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Is it time to expand the sonic range with the ukulele?

I’m a massive fan of the ukulele as an instrument and especially as a songwriting tool and I set up the OUS platform a few years ago to bring together the best original ukulele musicians. The OUS FB page now has over 3100 members and on average we only approve one in 6 applications to join. One of the motivations for setting up OUS was that in my totally biased opinion a lot of what I saw and heard didn’t really inspire me. I admit that I am very picky about music and that probably comes from decades of playing and listening to some of the very best artists on planet earth.

One of the challenges for ukulele based artists is that the instrument itself has a specific sonic range. Yes, there are differences between soprano, concert, and baritone ukes, but even if we stretch beyond four strings there’s only so much of the same frequency that I can personally enjoy in one sitting! The instrument is a brilliant accompaniment for singers and artists like Eddie Vedder have really showcased how brilliant a ukulele set can be. I saw him perform his “Ukulele Songs” set in New York as well as the UK and it was a real masterclass in entertainment.

This is an exception of course and despite the superlatives bandied about online, few artists and songs are “awesome” or “transcendental” to my ears. Those superlatives should, in my opinion, be reserved for the very few exceptional performances and songs. When almost everything is described in this way, we run the danger of dumbing down music in an unhelpful manner.

One of the best ways to expand the sonic range of material is to include other instruments and by “other instruments” I don’t mean just more ukuleles! There’s definitely a place for group strum alongs, but some of the most interesting material in my very biased opinion is where the uke is combined with instruments that make for a far more interesting and sonically diverse mix. James Hill is a good example of this and some of the bands on the artist page here also show what can be done. My first band “The Small Change Diaries” are not a typical ukulele based band and you probably won’t find us on the “ukulele circuit” as that’s not really our audience. My new band “the Caravan of Dreams” is even less uke based although I still write primarily on the uke.

A friend of mine who attended a well-known uke festival this year commented that for him it all got a bit dull hearing one solo artist after another mostly paying cover versions of songs. “Its all as Britain’s Got Talent” he commented. I reminded him that the public love that show but agreed that also in my personal opinion it would be nice to raise the bar for sonic exploration. Here is a wonderful example of how good the uke can be when incorporated with other instruments

 

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The Importance of caring about what you create

A few years ago I had the total pleasure of interviewing Bill Collings of Collings Guitars. Bill has now passed away but throughout the interview, he constantly talked about the need to care about what you create. I mentioned to him that in my travels across the globe I had played countless instruments from his company including all manner of acoustics and electrics. Every single one was superb in playability and sound. This is one of the reasons why Collings instruments are so highly regarded by musicians.

I have always had a policy of striving to create the best possible end result. Often this means being stretched a bit financially and spending more time in any creative work. I came across some almost unlistenable video on social media of some uke artists. The sound was so bad you couldn’t really make out what was being played. In this day and age, you don’t need cutting-edge equipment to create some really good music. Often it’s simply about having some interest in quality control so anyone watching/listening can see and hear what is going on.

Of course, everyone will have their own views on this subject and some folks become extremely defensive about this whole issue suggesting that there are only two options – super slick crafted videos and homemade efforts. Of course, this is more than a bit simplistic. Its totally possible to capture great sound and vision with really basic gear, if of course, you care about the end result.

Here’s an excerpt from the interview with Bill May 2016

NC
As I was saying to Alex, (Bill’s right hand man who was kind enough to show us all around the facility at Collings)I’ve been all around the world, New York ,Japan and everywhere ,and I’ve never played any of your instruments which don’t sound great, and I can’t say that for any other builder.

BC
Yeah well, that’s what we try to do, so we’re supposed to care!

The other day I heard from a dealer about electric guitars, that nobody cares about fit and finish in an electric guitar ,and I thought “you know, well I guess the world is done” I mean to say that if you don’t care about something like that , you’ve given up, you know?

NC
Well I don’t think that is the universally accepted view

BC
I hope not

Bill’s passing was a great loss to the music world and especially the ukulele world, where he made many superb instruments. I fully endorse his philosophy about caring and paying attention to the quality of what we produce. It requires more effort, but then why settle for anything less?

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When the muse moves you

I remain fascinated by the songwriting process, which is one of the reasons why I set up the OUS platform. Next year we launch the Music for The Head and Heart platform which is much bigger than OUS. This also has an element that looks at the creation and delivery of original music, but is not confined to any individual instrument.

