Tuesday, September 1, 2009

UE #2 Make your Ukulele Into a Piano-Forte!

One of the easiest but most neglected ways to make your playing interesting is through the use of dynamics. In music the word dynamics simply means, The variation in the volume of a musical sound.

Pianoforte is the original name of the instrument we now call a piano. The word 'Piano' means soft and 'Forte' means loud. Before the pianoforte came along keyboard instruments such as harpsichords only played at one volume. The new technology enabled the player to make their music louder and softer by pressing the keys with more or less force. The enormous increase in expressive range that this led to was considered of such importance that they named the instrument after it. Think about that.

Even if you are a complete beginner with only 2 chords under your belt you can already start making your ukulele playing much more expressive by varying the volume. Changing the volume of your music is easy to do, very effective and is not used nearly enough by many players. Listen to some of your favorite music (it doesn't have to have a ukulele in it) and pay special attention to how the volume and energy rises and falls.

In my mind's eye I can picture the swells and the drop-offs in volume as being like a series of hills and valleys. For many pieces of music you find that the ups and downs are small to medium but they rise to a crescendo somewhere near the end. Play a song that you know well and keep your mind on where volume changes can help with the expression of that song.

When I first started playing I had an inexpensive Japanese made wooden ukulele. And boy would I try and get some volume out of that little wooden box! The reason is that the only ukulele player I knew of in those days was George Formby the British star of the '30s and '40s. He played a banjo-ukulele and to me his playing sounded thrillingly loud and percussive. I wanted my ukulele to sound like that and I was surprisingly successful at getting every ounce of volume out of my small wooden instrument.

How did I achieve this amazing feat? Well here is my secret: You can play louder by hitting the strings harder. Ok I know its not much of a secret but hey work on it anyway! Get your wrist nice and relaxed and see how loud you can go. The movement can feel almost whip-like as your finger hits the string. Which brings up a point. Playing loud may be a little hard on the finger so here's a tip (a finger-tip?!!). Try using several fingers to strum down on the strings together. Or you may want to use a pick. The one I use is made by Jim Dunlop (USA nylon .60mm) and I keep it close by, right on the headstock of my uke, so I can quickly grab it for those moments where I want some extra oomf!

Playing quietly is as important as playing loudly. How soft can you go? This is where the sensitive and fleshy thumb can make your instrument whisper as delicately as the evening breeze in the leaves of a tree. How sweet it is ...hmmm!
When I finally did get a bona-fide banjo-ukulele I had to learn to play it very quietly indeed. If you have 30 wooden ukuleles playing together and only one banjo-uke it will be the banjo-uke that sticks out like a hippopotamus at a wedding. In order to make my instrument blend in as much as possible in these group situations I always aim to be as 'piano' with my playing as I can be.

And think about dynamics before you begin to play a song. If you start too loud you have nowhere to go but softer. A softer beginning will make your later crescendo so much more effective.

One last, kind of related, thing. It was comedian George Carlin who made me aware of the incorrect use of forte in every day language.
People often say "That's not really my forte." (Pronounced fortay with two syllables) As in: "Mathematics is not my forte".
They mean that math is not one of their strengths and they are showing off their knowledge of foreign languages by inserting some French into the conversation. However if they were speaking French they would pronounce it with one syllable like the English word 'Fort'.
What they are actually doing is introducing the Italian term of forte which means loud. So when they say, "Mathematics is not my forte" (with 2 syllables) they are actually stating that they are not very loud at Math.
Oh well that's probably a good thing too.

copyright Ralph Shaw 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment