Wednesday, 19 August 2009

They think it's all over

It is now. Getting on for one thousand ukulele players joined the extended Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain for last night’s prom, swelling the ranks of an ensemble that is normally eight-strong. Gentleman George Hinchcliffe and his merry gang put on a first-class show to a capacity audience. The sight of a thousand ukes being waved in the air way past 11pm has to be a first for the Royal Albert Hall.

And what about the Beethoven? Was the Ode to Joy a dog’s dinner? Strange to relate, it was mesmerising. Having so many people playing an essentially quiet instrument was altogether magical in the darkened hall. I don’t think George will be signing too many of us up just yet, but we all had a thoroughly good time.

And where was Proms boss and tyro ukulele player Roger Wright for this event? Search me. But wherever he was lurking to play the tune while his daughter strummed the chords, he should have been well chuffed at having provided the opportunity for so many people to have so much fun.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Hold the front page

Noon on the day of the grand ukulele prom, ten hours before the event, and already a queue is forming outside the Albert Hall. Since many of its members are clutching ukulele cases they are probably not queuing for the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the earlier prom. (If they are, it could be a pretty unusual version of Dvorak Seven.

By now, getting on for one thousand people have registered as tyro uke players for the event. This record breaking success has clearly gone to the head of Proms chief Roger Wright, for as we wait our turn for tv and radio interviews on the subject he begins to rave. 'What cheese do you need to hide a horse?' he asks. 'Mascarpone.' Poor man. No hope, I fear.

But the big news is the arrival of my hero, George Hinchcliffe, grand fromage of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, with three of the orchestra, who strum away for BBC Television and to the general wonderment of passers-by.

This thrilling mastery of the instrument stands in stark contrast to my own efforts, but I can't make a prat of myself, surely? I haven't taken my uke along to the interview. 'Borrow mine,' says the grinning presenter with an evil glint in his eye, and I find myself doing a solo, murdering Beethoven on national television while the sound man tries not to wet himself. I think we're in for quite an evening.

Under starter's orders

The big day arrives and we ukulele playing masses are digesting the marching orders the BBC sent us yesterday. ‘What should I do before the performance?’ wonders a helpful letter. Answer: ‘Please take a look at our online tutorial’. Bit late for that, I reckon, and by now we fall broadly into two camps: those who can play the chords and those who can only get their fingers round the tune.

The night before the grand event I seek out Proms supremo Roger Wright in an Albert Hall watering hole. An accord is met: we are tune men, but are bringing along talented young chord players to help us out.

Back at the BBC letter, there are some strict instructions. There is to be a ten-minute rehearsal before the Prom. ‘Once the rehearsal is done please put away your Ukulele,’ says Aunty. ‘Ode to Joy will be performed towards the end of the concert, please refrain from playing along during any of the other pieces in the concert!’

And there’s more: ‘Enjoy the performance! You’ll be told from the stage when to get your Ukulele out and led by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain in the first Proms mass Ukulele Orchestra.’

Friday, 14 August 2009

Ode on the road

The countdown begins to the music event of the year - the grand debut of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain at the Proms next Tuesday, complete with massed rendition of Beethoven's Ode to Joy. On retreat for some serious rehearsal in preparation, I take a stroll through some seaside lanes and discover another enthusiast, to judge from the number plate on the band wagon.

Friday, 31 July 2009

Babes and Ballads

More from the enterprising Fiona Clarke, who has been filling her house with ukulele players (see earlier post).

Her excellent Babes and Ballads website, which chronicles the goings-on of the only ladies-only choir in Salisbury, provides a link to a site full of Ukulele Beatles Fun, which offers 'self-improvement for free'.

I feel a huge bout of self-improvement coming on as I discover a brilliant collection of Beatles hits, complete with lyrics, chords, and - this is the clever bit - a wacking great picture of a uke showing you where to put your banana fingers.

As I head for another ukulele retreat over the next few days, I wonder whether Beethoven's Odey-oh-do is going to get a look in.

Ukes go viral

It’s official: the ukulele has gone viral. The Los Angeles Times reveals that demand for the plucky little instrument is outstripping supply.

‘The number of new players keeps going up,’ Mike DaSilva of Berkeley, who ditched a 20-year software career to make ukuleles, tells reporter Dan Fost.

Meanwhile, guitar maker C.F. Martin & Co, which stopped producing ukes in 1994 because they had become so unpopular, resumed in 2001 and is selling some of the handmade instruments for as much as $10,000 – which puts my 20-quid beauty slightly in the shade.

Last year, reports Fost, ‘rock journalist and self-described "ukuholic" Sylvie Simmons called for a "Million Uke March" – online only – in support of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama.’

Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro sums up the spirit of the thing, telling Dan Fost: ‘If everyone owned an ukulele, this world would be such a peaceful place.’ Right on, Shima.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Roger the Dodger

A chance meeting with uke-toting Proms director Roger Wright (right) before Haitink's Mahler on Monday night. 'I'm sorry,' he says cheerily, 'I haven't got time to give you a ukulele lesson now.' Blooming cheek.

But I can reveal that just like me, the jolly Roger has decided to become a tune man, eschewing the Ode to Joy chords. See his fingers and you understand why. Good and sturdy for holding a cricket bat, bit of a challenge on the pesky little frets of a ukulele.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Report from the front

The very wonderful Fiona Clarke left a comment here on 10 July with the startling news that she had 67 ukuleles all over her house in preparation for a mass uke workshop. I am glad to learn that she survived the experience and she sends this report:

'Boy, am I glad I don't run an orchestra. The tuning, the constant fiddling about with instruments would drive me ROUND THE BEND!

'However, we had a great evening and there was much amusement to be had with G string jokes all part of the evening's entertainment. There were around 75 people there and those who hadn't ordered a ukulele were given a complimentary kazoo. We did the chords for Israel Kamikawiwo's
Over the Rainbow and sang it through with the colours of the ukuleles being given a chord to play if they were unconfident with playing all six chords.'

Fiona sends this jolly picture of some of the merry ukers, adding cheekily: 'I hope your own plucking is giving you all the satisfaction you desire.' It certainly is, Fiona.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Discount Beethoven

Apologies for absence, ukulele enthusiasts. Affairs of state, and all that. But I am now on retreat and am happy to report a fevered rehearsal with my purple-uke toting accomplice. It was slightly delayed by a sudden need to play the entire repertoire for violin and piano, which took a while, but when the ukes had their turn there were some interesting discoveries.

For starters, I have confirmed my suspicion that some of the chords needed for the Beethoven are physically impossible to play, since they involve lots of fingers, and in very odd places. I've decided therefore that I am a tune man. Hang the accompaniment. My accomplice, however, being blessed with more graceful digits, can play the impossible, and is clearly a chord woman. Annoyingly, she can play the tune too, which I consider very bad form and nothing but Showing Off.

What's worse, not content to play the tune, the accomplice has taken to playing a descant instead. I feel this a cheap trick, and will now refer to it as discount Beethoven. So there.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Dressed for the part

All this concern about G strings has turned my mind to appropriate concert dress for joining a ukulele ensemble. Shades, obviously, as the uke has now been deemed cool. (Today's Metro reports that Rood End Primary School in Oldbury, West Midlands, has ditched its descant recorders and ordered 60 ukes because, says head teacher Barbara Carter, 'It's got more sreet cred'.)

Turning to YouTube for sartorial guidance I am impressed by a truly elegant ensemble across the Atlantic. Could this sort of thing catch on at the Proms?

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Singing high, high, high

There are drawbacks to having a low G string, I discover. (New readers, please behave yourselves.) Having resigned myself to the fact that some of the chords required for the Ode to Joy are a physical impossibility, I set about learning the tune instead. Fiendishly difficult, of course, but I stick with it. Trouble is, there comes a point where everything is inexorably heading towards a low G, just before the note that comes in a bit early to catch you out. That low G sounds deeply Beethovenian. With the uke tuned to a high G, however, you get something that sounds more like a pre-school ditty. It's a disappointment, but I'll have to grimace and bear it until someone comes on here to clear up the Great G String Mystery for me.

Saturday, 27 June 2009

A major breakthrough

Well, a D major breakthrough, actually. Everyone tells you D major is dead easy, since it involves holding down three strings in a row. Even I could do that. But how come the result sounded ghastly? By discussing the wonders of ukulele tuning with some of the clever pluckers in the office I discovered that the first fret should give me a semitone higher than the open string. Imagine my surprise when I found that my G string (sorry) was sounding not a G sharp but an A on the first fret. I got a semitone for the second fret, giving me a B flat, which was clearly an unwelcome guest in a D major chord.

Now here's the mysterious bit. If I tune the G string to a high G, the first fret gives me a semitone higher. If I tune it to a low G, it gives me a tone higher. Weird or what? Some have seen unkind enough to suggest that I have bought a crap instrument. Surely not, I say, it cost me 20 quid. They give me an unpleasant look, somewhere between pity and smirking.

Ignoring their derision I set about my journey of discovery in the world of the high G. Suddenly chords stop sounding like Stockhausen with a hangover. C, C7, F, G - even D if I reach over the top: there's no stopping me. Ode to Moderated Joy here I come.

Friday, 26 June 2009

News from the front

The BBC Symphony played Westfield shopping mall in Shepherd’s Bush last night, an ideal opportunity to doorstep Proms director Roger Wright at the party afterwards. His PR people have clearly warned him that he is under surveillance and he ducks and dives on the subject of his likely whereabouts on the night of the ukulele prom, delivering a lengthy lecture about unpleasant hacks who go around stalking people.

However, I can exclusively reveal that the director has ditched his soprano uke and moved on to a tenor, on account of having fingers at least as banana-like as mine. Maybe that’s the answer to my chord crisis. But no, I want to get my 20 quid’s worth out of the little red beauty.

So how will we know whether the director is strumming away on 18 August? As the party turns bibulous, I slip a state-of-the-art tracker into his pocket. The truth will be told.

The plot thickens

OK, time to come clean. This learning the uke lark is not just a chance to look like a prize idiot in public but a cunning piece of investigative journalism. When the BBC launched the ukulele prom, director Roger Wright said: ‘We hope that beginners and experts alike will enjoy this rare chance to play along with extraordinary Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I've already started learning and hope to join in on the night!’

Was this a piece of shameless hype, or was the director really sitting up at night trying to get his fingers round a G major chord?

That was the question that people were stopping me in the street to ask. As the editor of a highly respected music magazine, I was charged with getting to the truth.

Since the director kindly invites music hacks and other hangers-on to share his box for a Prom of their choice during the season, I thought I would choose the ukulele prom. Cue dramatic music: the box is full that night, came the reply - the first time this has ever happened - followed by a press office assurance that in fact the director will not be entertaining at all that evening. Curious, or what?

Worry not, our crack team of uke-playing sleuths will get to the bottom of this.

Screwing it up

Oh what fun. Having screwed up the tuning pegs I screwed up the tuning, but got there in the end. Manage to avoid saying anything inappropriate when I’m told I can have a high G string or a low G string.

What no one told me as I embarked on this venture is that it’s jolly difficult. Getting banana fingers round chords is tricky enough, but mercy, it hurts the fingers. I begin to see why sturdy uke-playing Northerners reckon we’re a namby pamby lot down in the south.

I might have to seek out a pint or two of Tetley’s to help toughen up the finger pads.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

And so it begins

OK, I know I’m going to regret this, but urged on by those nice PR people at the BBC I’ve decided to learn the ukulele. There, I’ve said it now, so there’s no getting out of it. All this in preparation for joining in with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain for a massed Ode to Joy at the Proms on 18 August.

First things first: get a ukulele. Off to the good souls of Purple Turtle Music in Stockport to order a bright red one, and a purple one for my accomplice. (You need moral support if you’re going to make a prat of yourself. Trouble is, the accomplice is already a guitar player, so not what I would call a beginner.)

They turn up, tiny in their little cases, and I get the feeling that When I’m Cleaning Windows will be within my grasp in no time. Not sure about the Ode to Joy.

On to the BBC’s online tutorials, where good old George Hinchcliffe takes us through the rudiments. The first thing you need, he says, is a screwdriver. Maybe I’m going to like this after all.