Seven Tips to Make You Want to Practice

Monday, October 20th, 2014

Introduced by Jamie Houston. Original Article by Ralph Shaw.

Jamie Houston - Founder of the LOVE MY UKULELE CLUB

Jamie Houston – Founder of Love My Ukulele

Have you ever wondered what question you would ask if you had the chance to ask some of the world’s top ukulele teachers and educators one question? Well recently Ralph Shaw was at Tutti – an annual weekend of ukulele workshops in Langley, British Columbia, hosted by James Hill, and the teachers were asked to provide one practice tip each. Here is some of what was said:

1) Practice for one minute – every day.

2) Keep it fun. Remember it is called PLAYING the ukulele.

3) Really listen to your instrument.

4) Any time can be practice time so keep your instrument/s within easy reach.

5) Get a good instrument.

6) Practice with performance in mind.

7) Consider the future if you fail to practice now.

So if you won’t practice for you, at least do it for the sake of your instrument.

These tips have obviously been abbreviated, and unfortunately Ralph has removed the original blog post so we can no longer link you to his original post 🙁

About Ralph Shaw

Ten Tips to Write Better Songs (Part 2 of 2)

Monday, June 30th, 2014

By Ralph Shaw

Last time I gave you the first five of ten things you can do to improve your songwriting.

Here are the final five tips to help you master melody manipulation and wonderful word weaving:

6) Write From a Place of Emotion.

A good place to start is by writing your song from a place of strong feeling (although it’s not a prerequisite, volumes of wonderful music have come out of emotionally neutral states.) I find that writing from your gut has a way of clarifying the thought processes. However it is quite possible, even likely, that the message the audience hears may have nothing to do with the original intent of the writing. When Chris Difford of 1970s band Squeeze wrote Tempted by the Fruit of Another he was writing about his discovery that their bass player had been approached by another band. Listening to the song you just assume it’s his girlfriend who has been tempted to leave. Howard Kaylan, of the 1960s band The Turtles, wrote Elenore with deliberately flawed lyrics as a way to get back at his record company’s demands for “another Happy Together,” their previous hit. However such inept lines as: You got a thing about you and You are my pride and joy etcetera (who uses etcetera in a song?) came across as heartfelt expressions of teenage exuberance and the record buyers loved it.

Another example is one of my own songs: Movie Stars, High Rollers and Big Shakers which began life as an emotional rant about an aborted Las Vegas performance possibility. I was happy with the chords and tune but the lyrics of the song made it unsuitable for every occasion. On the suggestion of another songwriter I rewrote the lyrics to be about a failed Las Vegas marriage and then the song came together. Do yourself (and me) a favour and get the song from iTunes: for just one dollar you’ll experience a rip-roaring and smile inducing musical ride accompanied by the superb trumpet of Bria Skonberg.

7) Simplicity is King.

Remember when you first felt joy? Or love, curiosity, sadness, playfulness, jealousy, laughter and rage. Probably not, since those moments happened early in your childhood. What was the state of your vocabulary at that time? I’m betting it wasn’t full of words like verbosity, erudition and loquaciousness. Our fundamental emotions are connected to simple ideas that are expressed best through short and childish words. Laugh, fun, like, love, blue, bird, sky, happy and now, tend to work better than their hoity-toity counterparts: hilarity, enjoyment, comparable, endearment, azure, feathered creature, firmament, contented and presently. The same goes for your melodies: beautiful and uncomplicated tunes will connect best with most listeners (although sadly, with a century of copyrighted song already behind us, the best tunes have pretty much all been taken.)

8) Declutter Your Song.

It’s distressing to cull those beloved verses that once meant so much and may have taken hours to complete. But if they no longer serve the song then you have to let them go. You’ll know you’ve done the right thing if you feel lighter and better off for having eliminated the excess. It’s like decluttering your home of junk. Songwriting doesn’t reward pack-rats and hoarders. Know specifically what your song is about and make every lyric serve the main message of the song. Watch for unnecessary repetition. If there are lines being sung more than once, ask yourself for what purpose. Repetition can be a powerful way to hammer a message home or it can be a powerful way to induce boredom.

9) Don’t Quit Till It’s Done and Know When to Quit.

One of the greatest mistakes new songwriters make is in thinking their song is complete when there is clearly much work still to do. I’m not the only one to have grimaced while listening to some expensively produced drivel from a singer-songwriter who has gone ahead and recorded a song that still sounds like a first draft. When you think your song is finished keep playing it to yourself. Be hyper-alert for any line or verse that gives you a small but uncomfortable feeling of something not quite right. Be ultra-vigilant for melodic lines that sound like they could have come from any one of a thousand songs. Get super-critical of parts that niggle. Ruthlessly hunt down awkward phrases and make whatever changes necessary. But leave the good stuff alone! Many music and lyric choices don’t make intellectual sense, they just feel right. Develop the wisdom to know the moment when there’s nothing left to add or cut: that’s when your song is finished.

10) Creativity Works like a Muscle.

Make a habit of creativity and exercise it often. Know that much of what you create, especially in the beginning, will probably never be worthy of performance, but that’s okay. It’s more important that you do something. Make songs that take the listener on a journey. Figure out how chords and melodies create tension and release. And craft your song to include those climactic moments. The best way to learn is by actively listening to other people’s songs; memorize them, dissect and analyze them, and thereby become a more effective self-critic.

© Ralph Shaw 2014

About Ralph Shaw

Ten Tips to Write Better Songs (Part 1 of 2)

Wednesday, May 28th, 2014

By Ralph Shaw

Today I offer five songwriting tips to help lift your lyrics and make new and mesmerizing melodies.

When a fan of my albums Love and Laughter wrote to tell me that he appreciates my “clever songwriting and wordplay that reward close and repeated listenings” he endeared himself to me in two ways: first he proved there are still some people who engage in active listening and second that there are those who pay close attention to the art of songwriting.

There’s no magic recipe book for manufacturing hits. And it’s a good thing too, for great songs usually contain an element of the unexpected, some surprise to delight our ears. But inventing sweet surprises; that’s the tough part. There is no map for finding serendipity; we can only hope to be in the right place at the right time and to recognize it when it visits. But, despite music’s ability to make our spirits soar, songwriting is still a down to earth craft. And many elements of that craft can be learned and mastered. What makes a well-crafted song and how do we go about writing one?

Here are five of my ten ways to write better songs.

1) Grab the Ephemeral.
Create space for song ideas to come by removing obstructions to your daydreams. Everyone has their own way to do this, find yours: sit in an empty room, travel, meet people, sit up all night, go for a walk, wake up early. Whatever works for you is what you need to do. Make sure you have some means to record song ideas and have the sense of purpose to grab voice recorder or pen no matter how inconvenient the circumstance. Be conscious and aware of your own sense of creation.

2) Write Lots, Edit Later.
Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are highly regarded as wordsmiths par excellence. But their work style differs in that Dylan would often complete songs in a short period of time (hours or days) whereas Cohen might spend years perfecting his lyrics. But both share the technique of writing more verses than would appear in their final work. Both knew better than to accept the first ideas as being the final product. Only by pushing further will you accumulate the material from which you can choose the very best.

3) Which Comes First – Melody or Lyrics?
The overriding philosophy amongst tin-pan-alley songwriters was, “melody first, then lyrics” and it was held for good reason. It’s important to remember that song lyrics are not poetry. They die or fly depending on the melodic wings with which they are bestowed. The less intellectual nature of music makes it far likelier that perfect words will be inspired by a melody rather than the other way round. When a melody is grafted onto a lyric the tune tends to be uninspired and intellectually driven. But as with any general rule there are notable exceptions: Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern wrote their 1937 Oscar winning song The Way You Look Tonight with lyrics first. And classically trained Elton John formed his greatest songs by putting tunes to Bernie Taupin’s lyrics.

4) Try Chords First.
A favourite way I have of writing songs is to look for a chord progression and rhythmic feel that pleases me. If you get those things right then you have a better chance of laying a decent melody and lyrics on top. It’s also possible that words and melody originate together in a leap-frogging sort of situation.

5) Let the Song Tell You What it Needs
Do learn from your predecessors, but know when to go with your instincts. Don’t add extra verses or a solo because you think that’s what you’re supposed to do. A song can be shorter or longer than what you consider “normal” and may contain other elements deemed eccentric. Remember the “hook” of a song (some unique quirk that makes the song stand out in a good way) is always different from the run of the mill. Do what the song demands.

Next time: Five more tips to help you write better songs!

© Ralph Shaw 2014

About Ralph Shaw

Your Microphones and You (P.A. Systems Part 2)

Monday, November 18th, 2013

By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer

Last time, I gave you some basic tips when getting and using your first P.A. Today we’re looking at important choices to be made when purchasing microphones to plug into your P.A.

Before we discuss microphones I feel it is important to first say a few words about:

The Microphone Stand

Tall, thin, silent and elegant; the presence of a microphone on a stand adds focus and gravitas to a performance. Think of the singer who walks out and stands at the microphone. The seemingly inanimate mic. stand, as it is usually called, is a pedestal for an object that makes humans sound like gods. Somehow it draws the audience focus as much as a bright spotlight. For sheer charismatic appeal, a friend of mine, singer/guitarist Josh Minsky, equates the presence of a microphone stand to having a second performer onstage with you. The microphone and its accompanying stand are seldom pondered but they’re as vital to the performers’ stage presence as the costume and the smile. I urge you to consider this phenomenon if you are considering getting a headset microphone. Such a microphone may be suitable for dancers, clowns, evangelists and anyone else who needs to jump around and wave their arms about. But unless you absolutely need to be fully mobile I’d suggest staying with the traditional setup.

The stand can have a weighted base or tripod style with folding legs. I prefer the latter as it’s lighter and easier to store. In order to make room for your ukulele plus strumming arm you’ll want to stand back a little from the stand, so you’ll need a microphone boom (pictured above). This is a rod that attaches to the top of your stand and holds your microphone exactly where you need it. If you’re also using an instrument microphone then you don’t need to buy another stand. You can get a clamp which attaches to your existing stand. The clamp supports a second boom which holds your instrument microphone.

The Vocal Microphone

The industry standard for vocal microphones is the Shure SM58 microphone. It’s the cardioid, dynamic (ice cream cone shaped) microphone you always see performers using. There are better sounding mics in the world but this is a reliable and robust microphone that rarely lets you down. For optimal sound quality you need to sing close to the microphone; say about three or four inches. In other words your mouth needs to maintain a distance from the microphone equivalent to the breadth of a hand. Your body can gyrate all it wants but your head needs to stay still if you don’t want the sound to get louder and quieter.

The Condenser MicrophoneA different way to go is to use a condenser microphone, such as the Shure SM87A. With this microphone the performer, or performers, can stand up to several feet behind the microphone. If you use a condenser microphone to pick up the total sound from both your voice and the ukulele then positioning is very important. The microphone needs to be placed in such a way that the voice and ukulele volumes are in balance. This microphone is more forgiving with movement than the dynamic microphone and the sound quality can be excellent. Sometimes whole bands will stand around a single microphone to play. But it doesn’t work in all situations. Condenser microphones pick up more external sound than you expect, so watch your mouth when you turn away to say things that you think the audience can’t hear. Feedback can also be a problem with these mics. especially in group situations. They also usually require a power supply such as a battery or 48V phantom power (usually supplied by the mixer). Before buying a condenser microphone make sure it’s what you need and that your mixer/amp can supply the phantom power if necessary.

The Instrument MicrophoneIf you want to plug your instrument directly into an amp then your uke needs to have a pickup either built into it or stuck onto it. I will be making another blog post about ukulele pickups soon so keep an eye out here, or better still you can read about all things ukulele and ukulele performance in my book, which you can buy here.Truly though, you’ll usually get a better sound by using an external microphone. Once again the Shure company can claim the most widely used instrument microphone of all. The Shure SM57 invented by Shure engineer Ernie Seeler, is a microphone you can use onstage or in the studio. It shouldn’t let you down, in fact, it’s been used to amplify speeches by every president since its introduction in 1965. Mr Seeler, expected his microphone to be used for classical orchestras. He despised rock music which, ironically, is where his microphone has been most used for the last four decades. There is no word on what he thought of ukuleles.

When buying sound equipment: Remember that being louder does not equate to sounding better. Seek equipment that retains as much of your natural acoustic sound as possible.

ABOUT Ralph Shaw

Your First P.A. System – Part 1

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

By Ralph Shaw – Professional Full-time Ukulele Entertainer

controls for an AER amplifier

If you’ve been playing for a while you may be getting to the point where you need to supply your own Public Address system, or P.A. This can be a daunting prospect if knobs, buttons and blinking lights generate a cold sweat. Today some help from one non-techie (that’s me) to another (that would be you.) on using a basic P.A.

Being at the mercy of other people’s bad sound systems can be funny but is rarely fun. A friend of mine Paul Latta runs a Las Vegas style Polynesian dance company. His tales of bad PAs that his clients have supplied (usually to avoid renting professional sound gear) are quite hilarious. My favourite is the time he arrived at a gig and the client handed him a childs’ my first Sony CD player. In order to avoid such situations it can be beneficial to get your own gear.

