Big ukulele ensembles are great for certain kinds of arrangements and ways of working together, but smaller groups travel to the beat of a different drum.
The arranging of songs in parts to suit a ukulele group, also known as ukestration, can be what changes a group from being an enjoyable but ‘hummy strummy’ enterprise, to becoming a much more entertaining prospect for audiences and a valuable opportunity for participants to improve their playing and singing skills.
There’s a catch though. The relatively quiet, acoustic nature of the unamplified instrument and the involvement of people who may be new to playing, means that ukestration works best with groups of 20 and upwards. Especially for performances, separate parts are audible and work well together when there are enough people playing each of them, and players gain confidence through ‘safety in numbers’.
One of my groups is not nearly that size - they are friends and close acquaintances outside of ukulele who have organized to play and learn uke together. Their musical experience varies as much as it does in a big group – some have played guitar for years, for example, whilst others have taken up uke as their first foray into playing.
There are usually fewer than ten in the group at any one time and so I’m able to offer individual attention and answer questions in detail. However, after trying big-group-type arrangements with variable success and finding that more advanced riffs, chords and strumming could be off-putting, I have developed a different (and ever-evolving) way of approaching small-group repertoire and modus operandi.
Here’s what is working for this group:
Reasonably familiar (often classical) notated and tabbed pieces in two parts. A second part can be arpeggiated chords instead of notation.
Advantages: helps develop skills in reading (or committing to memory if reading is found to be tiresome!), playing notes and the rhythmic plucking of chords. Good pieces work well with any number from two players upwards.
Considerations: At least one of the parts must be of easy intermediate level. The other part should have just enough difficulty for it not to be played perfectly first time.
The fewer and the simpler the chords, the better.
Advantages: Getting straightforward songs down pat is more fulfilling and enjoyable than constantly struggling with tricky chords and difficult transitions. Like with any group there is a certain amount of attendance turnover due to other commitments, so when people participate after an absence, they need to be able to connect with pieces quickly otherwise a third or even more of the group won’t be able to participate adequately. For the more advanced players, attention can be given to specific strumming patterns and/or riffs.
Considerations: Don’t make strumming patterns or riffs too hard - if a majority can’t manage them, they become exclusionary.
Separate the parts, i.e. keep people together who are playing the same section or singing the same harmony.
This may seem obvious but in a small group it’s easy to stay placed neatly around a room and wonder why things aren’t gelling. If all you can hear beside you is something different from what you’re playing or singing, the focus you need to stay on track can also mean you’re not listening to the overall sound, and group cohesion will take a back seat.
Advantages: People have a much more conducive environment for playing, singing and consolidating parts to their best ability and songs can take on a whole new life.
Considerations: Always remember to do this!
Tempo – set it then let it take its course
For a big group playing parts, maintaining tempo by watching the conductor and/or listening to a bass or drum beat is vital because there is a lot of distance between the furthest placed players and it can quickly turn into an aural shemozzle.
Because of this, I used to be much more concerned with maintaining strict tempo in the small group too. After noticing my increasingly despotic entreaties weren’t having the desired outcome, I began to count songs in, take a step back then (mostly) let them take their course.
This has resulted in a couple of outcomes, either 1. People listen to each other, or the most dominant player in a piece, and subconsciously adjust so that the song hangs together, or 2. The pace steadily increases until smiles disappear from faces, lyrics get jammed together and smoke starts to appear between fingers and fretboards.
Advantages: listening skills and tempo awareness are increased but not by a barking leader; when the need for speed wins the day it either results in an ability to play very quickly, or more usually, a lot of laughter.