RALPH SHAW ON THE WAY WE ROLL
Ralph Shaw is one of the ukulele world's greats: an outstanding entertainer who tours Formby-style whimsy to concert and festival stages everywhere. He publishes a tremendous, widely distributed email blog about meaningful aspects of performance art.
This is his reflection on group jam moments at Canada Ukes
where he headlined with Montréal's awesome Small World Project,
The UKULELE ENTERTAINER
Inspired Ideas to Maximize your Music | May 26, 2015
by Ralph Shaw
Most musicians are familiar with jamming; an informal musical get-together where people play instruments and sing simply for the fun of doing it. Steve McNie (pron. Mik-Nee) has elevated jamming to the level of art form.
UE #135 The Jam Master
I arrived at the first-ever Canada Ukes Weekend at Ralph's in Ontario knowing the festival would begin Friday night with a three hour long jam session led from the stage.
"That seems a little long," I thought.
As fun as they are, being trapped in a room where a jam has gone way past its "best before date" is, for me, a dreary way to pass the time. But what I experienced was a ukulele jam that was both entertaining and enjoyable while at the same time bringing out a level of cohesive musicality in the participants that I've never heard in all my years visiting music festivals.
Lifting an informal jam to the level of performance requires a particular set of well honed skills and I found myself studying the elements of Steve's work that make it so frightfully good
The first thing you notice is the big projection screen at the back of the room. There are no songbooks. A songbook has the advantage that you can take it anywhere, make notes in it, flip it open anytime and play your music any way you please. But, for group playing, the projection screen has several advantages. First of all, before the jam occurs, Steve creates charts of well chosen songs which show words and chords but also display key nuances of timing. He artfully manages this without making the charts look confusing and cluttered (an achievement you don't truly appreciate until you try it yourself.)
Since we're reading from the screen all heads face upwards which greatly improves the quality and uniformity of the sound. Everyone is able to follow Steve's crystal clear direction, which would be difficult with eyes looking down into books. Intros, endings and cut-offs are crisp and sharp. Changes in dynamics, tone and style are communicated with simple gestures. All this is able to happen because everyone is literally reading from the same page.
FAMILIARIAZATION WITH THE SONG
Getting scores of ukulele players of all abilities to play an informal song that hangs together like a rehearsed piece is achieved by first work-shopping the trickier parts of the song. This includes getting familiar with the start and the end of the song as well as running any chordal or rhythmic parts that may trip people up. But it also means spending some time "looping" certain sequences so that everyone gets familiar with the feel and pace of each song before it begins. He infects everyone with his obvious love of the music as we find the groove and sit there for a while playing a sweet chord sequence over and over again as our ears and bodies all synchronize with one another.
ADDING EAR CANDY
Steve is immensely musical (he's trained in cello and accordion) and he shares his relish of certain chords and chord changes that are like nectar to the ears. He often makes chord adjustments to songs by replacing the original chord with, say, a minor or major seventh that he deems to sound particularly sweet on uke. Attention is also paid to quality of the singing and basic harmonies are quickly taught and encouraged.
To make it all work requires focus from everyone and Steve happily admits that his approach is somewhat dictatorial. But it's a very good-natured sort of dictatorship. First of all the soft quality of his voice makes the instruction come across as soothing and kind. With only gentle pressure and no hard words you automatically want to do as he says. The instruction is clear, focused and efficient while maintaining a bubbling sense of humour and fun.
May 22-24, 2015 at the Midland Cultural Centre.
Before I ever met Steve I'd heard that his jams have a "no-noodling" rule. Noodling is a term for playing your instrument when your attention ought to be elsewhere - such as listening to someone onstage. But if it is a rule I never heard it invoked. Only a few times did he politely ask us to refrain from playing while instruction was being given, "because it will sound better if we all play it together."
Every song began out of silence (rare to the point of non-existence at all other ukulele meet-ups) and finished with a clear and unified ending. The theatre's professional sound technicians, who are used to audiences who sing out of tune and who can't clap in time, spoke of their amazement at the exceptional sound made by so many people. Admittedly this is partly due to the large number of attendees who regularly attend Steve's weekly jams and classes and who've become more skilled and cohesive than any large group of (mostly) baby boomers have a right to be.
Steve makes the process of "getting good" at a song a complete joy and the results speak for themselves. My only regret about his work is that so few people outside of Toronto get a chance to experience what I now think of as the ultimate jam. Talking to him later I suggested he offer some version of the Steve McNie ukulele jam to other festivals. So if you're involved with a club or festival why not think about coaxing him away from Toronto for a while? Or, if you're ever in Ontario, Canada, head on over to the Corktown Ukulele Jam (Wednesdays 8-11pm) or The Annex Ukulele Jam (Mondays 8-11pm) and check it out for yourself.
© Ralph Shaw 2015