Recently, I had the great pleasure of attending a big ukulele festival in Canada.
While at this festival I witnessed a few things which encouraged me to write this
For many beginning and Intermediate
Jammers, lessons can be hard won, as no one has ever told them how to jam
Or that there is an etiquette which lends itself to playing well with others.
As with most music festivals, be they folk, blues, bluegrass or dance camps, the opportunity to jam with others is a huge draw for most attendees.
All jam sessions are not created equal.
The ones when everything goes right, can often live on in the memory books for years to come.
For every great jam that I have taken part in, I have witnessed 2 or 3 mediocre jams or failed jams.
Before I tell you what makes a jam successful let me first mention a couple of common pitfalls that can really sidetrack the best way-laid intentions.
1) one strong leader who doesn't know how to share the load. While many people appreciate his willingness to lead the group, he should be empowering others to step up and lead a song or two
In order to keep things moving along.
Think about what a healthy Democracy looks like to you and that's what a good jam should feel like.
2) Sometimes a small circle of talented musicians will hijack the direction of the jam and often they'll start playing tunes that are too complicated for the majority of the participants.
These are folks who aren't thinking about whats good for the group as a whole.
I see this happen alot with Uke players who like to play standards.
Sure everyone knows Five Foot Two and All of Me, but you'll loose em right quick with Stardust and Dream A Little Dream.
This often happens at old time and bluegrass jams when the big boys start playing obscure fiddle tunes that no one else knows. It leaves others feeling left out since most can't figure out melodies right on the spot.
The goal should be to find tunes or songs that everyone knows well or songs that are fun and easy to pick up which are 2, 3, 4, and occasionally 5 chord tunes, with the vast majority being 3 chord songs.
Many jammers need to learn how to play by ear and transpose among other things that might otherwise make it hard for them to jump right in on a song without sheet music in front of them.
Most are comfortable with the keys of: F, C, G, D and A.
3) Cutting others off or publicly criticizing others delivery. Yep! I have seen this more times then I care to mention. Hard to believe I know; but egos know no bounds when it comes to jams and many beginners walk on egg-shells, they are fragile, and already insecure about the notion of whether they are good enough, it doesn't take much to discourage them.
So it's our job to see to it that a positive jam stays uplifting and doesn't regress into anarchy.
Often, what will happen is someone will start a tune then another will jump in and cut the other person off or Segway into a different tune without a courteous transition.
Here's how you'll know you are at a good jam:
1) People take turns leading songs.
(No one likes a song-circle bogart!)
2) Those leading songs will call out the titles, keys and chords before starting a tune.
3) The group will sit in a circle where everyone can see each other and eye contact is obvious amongst players.
4) Jam speed is compatible with the skill level of the given group.
5) Those who have instrumental skills are encouraged to take solos but no one is put on the spot too often or asked to play something outside their skill level.
No one is told to take it, when they are obviously not soloists.
Even good pickers don't always want to be called on to solo constantly.
6) jammers network and share resources with one another.
7) When a song is started the leader will count it off so everyone can come in at the same time. Likewise, when a song is coming to an end the leader puts his or her foot up in the air or indicates in some verbal or non-verbal manner that the song is coming to an end.
The Bottom line is, If you are watching the song leader, generally, you'll know when the song is going to end.
8) When someone takes a solo, the group as a whole shall quiet down so that the solo can be heard.
9) Talking amongst non-jammers shall be a whisper or unheard. A jam is a place where we come forth to sing, listen, play along with others and generally practice learning how to be a good musician.
If non-jammers are talking loudly during a song kindly ask them to quiet down or move along.
10) While jams are often the place that beg for time tested favorites, new songs are welcome if they are presented in the right way...
A) Give the key, style, title, chords.
B) Tell folks something about the tune that might interest them.
C) If the song has a singable chorus or bridge, start by teaching that first so everyone has a vested interest.
D) keep it simple.
E) humorous songs are always welcome.
11) If there are kids, try to include them, encourage them, and keep the choice of material clean.
12) In a good Jam, members are encouraging of one another and often
Complimentary of one another's delivery.
We all like to be told that we did a good job. Why not help instill in others a sense
Of confidence and a willingness to continue on their path as we all seek to play well with others.
The month of August finds me back out on the Great Plains.
After a long absence to this part of the country I have been hired to do an artist in
residency for the City of Papillon's Recreation Department (Omaha, NE).
Over the course of a week i will present a number of concerts and workshops for kids,
seniors and local ukulele players. Following my stay in Papillon, i will swing over to
Kansas City on Sunday August 4th for a concert and workshop in conjunction with the
Kansas City Ukulele Community.
