Category Archives: Ukulele Learning Material Reviews

New Music for Ukulele Ensembles plus Freebies

I’ve created a new page, For Ukulele Ensembles, with music I’ve arranged for 3 or more ukulele players. The page currently contains a couple of BLACK FRIDAY FREEBIES (Canon in C, and I’ll Fly Away), as well as a number of popular Christmas songs (Feliz Navidad, It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas, The Little Drummer Boy, Sleigh Ride, Silver Bells, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch).

I’ll be adding arrangements of Best Day of My Life : American Authors, Music of the Night : Andrew Lloyd Webber, Happy : Pharrell Williams and more in 2017!

Unlike a lot you find on the internet, these are 100% legal arrangements (royalties make their way back to the copyright holders) through an agreement with SMP Press who works with Hal Leornard music publishing.

I hope you enjoy these with your own ukulele trios, ensembles, bands and orchestras. Happy Holidays!

Overcoming Sheet Music Addiction

11276924-music-spiral-background-Stock-Vectoror Confessions of a Sheet Music Addict

The last few weeks have been pretty important for me in overcoming one of my SECRET FEARS . . . performing WITHOUT sheet music.

I know it doesn’t sound that frightening or serious, but its a big deal to me. I did my undergraduate degree in vocal performance, so I’m no stranger to performing memorized songs where someone else is accompanying (I memorized whole opera roles for heaven’s sake). However, adding that extra layer of accompaniment, strumming and fingerpicking on my not-very-simple homespun ukulele songs (I did my graduate degree in composition and its not uncommon for me to use a dozen different chords in a song) has been truly terrifying and has stopped me from pursuing more live performance opportunities than I would’ve liked to. This make me sad.

So why not just use a stand? The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain uses sheet music! Fine, when I’m doing a cover or performing with a group, but I just can’t bear the thought of performing my own music with a stand between me and the audience. It’s hard enough to connect with a group of strangers on a set of completely unknown songs without the additional barrier of a music stand between you and the audience, let alone without the task of dividing your attention between the score and their faces. Honestly, even in music I’ve written, I can’t help but lose my place glancing back and forth like that and I should know the music better than anyone; I wrote it.

I’ve been playing uke for a little over 5 years now (got my first uke as a present for Christmas of 2010) and I finally am beginning to feel like my skills are at a performable level for self-accompaniment. I also feel like it is time to take it to the next level. I’ll be doing a 30-minute set of original, mostly never-before-performed songs at Thanksgiving Point’s Tullip Festival this coming Saturday (April 16, 2016) at 11am . . . and I won’t be bringing a music stand with me. So, what am I doing to work toward this goal?

REALIZATION

For a long time I labored under the assumption that if I just played a song enough times that eventually I would have it memorized through sheer repetition; that’s how I memorized songs at the university (keeping tally marks at the top of a score to tell me how many times I’d done a particular piece). Well, this was NOT working for me with self-accompaniment on the ukulele. In fact, I found as long as kept my eyes on the score I wasn’t memorizing the chords OR the words no matter how many times I repeated the song. It turns out my brain has figured out that if I always have a visual reminder then there is no need to commit the information to memory. Dang lazy brain! I just have to admit it, I am a recovering sheet music addict.

CHANGE OF TACTICS

Here are some steps that I believe are helping me in my recovery:

  1. I’ve sung these songs a lot of times. I can perform all the chord changes and accompanimental patterns flawlessly while singing emotively. This was a necessary first step, I needed that familiarity, but now is the time to move on.
  2. I stopped looking at the score and struggled through the songs passage by passage. Often I would forget which chord belonged where. When I made a mistake I would back up to the beginning of the phrase or section and go through it until I could do it right a few times in a row. Then I moved on until I came across another trouble spot. In this way I was eventually able to ‘connect-the-dots’ and make it through whole songs.
  3. I created cards that just showed the chord change patterns for an entire song with no words, melody or notes on strumming/fingerpicking. I did use these a few times and I think they helped me see the patterns in my own music better. Recognizing a pattern is very helpful to the brain in memorization.
  4. I timed all the songs and then ordered the songs and printed out a ‘set list’ for the upcoming performance. I am carrying this set list in my wallet and am making sure my ukulele is with me whenever I’m out an about in case I have a few moments to go through one or more songs.

In a few weeks, I’ve gone from having just one of my songs memorized to ten songs near ready to go. I’m still making mistakes and need to do a lot more reps of my set list in the coming week, but I’m encouraged by the progress I’m making. Hopefully, the distractions of live performance in a park setting won’t prove too much for me and turn this all into a disaster, but I have hope and recently read an interesting article on stage fright that had some pointers I think will really help. Here’s hoping I’ll ‘break a leg’!

CONCLUSION

It turns out the memorization process for me is just a brutal slog and I have to be disciplined enough not to go running back to the music unless I really can’t figure out a section. If you have any tips or ideas, things that help you memorize music, I’d love to hear about them in the comments. Thanks!

Chord Melody Arranging Part 2 : Transposing

Where Can I Turn for Peace 2In the first part of this series I talked about some principles of chord melody arranging using the melody in the original vocal range with mostly ‘open position’ chords (the easy ones). This second part will talk about transposing the melody into standard ukulele range and using inversions of chords that are ‘up the neck.’ First you may want to print out a copy of the arrangement I’m using as an example:

Transposing

One of the problems of arranging vocal melodies for the ukulele is that they tend to dip below the middle C that is the bottom of standard ukulele range. This is one of the main reasons there are strong supporters of low-G tuning, like James Hill (except for the Canadians it is low-A tuning). We tackled this challenge in part 1 of this series by transposing a section of the melody up an octave. Another common method of dealing with this problem is to transpose the entire melody up into ukulele range. Here are some steps that may help you with this process, using the second page of “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” as an example:

  • Identify the lowest note in the melody you wish to arrange. In the example, the lowest note was an A below middle C with is a ‘minor third‘ (a whole-step plus a half-step) below the range of a standard-tuned uke. That means that in order to bring this into range we have to move all the notes up by at least a minor third.
  • Bringing this melody up by a minor third would take us from the key of C (no sharps or flats) to the key of Eb (three flats). There aren’t a ton of open chords in that key, so I chose to go up another step higher to the key of F, which is a ‘perfect fourth‘ (two whole-steps plus a half-step) higher than the key of C. This key only has one flat in the key signature with a number of ‘open’ chord options.
  • You’ll find the keys closest to C around the circle of fifths (learn more on wikipedia) are the easiest keys to play on the ukulele: F and G. These would be followed by D, A and Bb. These are generalizations; you might find the best key to transpose to is something odd, like Db (probably not).
  • Whatever key you move to, you must make sure you move all the notes by the same interval. In this piece I’ve transposed up by a perfect fourth, so C becomes F, F becomes Bb, D becomes G, and so on.
  • All of your chords need to be transposed up by the same interval; a C chord becomes an F chord, an F chord becomes a Bb chord, and so on.
  • Once you have your melody and chords transposed you can begin looking for chord inversions that highlight the melody notes. You’ll be looking for notes to land on the 1st/A-string (see the first chord of measure 17) or on the 4th/G-string (see the last chord in measure 20). If the note is below these on the middle strings you can always strum a partial chord (see the first chord in measure 24).
  • If you aren’t familiar with a ton of ‘up the neck’ chord inversions, cheat. Either use a ukulele chord dictionary or an online chord finder (ukebuddy.com). A reference makes it so much easier (I use one).
  • If a melody note doesn’t belong to a chord (which happens often), you’ll need to add it to the chord (see the Bb on top of an F chord in measure 17 and the E on top of the Bdim7 in measure 19).

That’s about all there is to it. One of the awesome things about chord melody solos of this kind are that they force you to learn all those wonderful ‘up the neck’ chord inversions, opening all kinds of options for your playing, both instrumental and accompanimental.