Recently I was getting ready for a rehearsal for “The Caravan of Dreams” ensemble, playing the wonderful Gregor Nowak guitarelle. I found a really simple haunting riff that really stuck in my head. With 20 minutes before other band members turning up I scribbled down a couple of verses. This was one of those moments where the first draft is great and there’s a whole stream of consciousness going on where I’m writing as fast as I can to get down the ideas.

Instead of rehearsing what I had planned, we launched into this new track, literally hot off the press. My violinist and double bass player created an intro harmonizing both instruments which sounded amazing. We ran through the track 3 times with Agi on vocals and harmony vocals and it sounds so good, I putting it to the top of the list for July’s recording date. This is the fastest piece of writing ever, even faster than “There’s only one of you” which is on the first Small Change Diaries album and a favorite track for many.

My experience is that its helpful to be in a particular state when creating new songs and crucially not to start editing too soon in the writing process. This is a strategy used by Walt Disney when he created his films and Disney still adopt this way of working today. When the muse turns up its truly a fascinating process and its in my experience being like a channel for something to appear. Sometimes once the song forms I think “Where on earth did that come from?”

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Writing to a theme: Liverpool Acoustic 24 Hour Songwriting Challenge by Alison Benson

As part of the Across the Threshold Festival, Liverpool Acoustic and the festival team ran a 24-hour songwriting challenge.  It worked that a theme was released at 1 pm on the Friday and any songs entered into the challenge had to be submitted (title and words) within a 24 hour time period.  The songs would then be performed the following afternoon.  Only the first twenty songs submitted would be performed and judged.  I wrote a song, composed on the ukulele with voice, and performed it…and I won, which I was really pleased about.  Here are my thoughts about writing to a theme – I’m going to ignore the deadline element.  The theme given in the 24 Hour Songwriting Challenge was Across the Threshold.     

The first stage for me was to mind map everything I could about the theme itself.  I considered synonyms for threshold which led me down a path of doors, being carried over the threshold, which then led to thinking about marriage. I went back to the idea of thresholds and was reminded of the poem ‘Gate of the Year’ about stepping out into the unknown new year.  For a moment, my mind went to the idea of the Greek God Janus, with a face looking forwards and backwards – both sides of the threshold.  None of these ideas stuck, but there was real value for me in pondering the theme and what it meant, playing with words and ideas.  I turned on the TV to the news that Tom Daley was speaking for LGBT rights at the Commonwealth Games.

The second part was then to run with the idea and link it to the theme.  Daley was speaking as though this was an opportunity to bring change, to step across a barrier that had been constructed – to cross a threshold. 

Perhaps the first and second parts aren’t so different!  The third part was the words, which gave me a bit of an idea for a melody, as well.  I worked around the idea of identifying what the problem is that I want to address in the song (the situation of LGBT people) and what would be a better situation.  The chorus, I felt, needed to include something clear about the theme but aware that the threshold has not yet been crossed, I referred to being ‘at the threshold’.  It was at this stage that I reached for my ukulele.

The final part was working it all into a song, so tidying the lyrics so they fitted neatly into the melody, adding a chord structure (which was already in mind, underlying the melody) and deciding how it would be performed.    As soon as it took shape enough, I began to record it so I didn’t forget it as I picked out notes and harmonies.  The first performance was on the guitar, although all subsequent performances have been on the ukulele. I’m still not sure which sounds best.

Something that was fascinating about the challenge was hearing the various ideas people had regarding the theme…there were no two songs the same.  I’d recommend choosing a theme or idea with friends and then going away, writing songs and sharing them with each other because you never what great ideas you’ll hear and how it develops your songwriting. 

If you’d like to hear the song Here we stand you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/E5jUWQBBPFg

Or if you want to hear the guitar version, it’s here: https://youtu.be/7HfWZxHiilA

I’d be interested to hear which you prefer!

Alison Benson

 

 

 

 

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How best to develop ukulele skills?