This trip is a welcome return, since I have spent many-a-year touring the KC, Lawrence,
Shawnee, Omaha area. I simply love the areas expansive plains and wide open vistas. To
this humble Midwestern soul, it's where the West and all of its rich lore,
Something stirs in me when i am out here, and a poetic murmur beats gently in
my heart as a strong sense of American freedom always feels more defined in these
places where i can see the horizon without having to look at a 100 bill-boards or a
metropolis of concrete.
Go west young man might have meant something else long ago when gold
fever first struck, but it lives on in the hearts and minds of troubadours
like me who relish the chance to traverse a landscape that holds so much collective
folk-lore; and from this poems, songs, stories and quiet contemplation is born.
So here i am for but a moment, a troubadour rambling out on the high plains!
Then in the wink of an eye, i return to my honey and babe back in the beer city!
This year is shaping up to be stellar year for music camps, retreats and of course ukulele gatherings.
I am particularly excited about one such event: The Ashoken Ukulele Camp to be held July 4th thru the 7th in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York State.
This event will feature dance, music instruction, open mic, jamming, workshops, Q & A periods, and a unique opportunity to spend some quality time with some of the best ukulele instructors in the nation including: James Hill, Gerald Ross, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Lil Rev and Ruthy Ungar.
Lil Rev in Concert at the home of Dan & Joan Scanlan circa 2013
Dan's sitting in and tearing it up!
When I first met Dan Scanlan some years back out on the festival circuit, I didn't know
much about him. As the hands of time wore on, Dan and I began to find ourselves
picking and grinning at ukulele festivals all over North America.
Eventually my winter tours led me right up to Dan's doorstep, where he was gracious
enough to host a house concert for me and welcome in my wife, daughter and I for a
few days of much needed R & R.
What struck me about Dan first and foremost was Dan's lack of pretense,
and a well grounded sense of humility.
Here was a guy who had been playing the ukulele for over 50 years, had traveled
the world in search of its roots, had a deep and abiding respect (and knowledge)
and love for the ukuleles humble history.
To understand Dan, is to know a man of who has worn many hats.
He is, was or continues to be a mechanic, activist, folk singer, rocker, lover,
dad, community song leader, chicken coop guru, music historian, uke club leader,
husband and father.
While many of us are out on the road paying dues, This is a man who has long
since earned his stamps and i look for fellas like Dan, who continue to hold the lantern
up high, so that the rest of us might see the road ahead on those dimly lit nights.
Don't get me wrong, Dan is no old timer! His spirit is playful and alive, always at
the ready with poem, song, story or simply to lend a hand. If you still didn't get my point,
let me put it this way, Dan has seen a whole hell of alot more than most of us ukulele revival young'ins and in an era when the Bill Tapias, Travis Harrelson's and
Elder-statesmen and women of the uke are passing on, its' the Dan Scanlan's of
this world who will step up to hold the mantel high! You can trust that the ukulele is
in good hands with Dan.
Another words, Dan has alot to share if you are willing to forget about all the things
you have to do and spend a few moments. In doing so, you'll delight in a grab-bag of
ukulele stories, legend, lore and song. One moment Dan is singing one of his own
political songs like"Its a shame! Its a crime, they ought to be doing time." and the next
he's knocking down a killer Beatles tune like Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.
Dan has a vast repertoire that spans all the years of American Popular Music
from Broadway, Folk, Bluegrass and Country to Rock n Roll and his own
His strumming and playing style is strong, sturdy and rock solid, with slides,
glissando's, taps, triplets, tremolo and a two finger solo picking style that is
Should you ever get a chance to study with, hang out, listen to or trade licks with
Dan Scanlan, you'll discover what I found; that Dan is an important link in the chain
of life and today's ukulele revival.
Today Dan leads a group out of Grass Valley, CA called the Strum Bums, writes
instructional books, teaches lessons, tours and soaks up the joy of life along the
Dan has many fine recordings out and is also a featured performer/interviewee, in the
international hit documentary: Mighty Uke
Now that the Reno Ukulele Festival and our three month winter tour is behind us,
i am slowly gathering steam, recharging and getting ready for what is sure to be a
really great summer.
I have some really choice local gigs at pizza parlors,
farmers markets and festivals, which i am really looking forward to.
Nationally, i will be appearing at The MacComb Ukulele Festival,
Ashoken Ukulele Retreat,The Strathmore Ukulele Gathering, Fox Valley
Folk Festival and The Nova Scotia Ukulele Ceilidh to name a few.