Notation/tablature software (I use Finale, but there are free options like MuseScore) can help with transposing and take some of the chore out of it (of course, these have a learning curve of their own). Whatever method you use and however long it takes you to get there, there is nothing like the satisfaction of playing your own arrangement of a song.

Source Files

Get the source files (pdf, finale and music xml for import into other music editors) for the above arrangement under the ‘Files’ tab of the Joyful Noise! LDS Ukulele group on FaceBook. Also, if you’re interested in sharing your arrangements of hymns and Christ-centered spiritual songs, this is a great place to do it.

The Welti Solution : Chord Melody Arranging Part 1

Where Can I Turn for PeaceA good friend / former student asked me for some suggestions on solutions to a chord melody version of “Where Can I Turn for Peace?,” a well-known LDS hymn. He was working from the version included on page 30 of Hymns Made Easy (which includes chord indications above the melody). It was easier for me to illustrate by arranging this song than try to explain in an email, so here is my solution:

Some questions that arise in looking at this tune . . .

What do you do when some of the melody notes do not belong to the chords indicated in the music? This is a common thing in music of all stripes. Melodic notes that do not belong to the chord sequence add tension and interest to the melody. When arranging a chord melody solo you’ll need to incorporate these notes into the fingering, which means you’ll need to be able to find the note on its own in the first place (learn your C-scale to start with). For example, this hymn calls for a B-note over a C-diminished chord on in the third measure. When you change the C to a B in that chord, you end up with a B7 chord instead. You can see this in the arrangement above.

What do you do when a melody note is buried in the middle or bottom of the chord instead of being the top note? Wilfried Welti is a fairly well-known and respected ukulele arranger. I’m borrowing ‘the Welti solution’ to make this arrangement work. His answer lies in how you arpeggiate the chord you are playing. This is indicated by arrows in the arrangement that stop on the melody note you wish to highlight. An up-arrow indicates a motion from string 4 towards string 1, while a down-arrow indicates the opposite direction. You’ll note that where a melody note takes place on one of the inner strings, you stop the arpeggio on that string (see the arrangement above). Using this solution you can highlight any note of a chord.

What do you do when a melody note goes below the range of the ukulele? Lots of vocal melodies go below the C that is the lowest note on the ukulele. A popular solution is to put a low-G string on your uke, but let’s pretend that option doesn’t exist and you don’t want to string your ukulele like a mini-guitar. If we’re not willing to transpose the entire melody up into ukulele range, then we must make do somehow. One solution is to leave those notes out and to the imagination of the listener. Another is to transpose just that phrase of music up an octave. This latter option is what I’ve done at the end of the second line of music in the arrangement above.

Using these three techniques, you can create a lovely and convincing chord-melody arrangement in the ukulele’s lower range without transposing up into the higher fret-range of the instrument. I’ll talk about transposing the melody up to a ‘ukulele-friendly’ key in a future ‘part 2’ article on ukulele chord melody arranging.

Update: Now you can read part 2 on transposing! with an updated version of the arrangement.

Source Files

Get the source files (pdf, finale and music xml for import into other music editors) for the above arrangement under the ‘Files’ tab of the Joyful Noise! LDS Ukulele group on FaceBook. Also, if you’re interested in sharing your arrangements of hymns and Christ-centered spiritual songs, this is a great place to do it.

Review: Ukulele Duets

Ukulele DuetsUkulele Duets, released by Mel Bay.

As a blogger and an ukulele book author, I generally try to be as kind and positive as I can about any ukulele book I come across. I try to imagine who would enjoy the book, rather than whether I would find it personally useful.

I had great hopes for this book. I teach ukulele groups and a book of duets would be a wonderful resource. The formatting is nice and clean; it includes melody and tab lines for each of the ukuleles.

Problems started to arise though, when I played through the book. One ukulele plays through the melody, which is no surprise. Where I was dissapointed, and frankly think makes this book useless, is that the harmony part on the second uke is almost entirely, in every arrangement, a parallel third or fourth above the melody. Anyone could figure out how to play in parallels. Who needs a whole book for it?