There are many reasons why people enjoy and play music. Some people are happy to learn to  strum a few chords and there’s definitely a place for that. Others like group strum alongs which can be terrific social events. Many ukulele and other niche festivals can be social meet ups and places where people would rather jam that actually listen to seasoned performers. A major ukulele social media site ran a poll where only 22.8 % of those polled would attend an event to see experienced performers v 52.9 % would prefer to jam with friends. Online there are lots of people asking questions about how to develop skills and the advice can be at times “questionable” at best although well intentioned. Phil Doleman wrote a great article on this very subject here 

In the UK there’s a great interest in promoting ukulele festivals and festival style events with one happening almost every 3 weeks, often with the same core artists. Some of these events have workshop opportunities for learning usually in a 60 minute or 90 minute format. In the past these snapshots have been a lot of fun, but of course there’s only so much you can do in this limited period of time. Memorable ones to date include a claw hammer introduction from Aaron Klein and a rhythm workshop by Phil Doleman. My observation in recent years is that many workshops are not fully sold out even though the actual festival is fully subscribed. This again reconfirms that the festival format is often focused on social interactions rather than learning.

The more intensive learning retreat model is in my view a much better way to develop skills for the following reasons. Firstly those attending have committed a period of time (usually a weekend) solely to musical learning. This makes such events a real immersion process. I have personal experience of attending two wonderful Martin Simpson workshops. This would typically be for a maximum group size of 30 attendees. During this time, we each have a unique opportunity to ask questions and learn a huge amount about the technical aspects of learning but also many other aspects of performing. The frame of the learning environment means students can really forget about worldly activities and only focus on music.

In the UK Sorefingers  have ab excellent reputations for providing excellent learning for students. Both Phil Doleman and Percy Copley are teachers with this group. In June this year Matt Stead is providing a very welcome new learning initiative with a residential ukulele retreat that looks very well organized with some really excellent teachers. See https://theukeroom.com/retreat/

OUS is all about creating NEW ORIGINAL MUSIC. Musical education is a key element in making this possible and in my view investment in developing such skills is time well spent. We never stop learning and being in the company of music professionals is only going to help with that process.

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Finding Your Muse by Jon Rissik

 In my experience there are three key components to writing an original song; the instrumental arrangement, the vocal melody and the lyrics. In order to create something that works as a coherent whole, these three elements need to have both an individual power and the capacity to work together to form something stronger.
Unsurprisingly, many of the songwriters I have spoken to feel comfortable with one of these components more than the other two. Personally I find that writing instrumental arrangements and vocal melodies come quite easily. My ukulele playing gets me by, but has its limits and although I am constantly trying to stretch myself, I find that putting together interesting chord progressions is a relatively simple task. The same goes for finding a melody. Although I am more confident in my singing than my playing, I really know the tones and range that suit the limitations of my voice. I also know the style of songs that I want to perform. That’s not to say I am constantly ‘playing it safe’, but that I know what I like and I am at that stage in my songwriting – and life in general – where I can write for myself first, and then hope that others like it. So, if arrangements and melodies are a relative box-tick, where do I struggle? You guessed it – I am lyrically challenged. How often do you really listen to the lyrics of a song? Others I am sure will disagree, but personally I find that the melody and overarching tone of a song are the components that excite me – or turn me off – to a piece of music.
Conversely, I am rarely either instantly put-off or attracted to a song because of its subject matter, lyrical wizardry or clichéd couplets. For me, if the arrangement and melody is the skin of the onion, the melody is the first layer beneath that, critical to the overall sensory experience, but not the first flavour to reach the mouth. So if they matter less, why do I find lyrics so darned hard? Why can I nail down a melody and arrangement in an hour, and yet find myself pouring over the accompanying lyrics for weeks! Well, I think it may have something to do with age and circumstance. Let me explain: Some of the most memorable popular lyrics ever written were born out of the passions of youth. Those years when love burns brightest, when pain cuts deepest, and when there is a naivety of the wider world. Stevie Wonder wrote ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ at the tender age of 15, Kate Bush penned the hauntingly beautiful ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ when she was a mere 13 years of age, and George Michael famously wrote his most enduring song, ‘Careless Whisper’ – including that sax intro – as a 17 year old in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
Okay, so these three artists possess songwriting and performing abilities that sit beyond my wildest imaginings, but I reference them to illustrate the point that very often artists write their best material at a young age, when they feel emotions most acutely, when their well of creativity is at its most full and when they quite simply have lots of stories to tell. Fast forward over the careers of many successful artists and how often will you hear it said that although the body is willing and the raw talent remains undiminished, the creative juices have stopped following. I believe that one of the causes of this is security, be that financial or emotional. I am 48, and I consider myself to be very lucky. I am thankful to have a pretty good job and a loving family. I find writing about finding love, or losing love, or generally being down-on-your-luck to be challenging as a result. I just can’t fake it with any conviction. It feels false to me and therefore I think that any audience I play to will see it as such. The same goes for what could be described as ‘angry’ or rebellious songs. I might have written a song about the current US President (‘Ship Of Fools’) but that’s almost too easy a target. In general I struggle to write songs about ‘The Man’ because in many ways, I am The Man – privileged and middle-class. My life is far from perfect, but I am very content, and that’s not a condition that makes for dramatic, autobiographical storytelling. I need to find my muse – my source of inspiration. The well is pretty dry and I need to find a new source. It would be great to read other people’s thoughts in the comments section below. Am I alone in struggling to find lyrical inspiration in my late-forties?

