TUNING YOUR UKULELE

Part 6: Tuning for the Group ( page 1)

Group play will obviously have different goals than those we just discussed for the “Ukulele Troubadour”.  Now, instruments need to find an effective way to play together; to produce a pleasing, and of course harmonious ensemble sound.  We mentioned that with guitar family instruments, standard tunings were not common practice before the early 20th century.  Since these were primarily solo instruments for vocal accompaniment, it wasn’t exactly a pressing need.  Still, there were those in the world of music who saw advantages to codifying things, and facilitating group play was one of the main reasons these standard tunings came to be seen as advantageous. Of course, a group can elect to tune to whatever pitch they like, as we discussed with Symphony Orchestras in Part 3.  Not only don’t they need to be tied to specific frequencies with their tuning; as a matter of fact in the real world it’s often impossible (more on that later).  But to form a group where every individual has been tuning to a different pitch in a relatively wide range, means that those players may not all be pleased when the leader sets the group pitch too far away from where they are accustomed to playing.  If players have all been tuning to a some sort of fixed “standard” then it’s assumed they’ll have their instruments and set-ups optimized for the approximate pitch the group will use.  So if group playing is one of your goals, then fixed note tuning, with all its limitations and challenges, is something that you will want to try to tackle. Bear in mind as well, that in many group play situations the ability to read music and transpose arrangements will be paramount.  In other words, as the interplay between instruments and voices becomes more involved, formal musical training becomes more important. ************************************************* Group play is a pretty wide topic to begin with.  There are also different considerations with acoustic groups and amplified groups.  We’ll start with acoustic ensembles.  Then, to use an inexact analogy, something to simplify the discussion, we’ll discuss two approaches to group acoustic play.  Borrowing from the 6-string Guitar world, we’ll call these the Flamenco approach and the Classical approach.  To begin, the Ukulele is not generally even thought of a a group instrument, at least on the U.S. mainland.  As we mentioned in Part 5, the AFM did not even consider the Ukulele to be a musical instrument at all.  For one thing, it had too low a volume for “Orchestra play”.  And that low volume, the thing that makes it such a wonderful accompaniment for the casual singer, is what made it a difficult fit as a mainland band instrument.  In the Ukuleles heyday, before amplification was common, the popular mainland Jazz bands featured horns and reeds.  An acoustic Ukulele in that sort of group was completely out of the question.  Even with the mainland string band, the instruments were the fiddle, mandolin, banjo and double bass; all have great volume and are geared toward performances for larger audiences.  On top of that, the standard Ukulele would fall into the same general range as the fiddle, mandolin and banjo, and as those instruments are so much more powerful, an Ukulele would simply drown in that mix. One obvious way around the problem of the Ukulele’s volume would be to form a group of Ukuleles, or at least a group where Ukuleles are dominant.  This is what we’ll call the “Flamenco” approach.  Guitars may be somewhat louder than Ukuleles, but as acoustic instruments, and especially with gut and nylon stringing, they are still relatively quiet.  Flamenco Guitar is often played solo, but in front of a sizeable crowd, the obvious solution to the low volume is to play in duos or trios or larger ensembles.  Another element making the comparison useful, is that they are also played at the same tuning.  Any guitar group is played this way, of course, but the Flamenco groups are the best known acoustic guitar ensembles, and have special characteristics which we feel translate well to the Ukulele.  As you hear this gathering of Gypsies you’ll note how the duo, in this case, play the same rhythm at some points, and take off on alternating rhythms at other times.  There are solo passages as well, but they both are playing the same tuning and same progressions.  This all holds true when there are larger groups of players as well.  There are lead singers, but there are secondary leads and chorus singers.  And of course percussion; here in the most common form of hand claps, but in other groups there may be castanets and the tapping of the hard soled shoes of the dancers.  The Cajón, a resonant box that’s sat on and beaten is now very popular as well as a percussion instrument in these groups, but the old way was simply to beat on the soundbox of the guitar while playing.  If you go “full screen” on the video, you’ll even notice the fellow to the left of the rhythm guitarist beating his neighbours soundbox at one point.  This is why so often you see the huge plastic “golpeadores” (beat-guards) on flamenco guitars.  In its Hawaiian homeland, there has also been a “Flamenco” Ukulele tradition.  The Kanikapila gatherings were and are common occurrences among friends and family.  While the Polynesian flavour is obvious, it’s hard not to see the Latin heritage coming through as well.  These types of groups are a great fit for acoustic Ukuleles.  They are basically string bands with the emphasis often on the Ukuleles.  When formed in that way, the little fellows don’t get lost in the mix of more powerful voices.  While again tunings are generally the same (the guitar is lower), there are varying rhythms among the players and solo passages as well.  Percussion is important, and while there are no dancers in this video, I have a feeling Hula dancers would be close by in the neighbourhood, if not in this very crowd.  If Aunty Georgia wasn’t holding forth on the shaker, I’d guess she might be a candidate for a bit of gentle swaying.   The mainland, however, did have at least one form of group play.  A different type of “string band” came into existence to accommodate the Ukulele.  This was, and is still known today as the “Ukulele Club”, or sometimes “Ukulele Orchestra”.  In the early days they weren’t all that common, but of course being made up entirely (or almost so) of Ukuleles, there was no problem with their being drowned out by other instruments.  These groups also use a common tuning.  As opposed to a Flamenco Fiesta or a Kanikapila, the Clubs are often more instructional in nature and the skill level is on a more basic level.    Clubs often simply play as a giant chorus of Troubadours rather than with the interplay of instruments generally expected from a musical group.  While D tuning was once traditional everywhere, today C tuning is common in the U.S., and other countries have adopted it in large measure as well.  However, this can cause a couple of problems.  