In short, there is no real arranging here, just a formula used over and over again. The ears get tired of this kind of thing really quick. For this book to be useful, I would expect to some good/interesting counterpoint.

Thankfully, Amazon refunded my purchase.

Review: Cowboy Songs for Ukulele

Cowboy Songs for UkuleleCowboy Songs for Ukulele from Hal Leonard includes a nice selection of tunes from the classic days of cowboy songs, before cowboy turned into country; think Gene Autrey, Johnny Cash, Roy Rogers and various cowboy folk songs. Some songs I might work up myself include Back in the Saddle, Ghost Riders in the Sky, Happy Trails, and various of the Gene Autrey songs that are included.

Who this book is for:

  • Folks that love cowboy tropes and songs; these are full of wonderful cliches about trails, cowgirls, gunfights and more.
  • Folks that prefer a chords-over-melody-line-and-lyrics format (like The Daily Ukulele). I enjoy having a melody line to help learn unfamiliar songs without having to look up a recording.
  • Folks that are comfortable improvising/making up their own strum/fingerpicking patterns on the fly.

Also worthy of note, the chord level in this book is fairly easy, making it a great selection for groups with mixed levels of players or advancing beginners.

Review: Two-Chord Songs (Guitar Chord Songbook)

two chord songsTwo-Chord Songs (Guitar Chord Songbook) by Hal Leonard has an eclectic mix of rock, pop and country songs that I’m excited to explore more. Some songs I am familiar with (Paperback Writer, ABC, Day-O, etc.), and others I’m going to have to get on youtube or spotify and look up, but with these easy resources for learning the melodies of songs freely available, I’m just not too worried that there are songs I don’t know in the collection.

Although I was a little puzzled when Hal Leornard sent me a guitar book for review, it doesn’t take much imagination or skill to turn ANY songbook with chords into an ukulele songbook; all you need is a ukulele chord reference (chart, dictionary or online app) and the patience to look up the chords and write them into the music. Actually, you don’t even need much patience when it comes to songs that only have two chords!

As a teacher, I love two chord songs (yep, I’ve even published two songbooks dedicated to them). When practicing transitions between chords, I find it best to focus on two chords at a time and two chord songs offer almost instant gratification to the student as a reward for their dilligence.

So, if you’re a beginner, or just like it easy, consider ignoring the guitar on the cover of this book and picking up a copy to add to your ukulele songbook collection. You might also consider picking up the Hal Leonard Ukulele Chord Finder: Easy-to-Use Guide to Over 1,000 Ukulele Chords for less than six bucks to make writing in your ukulele chord symbols a snap (I use this book all the time).

 

Review: The Best Songs Ever (Ukulele Chord Songbook)

best songs everThe Best Songs Ever (Ukulele Chord Songbook) from Hal Leonard is an interesting selection of songs in the chords-over-lyrics format many ukers are accustomed to.

Who this book is for:

  • Players of a certain age to whom these songs are familiar. I’m in my early forties and hadn’t heard of many of the songs in this book (maybe half). However, my mother flipped through this book and knew almost every song (she’s in her early seventies).
  • Players who want the songs in the original keys and are not afraid of learning large sets of (sometimes difficult) chords. Many songs feature over 20 chords.
  • Players who prefer the chords-over-lyrics format and don’t want to be bothered with treble cleff, notes, or tabs.

If you fit the above profile, this book may be a good addition to your library.

I was sent a review copy of this book from Hal Leonard.

Review: Ukulele Aerobics by Chad Johnson

This is a review of Ukulele Aerobics: For All Levels, from Beginner to Advanced by Chad Johnson that I posted on Amazon . . .

Who this book is NOT for: Beginners. The only reason this book got a one-star rating from someone is that it is marketed as an ‘ALL LEVELS’ book, which I consider false advertising (which is why I see it as a four star book). I can say this with some confidence because I’ve taught hundreds of beginning students to play the ukulele and this book would leave most of them in the dust, discouraged and disheartened. Also, this book is NOT for people who prefer to learn the ukulele organically . . . by which I mean ‘one song at a time’ (the book includes drills for skills in seven categories, there are no songs in this book). Despite these drawbacks . . . this is an awesome book.