 

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OUS Artists of the year- Victoria Vox and Jack Maher

The OUS platform is 2 years old with approaching 3000 members on FB and 92 artists with their own pages on the main site. Its a wonderful creative space for original songs.

Each year I have decided to announce an OUS artist/artists of the year and the winners for 2017 are Victoria Vox and Jack Maher.

This previously unreleased performance was done in one take in 2016 in my kitchen in the UK and this is what OUS is all about, smart, brilliant melodic music brilliantly performed. BRAVO Victoria and Jack and for those watching and listening here’s a clip that can now be enjoyed by everyone.

Also check out http://originalukulelesongs.com/victoria-vox/ and http://www.victoriavox.com/

If you get a chance to see these guys live, grab it.

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Some thoughts on learning to play the uke from the internet by Phil Doleman

First of all, I’ll come clean; people pay me for ukulele lessons, and they buy my book. I have a vested interest in persuading people that it is best to seek out tuition! Of course it is perfectly possible to learn how to play the uke for nothing, using nothing but the internet to guide you, but it is a minefield. Here are a few thoughts I’ve had when browsing the internet recently.

 If you choose to learn from the internet, you need to be very discerning. YouTube, Facebook, etc. has no quality control. There are indeed wonderful free lessons available, but I frequently watch or read ‘lessons’ which are disseminating bad advice or which are completely incorrect. Of course, if you are a beginner, how can you tell what is good and what is bad? The easiest way is to do your research, ask around of ukulele forums, seek out players that you know have a reputation. Another way, which is a lot more long-winded, is to compare lessons. Don’t just take the first search result as gospel, see what others have to say on the subject. The third way is to get a teacher and ask them!

 In the last week, I’ve seen people ask for advice on Facebook groups and be told completely the wrong answer, and have that poor information backed up by people saying things like, “do it your own way, there’s no wrong or right! It’s the ukulele, just play!”. Now I don’t mind how people play the ukulele or what they want out of it, but as far as music is concerned (and the music made on a uke follows the same rules as music made on any instrument) there is absolutely right and wrong! I’ve watched people told to miss out a hard chord, or substitute it with one that is in no way a suitable substitute. I’ve looked at sheets downloaded from the internet to find that they are completely wrong. The problem is not only when people take this at face value, it becomes and even bigger problem when, as the internet and social media encourages, that misinformation is then shared. The odd thing is that this doesn’t seem to be the case with other instruments as it is with the ukulele. As a player of the banjo, I rarely see banjo players telling other would-be banjo players to skip the hard bits, in fact it’s more often the opposite; practise and you’ll get it!

 There’s something else at work here, too, though. Let’s take a little trip back in time to when I was a teenager learning to play guitar. If I wanted to play a song I had on record (vinyl!) I could either work it out myself, by ear, or go to the music shop and buy the score. The score was usually in the ‘piano/vocal/guitar’ style, which meant is was essentially a piano arrangement of the song with chord boxes over it. At best this served as a rough guide, as it didn’t show the guitarist how the guitar player on the record actually played the song, so even with the score (if indeed there was one available), there was still a certain amount of working out by ear, lifting the needle of the record over and over again to try and catch that tricky bit. It took time, it was laborious, and there was no way to check what you were doing as there was no internet. We frequently got it wrong, but then would play it in front of another player and they might correct us, or we might see the performer play it on video and see their hand go to a different place to us on the neck. This sounds awful compared to the world of instant gratification we see daily online, but it wasn’t. This was learning; this process was invaluable. As we worked out songs, we trained our ears, we learned new fingerboard patterns, and, yes, we learned theory as we started to see that certain chord patterns occurred over and over again. We were even training ourselves for the time when we would get up and play with others by playing along to the record. Recently, someone asked about coming to an intermediate workshop of mine. They told me that they were worried it would be too easy as they had been playing for a month. A month! People are constantly told that the uke is easy, and of course physically it is much, much easier to get a pleasing tone out of a uke on day one that a violin, trumpet, or flute, but once you get playing, well music is music! Yes, a three chord song on a uke is easy enough to learn, but so is a 3 chord song on the piano! What isn’t so easy is to understand what you are playing and why, to go beyond reading the little pictures of chords, to jam with others, to compose songs, to really play music.