In some clubs, the leader will call out chord names by alphabetical names.  This works well as a system for a particular group, but many players then come to associate chord shapes only with these names.  If in the future they need to transpose arrangements or want to play in a group situation in any other tuning, then they have to overcome what they’ve learned in the Club.  The simple solution would be the Solfa system we described in Part 4.  It’s not likely to become common any time soon, however, so this is an obstacle people will just have to fight through if they move from most Club environments to different group situations. The other problem is not such a big problem.   It’s that without the flexibility of a Troubadour’s approach, you may or may not be able to sing along with some group selections.  But if you have to sit out for a song or two, there are others in the chorus that can take up the slack until a tune in your range comes along.  You don’t need everyone singing every song to begin with. The emphasis in these groups is on socialization; singing and playing together for the pure enjoyment of the company and the experience.  In the present revival, the popularity of the Ukulele Clubs has had a lot to do with the instruments rebirth, so anyone who loves the Ukulele has to love the Ukulele Club.  As a result, we have done our best to foster their growth by adding to the range of sound a club can use while sticking to one tuning.  We have C tuning sets, not just for every sized Ukulele, but in three forms (Ukulele reentrant, Cuatro reentrant and Linear), and now have C tuning sets in a lower octave as well, so groups can add a deeper sound to the ensemble. Based on our own long exposure to traditional guitar family culture (Latin, not Hawaiian) and some personal family history as well, at this point, we’ll throw out a few suggestions Clubs might want to consider, knowing that every group has it’s own circumstances and will develop it’s own personality. ***************************************************** The main reason for the difference in skill level between the groups in the first two videos and the Ukulele Clubs, is that in those cultures the Ukulele and the Guitar are integral parts of the culture.  People not only grow up playing these instruments, they often learn from family members, receiving knowledge that has been passed down through generations of players.  As such, these fiestas are not so much about learning songs.  There are a lot of non-musicians, friends and family in attendance and the music is thought of more as entertainment for the gathering as a whole than as a practice session. Note that apart from the musicians, other members of the fiesta join in the singing, provide simple percussion, or dance.  Of course this is something you see here in Louisiana as well, in the fais-do-do.  Dancers are a wonderful addition to these sorts of gatherings; the interplay between dancers and musicians inspires both sides.  Rhythms can slow down and speed up, grow softer and louder, and a song can continue until one side or the other needs a break (that’s when the ballads come in). At one point, the U.S. mainland was well on its way to integrating the Ukulele into common culture; but when the bottom fell out for the Ukulele, most of the acquired experience was wiped away.  Below, for example is the biggest selling Ukulele song recorded, with over 2 million vinyl records, until  Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow / What a Wonderful World” shattered that mark with digital downloads.  But as part of the “lost tradition”, it’s a song that few players today have even heard of.  It was written by Wendell Hall, a composer in traditional Southern styles, and the most popular Ukulele artist in the instrument’s history.  My great-grandmother learned this song, taught it to my grandmother, who taught it to my aunt and mother.  At first listening, it doesn’t strike you as a candidate for a fiesta style piece, but the line on the sheet music cover: “The Song With a Hundred Laughs”, gives you a clue as to how it was sung.   You hear a bunch of comical verses in this version, but Wendell recorded it more than once with other verses thrown in, and on different versions of the sheet music there are verses that never got recorded at all.  When we sang this song, it was always a sort of contest.  After the chorus, each verse was sung by a different person.  You had to remember a verse, or make up one of your own.  The made up verses might often be about other family members or guests and were usually the funniest of all.  If you couldn’t remember a verse, or make one up when your turn came around, then you were eliminated.  The song went on until the one person left was the “winner”.  As you can imagine, hand-clap percussion is great with this song; it can almost become a kind of gospel shout, and at that point it can definitely get people up and moving. So our suggestions would be that some groups might want to break away a bit from too much of a structured uniformity.  Let some of the more advanced strummers play alternate rhythms; if there are members who can play lead passages, give them a few bars; break up the singers at points for more call and response, and give the best singers solo passages as well.  If a basic repertoire has been mastered, then open the gatherings up to friends and family.  Then encourage the “audience” to participate: to sing, to clap, use other percussion or dance along. None of this requires any sort of advanced music theory.  Most Flamenco players don’t actually read music, and I’d guess a lot of players at the Kanikapilas don’t either.  Giving the Clubs a bit more of the fiesta atmosphere won’t take much work, and most folks should enjoy things even more if the structure is opened.  And of course, don’t ignore singing and the Ukulele on family occasions.  Teach your children - those that are interested.  They’ll likely teach some of theirs, and what’s more intimate than a family band, reflecting generations of familial celebration. With that sentiment in mind then, we’ll close the little discussion on Club playing with a video of a university student group.  They use a Cajón, and percussion clapping (along with finger snaps).  While there are no alternate rhythms from the instrumentalists, and while this is a stage presentation, if there were a dance floor in front of the stage they might well be able to get a few fellow students out of their seats with this performance.                           And so, we happily salute these “Young Volcanoes” from the Ukulele Club of the Rochester Institute of Technology!  ***************************************************** On page 2, we’ll continue the discussion of group play with what we’ll call the “Classical Approach”, before moving on to the final page to look at some considerations for amplified groups, touch briefly on the mechanics of group tuning, and sum things up.     
Group Tuning - Page 2 Group Tuning - Page 2