Interview with Percy Copley

When did you first become involved in music?

At an early age. I started out with a ukulele banjo and some “teach yourself” books around the age of ten. I played songs from old songbooks I found from the twenties and thirties. They had the ukulele chord windows in them and I learnt a lot about chords and chord sequences from them. I learnt a bit of piano at school. Later on I moved on to banjo in a jazz band, 5 string bluegrass banjo, guitar, mandolin, tenor guitar, harmonica – and bagpipes. I got into early jazz then folk and bluegrass and country and blues.

How similar or different is your attitude/approach towards the different instruments you play?

I think each instrument is different. In its voice or style or application. Taking up a different instrument means there is a certain sound or style I want that I don’t get from another I already play. Some songs or tunes sound better on some instruments than others. Each instrument has its place.
Perhaps the guitar is more of an all round player than the others. You can do a wider variety of things on the guitar. That’s not to say the others are limited. Perhaps the banjo, for example, has a more particular sound, especially in the mind of the public, that can make it more applicable to certain things than others. But it’s also good to surprise people by doing something unusual or unexpected.
That’s part of the fun with the ukulele. It has generally managed to stay uncategorised, apart from the Hawaiian or Formby sound, and is used in so many different styles. In some ways it is a blank page, and you can do what you want with it. Once people have got over the “when I’m cleaning windows” and “over the rainbow” thing they are happy to hear whatever you want to play.
Basically each instrument has its place in what I do. There are some similarities or influences but they all do different things.

How did you become involved in Sorefingers and what can people expect from attending that workshop?

First, let me say that SoreFingers is a lot more than a workshop! It is a week or weekend (depending on which one you go to) of immersion in music, learning and playing. It is based in bluegrass and old time music but has now opened a ukulele class too.
There are several instrument courses – banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, dobro, ukulele, singing etc etc – so you are surrounded by different sounds and sessions all the time. The students are encouraged to participate in bands and sessions, from the student bands that play on stage to the evening socializing in the bar. It is a full on experience and made better by the fact that you can play with other people on other instruments.
I first went as a student many years ago and later returned as a tutor. I have taught banjo and mandolin and recently started the ukulele course which also has brought in Phil Doleman to teach.
The teaching sessions range from straightforward techniques to individual styles and tunes. The important thing is that there is time to really work on things. It’s not just an hour long workshop to give a taster. The easter week is five days of learning and playing giving you time to really get to grips with it. You go away with your head full of stuff to work on and a happy, tired grin on your face!

What did you most learn from your experience of working with Disney?

I worked at Disney full time for nearly 25 years. And I still work there on an intermittent basis.
Working in a corporate atmosphere, especially in music, can be  challenge. Also playing every day, five days a week, to a room full of hungry, tired or overexcited people can be a tough job. It is also a very enriching experience. You get to perform music and songs over and over, giving you the chance to really work on them. It is a great way to get used to being in contact with the public on a daily basis. Part of the job I love is the contact with people. Especially people who are not necessarily there just for you as a performer. You and your music are a surprise to them – hopefully a good one!
I think the Disney job helps you to be consistent, professional and able to do the job on a daily basis.
Even if you do the same set every day – every day is different and will bring you into contact with some amazing people if you reach out to them. Music can do that.

What advice would you give to somebody starting out learning to play a musical instrument?

Get good advice. Preferably from someone you know and trust, or several people.
Get a playable instrument. Not the cheapest or the most expensive. Get one reasonably priced that will play well, but won’t ruin you if you decide to not go on with it. Too many people are discouraged by buying cheap instruments that are hard to play. If you continue you can move on to a better instrument that will inspire you, once you know more about which direction you want to go in.
Get a teacher if you can. Early help will make you progress in leaps and bounds. Teaching yourself alone can be a long hard struggle, and you can learn a lot of bad habits that will be hard to undo.
Beware of bad teaching on Youtube! There are a lot of weekend wonders out there who think they can teach you a miraculous way to do something quicker or easier. It doesn’t work. The only way to get better is work and practice. And that takes time and effort.
Enjoy learning the little steps rather than being frustrated that you aren’t a flash player yet.

What are the biggest misconceptions that people have about learning and playing the ukulele?

It’s easy.
Is it? Well lucky you then. Show me how easy it is. Go on. Play me something.
There are qualities in a ukulele that make it easier to approach but the techniques and habits you need are the same as any other stringed instrument. Practice, precision and perseverance.

It’s a small guitar.
No it isn’t. There are two bass strings missing and the notes of the strings are different and the 4th string is tuned an octave up. There are similarities between the chord shapes of the ukulele and guitar. But give a ukulele to a guitar player who’s never played one and watch their face contort as they try to figure out where to put the fingers where there are no bass strings!

It’s meant for children.
It’s meant for everyone. The ukulele’s small size can make it easier for a child to get to grips with at first and may encourage them to continue with music. But it is also an instrument that is played by people of all sizes. You can get “child size” guitars if you like. But a ukulele is a “one size fits all”, whatever size ukulele you have.

It’s not a proper instrument.
What’s a proper instrument? The ukulele is played by young and old, large and small, all across the world, from pop to classical, jazz to rock, folk to funk. Not a proper instrument? – don’t go to Hawaii!

Play any chord you like – they all fit.
The chords to a song are the chords the songwriter wanted. They decided on those chords. If the arrangement says E then play an E. Or learn to play an E. If it says Bb then play Bb. E7 and Bb6 are not substitutes except in certain circumstances. It is better to choose to play an E7 because you think it sounds better than an E in that particular circumstance rather than just because you can’t play an E. Practice, precision and perseverance!

My fingers are too fat/big/long/short/stiff…..
We all find excuses for why we can’t do things. Look at the people who play well. Look at their hands. You will see short, fat, stubby fingers and long, skinny, pointy ones. All doing the same things. Some may have a better reach over some chord stretches. But they get the job done. Maybe you need to do some finger or hand exercises to get the fingers moving. But they will. With – practice, precision and perseverance!

Which artists have you most enjoyed playing with and why?

Too many to mention any one or two by name. But always most enjoyment comes from inspiration. Bouncing stuff off somebody who then bounces something off you. A collaboration of ideas and attitudes that create great music on stage. The best feeling is playing on stage with someone you know will catch you if you stumble or fall. To be in a situation where everyone is holding each other up to be the best they can, because they want to hear that other person play, and to contribute to that great moment.
There’s nothing worse than being on stage with someone who only cares about how they look and sound, and who will do their best to make you look bad because they think that will make them look good. I’ve been in that situation and it never ends well – particularly for the person doing it. They are a lonely breed.

8. Tell us something about yourself that you have never revealed in an interview to date

I’m not very keen on oysters. I wish I was. Those who love them seem to get such pleasure out of them. So I’m always happy to give my share away to others!

Percy Copley

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