Who this book IS for: players with a firm grasp of the basics, that have a good number of chords already under their belt, have good practicing skills, aren’t afraid of standard staff notation and are glad to see it side by side with tablature. If this is you, you’re going to get a lot out of this book.

That said, I consider myself an intermediate player with a lot of musical knowledge that translates over from other instruments I’ve learned to play. Even with that kind of background, there’s some pretty tough stuff in this book that you’re going to have to be patient with . . .

The toughest part may be the advanced/tricky chord shapes that are thrown out pretty early in the book (I have a hard time understanding the rhyme/reason for the order in which chords are introduced). But, if you’re like me, you’ll enjoy stretching yourself a bit to make your fingers fit these shapes.

I like what one of the other reviewers said about using each week as a daily round of seven drills. I think people will get a lot more out of the book practicing this way as some of the drills are not going to be mastered in a day.

WHAT I LOVE: There’s stuff in this book I haven’t seen anywhere else, and I’ve bought about twenty instructional ukulele books in my quest to be a better teacher. Also, as a singer/songwriter, it is so nice to be able to pick up new techniques, fingerpicking, strumming, chords, riffs to inspire my own writing.

Ukulele Aerobics can be found on Amazon (link above) or on Hal Leonard’s website: http://www.halleonard.com/product/viewproduct.do?itemid=102162

How should I practice? : 3 Top Tips for Making Fast Progress

metronome-wim-hoppenbrouwers-on-flickrI’ve thought a lot about this quote, attributed to the great pianist Bill Evans, “It’s better to practice one song for 24 hours than play 24 tunes in one hour.”

By nature, I’m a 24-tune-an-hour kind of guy. I love variety. I love playing through songs. That said, I know there is a better way to practice and make progress. Here are my three top tips for making quick progress on your instrument.

1. Slow is Fast

Everyone wants to play a song up to tempo, even at the beginning. The problem is, we experience time in a very relative way. When things are easy, our timing is pretty spot on, but when things get tough, time seems to warp and we slow down. Sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re slowing down. If you want to test this, try playing a song that has some easy spots and some tough spots and then turn on a metronome and see what happens.

Because of this ‘time warp’ effect in our brains, people often lumber on through the difficult stretches without stopping, usually not realizing that they’ve slowed way down, only to speed up again when the going gets easy. This really messes with our sense of timing, which in itself is an important musical skill that must be developed.

The solution to this problem is to slow down and . . .

2. Put the Tough Spots on Loop

Forget about starting at the beginning every time. You know where the tough spots are in that song you’re practicing. Isolate a difficult passage of the music and put it on loop. Repeat that section slowly, over and over. It may only be a little twiddly-bit or lick, or it may be a full measure or two, or it may be a longer phrase. Isolate it and loop it . . . over and over and over again.

3. Practice with Someone (or Something)

Make sure you’re being honest with yourself. Practice with a metronome and keep looping those tough passages in a slow time. Then, as you feel more comforatable, raise the tempo, little by little until you’ve mastered the passage. Then, merge the passage back into the song. When you’ve got it to your satisfaction and feel you can’t make a mistake (or can’t take it anymore – in which case you can come back to it later), move on to the next difficult section and repeat the process.

One of the reasons I enjoy leading and practicing with my ukulele group, UFO HUM, is that it forces me to do this process with real people which are a lot more fun than metronomes. Alternatively, you can always use drum loops or recording of songs to practice with. The problem in these is controlling the tempo and slowing them down (though there is software for this, its too much trouble for me).

Conclusion

That’s the process I’ve found most helpful making real progress with my instrument: slow down, loop tough passages and use a metronome (or group) to make sure you’re being honest in your timing.

What practicing tips have you found useful? Please comment!
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Want more tips? Visit NPR’s 10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Music Practice.