Soon, my buddy John Nicholson and I will be recording the audio tracks
for our new book:Fiddle Tunes for Ukulele, which we hope will be released
before the NAMM Show in January of 2014.
Once these tracks are done, i am going to begin work on a new book called: Essential Strums, Strokes and Tricks for Ukulele, which is to be released as
a book/DVD combination. Again, this will be released in 2014 i hope.
Many of you are aware that i have been touring very hard for about 10 years now.
I have made so many wonderful friends and fans. I am grateful for the time you
have all chosen to spend with us as we passed thru your town.
In the future, we plan to make our southern and western tour in the summer
months since our daughter is starting school in 2013. Though, the WI winter will surely
drive me to schedule some select dates in CA, AZ, TX and FL.
This years eastern tour will be a tad shorter and every other year i will alternate
the cities i plan to visit. So those of you who live in the east, will see me every other year
unless you attend a music camp or festival. This year, i am planning stops in to PA & NC.
I would also like to visit Vermont at some point as well, though nothing definite yet.
Lastly, i will also be doing alot of flying to points around the country, where i will do
shorter 2-4 day tours, before returning home; the whole goal is not to be away from
home too long.
I can't imagine anyone wanting to miss the golden years of their kids education!
I for one don't plan to.
Lil Rev & Mariela Performing in San Francisco in 2012
Irving Berlin once wrote those lyrics to The Song Is Ended, a classic love and longing song.
Such is the case for touring musicians like myself who spend months at a time on the road.
My wife, daughter and i just returned home from over 3 months of touring FL, TX, NM,
AZ, CA, OR and WA.. I have been making that jaunt for the better part of 8 years now
and time sure does fly.
While its hard to say what i love most about being on the road, here are few
things that come to mind:
1) I love the people who take us in and care for us, cooking, showing
us around, and helping to lighten our way. They have become so dear
to us. I could not do it without them.
2) I love the fans who enthusiastically turn up once a year, as i pass thru
their town to teach and or perform.
3) I love the grandeur that is the American West. While we start our
tour in the south and southwest, i cannot tell a lie, there is something mythical,
magical and haunting to me about the wide open spaces of the "deep west." Parts of
Arizona and even New Mexico hold true, but for me it's Northern California
(Redwood Country), parts of OR and WA...and finally onto Montana and The Dakotas.
This is where my heart really sings, rich in history, big sky, wide open, flowing rivers,
free spirits thrive in this part of the world. Then finally we pass thru the Black Hill of
South Dakota where time often stands still. Where the ghosts of Deadwood and Custer
still elicit and eerie song on the breeze.
4) I love being my own boss, being self-employed and doing what i love teaching
and performing. I made my living as a full time musician from 1993-2000, then i
taught grade school and College for about 5 years before it was time to hit the road.
I never did look back. My heart sure does thrive on the road. The positive juju that
fans bestow upon us is very healing for the soul when one simply does what he or
she was meant to do.
5) I love to see the sunshine. I love when my body makes its own Vitamin D.
Being from WI, the winters are cold, dark and hard on the body, mind and spirit.
Touring the sunbelt is no mistake brother!
Are there things i don't love about being on the road? Heck Yeah!
1) Sleeping in a different bed every night is hard on the body
2) Driving and sitting, performing and sitting, eating and sitting...get the idea...
too much sitting and not enough exercise is no damn good for anybody. I try to jog,
walk, do yoga, meditate when i can, but it is never enough when i am on the road.
3) Poor Eating Habits. That's right, i am gluten free and i have a few other food issues,
so making sure that i am eating well is an understatement. Ultimately, by the end
of 3 months, i am a bit shell shocked diet-wise and in dire need of clean eating and
lots of exercise.
4) Dangerous Weather, Car Problems and Crazy People, mean that i always
have to be vigilant. Mostly cause its my duty to care for a little 4 year girl (my daughter)
as well as my wife. America is a beautiful place to live and see, but beware my good man,
the road can also chew you up and spit you out and it's no place for sissies. To be quite
frank, it takes a ton of courage to set out on the great highway for 3 months. One never
knows what awaits him or her and that's part of the great unfolding, the mystery,
magic and poison.
So here i sit, tucked into bed on a cold WI April night, remembering days
gone by, friends i left behind, gigs, classes, comforting meals, long drives,
inspiring vistas and sweet tunes.
Some choose to make music, others are simply chosen.
So long as i shall breath, the road will call like a dream in the night.
Lastly, i am grateful to my friends, family, wife, daughter and Milwaukee
for giving me a sense of place and purpose. It was here, where it all began.