 So what can a teacher offer that the internet can’t? Firstly, a teacher will find out where you are and where you want to be and plan a route to get you there. In doing this, they’ll also know what kind of things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know (I’m starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld)! They can repeat, rephrase and re-explain anything as many times as you want, and can present you with learning materials that are suitable for you and correct (unlike so much of the material available for free online). On top of a that, a teacher offers a two-way learning environment, meaning that while you play, the teacher will listen and observe, and be able to correct poor technique or spot those tiny mistakes you didn’t notice. A teacher will stop you cherry picking the easy stuff, but will introduce the tougher aspects gradually at an achievable rate and will be able to adjust that difficulty to reflect how easy or hard the student finds it. Your teacher will also be there to answer any questions between lessons. Finally, having regular lessons gives you a deadline (the next lesson), and having a deadline is a great motivator for practice. Yes, you also have to be discerning when finding a teacher. Look for recommendations, look for reputation, and yes look online for free content that the teacher provides as well. Remember that anyone can call themselves a teacher (I witnessed someone go from non-player wanting lessons, to a ‘teacher’ with a professional-looking website in a matter of weeks).

 I understand that lessons cost money, and that one lesson can cost more than a beginner uke (the disadvantage of ukes being relatively cheap; the same price for cello lessons doesn’t seem like much of an outlay when you’ve spent thousands on a cello!) but it’s worth mentioning that, although we love our instruments, they are just boxes with strings on. The real value in an instrument is being able to play it well, and the real value in being able to play is boundless; a new and rewarding social life, the pleasure of being able to entertain yourself and others, the ability to express yourself in a new way, the ability to play with others, the appreciation of your audience, maybe even paid gigs! I know people with 20 or more ukes who tell me they don’t want to spend money on lessons. That’s like owning a Ferrari but begrudging paying for a driving instructor!

Check out www.phildoleman.co.uk

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HOW TO WRITE AN ORIGINAL SONG THE SHIRLEY C WAY.

Firstly – the rules – there are no rules when it comes to song writing. Song writing is simply art with words and while some may say certain colours should not mix together- who decides these things . Its simply a matter of interpretation.
The only guideline I have is – would my Grand Mother or Grand children be offended if they listened to this – if the answer is yes, then I would not put that song up for the public to view. That does not mean I would not write it – if the words are going round in my brain – inevitably, they will come out in the form of a song. Just not for public consumption.
Some examples of this include my hysterectomy song which starts with the opening line ‘ I’ve got staples in my p-bes and my arms are full of tubes – or my song which asks Ed Sheeran ‘ does the carpet match the curtains – does the duvet match the rug… you get the idea.
There will always be the humpf brigade who take offence at everything but at the end of the day I have to live with the decisions I make without compromising my integrity.
Where do I get my ideas from? – Inspiration can come from anywhere and I often write about things close to my heart or what is happening to me. Politicians and public figures are fair game and there is always a funny side to everything if you look hard enough.
Which comes first – the music or the words. Usually for me, both together and often at the most inconvenient times. I live 25 k from the nearest town in a remote part of Southern New Zealand. I frequently find myself pulling over while driving to town, taking out my cell phone and recording the rough draft of a song.
I have discovered to my dismay if I don’t do this, by the time I get home, the lyric is gone. The early hours of the morning are also when my brain works best. However in the interest on marital bliss, I no longer prance around the bedroom with my uke at 3 am. My shift working husband does not always appreciate the urgency of my musical endeavours. (theres a song in that I am sure)
So there you have it – I write songs because I can, because there is an urgency in my inner being to communicate with others via music. Not all of them are masterpieces, but most of them will make you laugh. It’s the oil that keeps my engine running.

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