 

What Is a PA Exactly?

PA, Sound System and Amp are fairly interchangeable terms meaning: equipment that makes you louder.

 

PA’s/Sound Systems can have multiple components including: microphones, a mixer, an amplifier, monitor speakers and main speakers which all connect by cables. You don’t really need all that stuff. An Amp (shorthand for amplifier, but it also includes a speaker and inputs for a couple of microphones) is a single device that does the job.

 

What Do I Need?

Think about your requirements. The average ukulele entertainer needs a P.A. that is:

–       Loud enough to be heard at most of the gigs you expect to be doing.

–       As natural sounding as possible. What comes out of the speaker should be like your acoustic sound only louder.

–       Reasonably portable. Think about how you travel to gigs. Will it fit in your vehicle? Can it be carried by bike, bus or on the plane?

–       Reasonably priced. Generally, the more you pay the better you sound.

–       Simple to use. Forget any piece of equipment that is so complex you feel you need a Masters degree in acoustic sciences to work it.

 

What’s Available?

The good news is that many PA companies now sell portable amps tailor-made for independent small-scale performers. Just plug in your microphones, adjust the sound controls and sing. They require little expertise, are reasonably priced and sometimes have a built-in battery for outdoor gigs where no electricity is available.

 

How Much Should I Spend?

An “okay” sounding amp can cost two or three hundred dollars. That was my budget twelve years ago when I went shopping for an amp at my local music shop. Rob, the owner, insisted on showing me an amp that had just come in (German-made by AER) it could be lifted with one hand. The sound was clean and powerful and without distortion at loud volume. It was also five times over my budget but I knew right away I had to get it. To pay for it I sold all my multi-component gear-a purchase I never regretted-the new amp was an improvement over the old PA in every way. I’m not necessarily saying that and AER amp is what you should get. Look around, these days there are more choices and prices have come down. Try some out and see what works for you.

 

What Do All Those Knobs and Buttons Do?

To illustrate this I’ve grabbed a picture of the control panel of a guitar amp (cross out the word guitar and put in ukulele if it makes you feel better.) You can see it has two main sections called Channel 1 and Channel 2:

 

Channel 1 – If your instrument has an electric pickup plug the ¼ inch cord from your instrument into the Channel 1 “input”. If your uke doesn’t have a pickup you’ll need to play it into a microphone.  

Note: Most microphone cables have an XLR connector – that’s a chunky connector with 3 pins inside. You can buy an adapter to take your XLR so you can plug into the ¼ inch socket.

 

Channel 2 – This is for your vocal microphone. You can see that this input takes the XLR 3-pin connector from a standard microphone cable.

 

Gain – Each channel has a Gain control meaning that your instrument and voice each have their own volume knobs. When turning on the amp always start with each Gain and Master volume set at zero. Increase the levels slowly so you don’t blow your speaker. Turn up the Master a little and then adjust each Gain so voice and ukulele are in good balance. Then turn up the total volume to the required level using the Master.

 

Clip – If a red Clip light is coming on then your Gain is set too high. So turn down the Gain and increase the master volume. If your master is turned up full, your Clip lights are on and you’re still not loud enough – it’s time for a bigger amp.

 

EQ Controls (equalization) – Bass, middle and treble are used to adjust the frequencies of your sound. Set them to center position. Listen to your sound. Is it too tinny? Then turn down the treble a little (or turn up the middle). Too boomy, then turn down the bass. Different rooms and different crowds require different EQ settings. If possible get someone with experience to stand in the audience and inform you what adjustments should be made. If you’re not sure, keep them centered.

 

Effects – Some amps have effects built into them. The most common two are reverb and echo. I never use echo but reverb is useful. It fills out your sound (like singing in the shower) and that’s good, up to a point. The Return knob gives you more and more reverb. But keep it subtle. If it’s turned up to where people notice you’ve added reverb then it’s too high. The eff. (effects) pan allows you to put more effect either onto your voice or your instrument.

 

Not all amps are exactly as described. You’ll find every PA has its own idiosyncrasies to figure out, so don’t be afraid to learn on the job.

 

Having your own gear will add to your performing confidence. Many facilities, such as community and old folks centers, for example, will boast that they have a PA for you to use. But be wary – it may be a my first Sony!!

 

Next time: Some microphone basics for you.

ABOUT Ralph Shaw