Ukulele but there are many online examples of banjo and ukulele players using this technique. The sound is bright and cheerful and requires a flexible wrist, as opposed to the more rigidly straight wrists of most guitar and bluegrass pickers. It’s kind of interesting that the hand shape: thumb plus two fingers of the strumming hand also resembles a carpenter's clawhammer.

At first when making the “Bum” sound, aim to hit the first string only: that’s the one closest to the floor. Once you can hit that one consistently try making your “Bum” on the second string every time. Then alternate between the two. Move on to the third string and eventually you’ll be able to strike down on any string your mind wants your finger to go to.

You may notice that the clawhammer style is fairly simple to understand but difficult to do well. This is typical for most people. The basic strum can take months to sound rhythmic and musical. You’ll need to develop the ability to hit whichever string you want with the back of your fingernail. You also need to maintain a steady rhythm played at a consistent volume.

Open Tunings
So what is the left hand doing while this is going on? Let’s discuss retuning your instrument.

Banjo players generally play in open G tuning (gDGBD.) This means when they strum across the open strings they hear a G chord. Open tunings make less work for the left hand as the fingers can play melody while doing less of the full-on chord work. The disadvantage to open tunings is that they make playing in other keys more difficult. Win some, lose some.

Tuning a GCEA Ukulele to Open C

Lower the first string from A to G so your uke is now GCEG. (D tuned ukes similarly retune to open D by tuning to ADF#A.)

Many other open (or modal) tunings are also available. These are not unlike what the Hawaiians use for “slack key” playing. If open tunings are not for you then it is quite okay to use the clawhammer technique on your regularly tuned ukulele.

I think that’s enough for this lesson. Next time I’ll describe some right and left hand  techniques that add to the richness of the clawhammer and melodic clawhammer sounds. Keep listening to players that you like and absorb the sound they make. Clawhammer is not for everyone. It's challenging to do well but can be rewarding if that's the sound you want.

Practice with the goal of making your sound into one that you would want to hear!

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!