The second workshop I went to at Uke Fest was Craig Chee’s ridiculously non-intimidating Introduction to Music Theory.

I admit the words “ridiculously non-intimidating” sold me on this workshop.  I haven’t delved into theory much specifically because it’s intimidating, and even though I have The Complete Idiot’s Guide, I’ve barely read it because I’ve found I really need to be in a place where I can focus to work on it.  I definitely can’t work on it on my more ADD days. I’m finding that I’m one of those people who needs a relatively clear physical space in order to focus, so when my desk is full of crap to do, it’s virtually impossible for me to maintain the focus required for a task that really requires my full attention.

Excuses aside, this sounded like a great opportunity to at least (hopefully) get my feet wet.  I’ve decided I like Craig Chee. He’s just such a happy, giggly person he’s virtually impossible not to like; he just seems like a happy sort of guy.

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I’m going to start glossing over just the key points from here so I don’t have to write ten thousand pages of Uke Fest for four workshops and a concert. And, also because I get the impression that not every musician is happy about having their lessons given out for free. Still, pretty much everything I’m going over is fairly common knowledge to someone who’s spent an hour with a theory book, so it’s not like I’m handing out any trade secrets.

  1. He went quickly over how to hold an ukulele, and said the neck should rest against the spot where your pointer finger meets your hand, to not drop the neck into the curve of the thumb, and showed a bit about leverage – how the arm holding the ukulele against your body can work in lieu of the thumb to support a bar chord – sort of like a seesaw.  That’s something I’m going to have to experiment with.  The main point here is that, in spite of the physical resemblance, an ukulele is not a guitar. While there are similarities, making the assumption that you should hold one exactly the same way as the other is innately flawed. Assuming your thumb placement on an uke is the same as your thumb placement as it would be on a guitar is not strictly true. Can I make a bar without a bit of support from my thumb? Absolutely not. lol (I get close), but knowing that it can be done is insightful in its own right.
  2. Next up was the musical alphabet.  Some of this I already knew, but I knew by rote memorization.  For example, I knew that there is no sharp or flat between B & C or E& F. I knew that from staring at fretboard diagrams.  What I didn’t know is that, if you look at a piano, those are the two places on the keyboard where there is no black key. (Having never played piano, I would not have any way of intuiting this.) A-ha! Now things are making a weird sort of sense, though I find it bizarre and fascinating that music language is still completely chained to what works on piano, and the rest of us have to visualize keyboards if we have any hope of it making sense.
  3. The “key” is whatever letter the alphabet starts with (so key of C is CDEFGABC). So if you use that as a template, knowing that BC and EF are the exceptions that are half instead of whole steps (which only makes sense to me when I envision a piano keyboard. I always wondered what made a whole step a whole step and a half step a half step.  Unless I picture black and white keys, it still sounds arbitrary and insensible to me, if I’m honest. It’s only in the context of a piano keyboard that this naming convention seems to make a clear and logical sort of sense.), then you know if you switch the key where the whole and half steps should be. It goes “whole whole half whole whole half), so you can effectively use that to transpose into the other keys.
  4. Each time you look at the alphabet, regardless of what key, you need one instance of every letter. This will determine whether a note is called a sharp or a flat.  I still don’t really see why the same sound needs to names, because it just sounds unnecessarily complicated, but if the calypso strum can have ten bazillion names, then who am I to judge if F# sometimes wants to be called Eb, really.
  5. Now if we number a key letters from 1-8 (starting and ending on the same letter), this is where the numbers come in. Major chords contain 1,3, and 5, so in the key of C, C=1, E=3, G=5. It’s just counting. So the notes in a C Major Chord will be C, E, and G, and one of those will be doubled up (in this case, there are two C notes).  Make that 1,3,5,7 and you’ve got a Major 7 chord.  Flat the 7 (go back a half step), and you’ve got a dominant 7 chord.  A minor chord is when you flat the 3. When you have two instances of the 3, you need to flat both of them to create the minor chord (if the 3 in the progression is the note that repeats.). Now, I still don’t quite get the practical application of all these fancy names, but at least I know where they’re coming from.
  6. I also learned that if you take the C Major Scale and move it up the neck, it’s name changes. This reminds me of a the street I grew up on, which changes it’s name every forty feet. When I had to give people directions as a kid, I always had to say ‘it’s also called this, and this, and this, but it’s all the same road, so don’t worry’. (Life before GPS. lol.)
  7. The root note is the key (the 1 or 8 in the progression when you’re counting).

So, I learned the reason things are called what they’re called. Will I remember how to make a minor or dominant 7 or…whatever? Probably not right away, no. But, at least I can now look at all those funny chord names as variations on the major chord, which makes them a little easier on my brain.

After lunch, It was on to more practical application stuff, which is really a lot easier on my head. This is more or less to do with how I think. You know guys, I’m sure, that our brains are all wired a little differently and process information in different ways, right? I’m one of those people who says ‘why do I need to know this?’ to things that I can see no way of practically applying. So, when you tell me ‘this strum has 10 different names depending on what instrument you’re holding, or this not has 3 different names so we can prove we know our ABCs, basically my brain goes “that’s silly.”  On the other hand, if you tell me, this strum pattern is useful because it is heavily used in this particular genre of music, then cool. That makes sense, there is an immediate and practical application for that information.

And, that is exactly the subject tackled in my after lunch workshop by Lil’Rev.

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This workshop was called 12 essential strums. We didn’t get through all of them, but there is a handout that I will be revisiting, and he gave us permission to record, so a few of them I did take the opportunity to record the sound of to revisit later. We went over a 3/4 time strum, which I already knew from working on that Amanda Palmer song, and the Calypso Strum, which I already knew because….it’s EVERYWHERE. But, we also covered another rock strum, a do wop strum, a blues comp strum…

The whole purpose here was to give you strums that would help you sound more authentic and add some flavor to your playing. I’ve been working with different strum patterns all along, but to know ‘this you will hear in blues, check these musicians for examples’, etc, that’s really practical, useful information.

He has a book called “Essential Strums and Strokes” which is due out in December, and I’m planning to put that on my Christmas list for further perusal. Until then I have a dozen strums in a handout on my desk to work with.

After that, I stuck around for his next workshop: “A Treasury of 2 Chord Songs”.  This one was a no-brainer for me, because how much more beginner does it get than 2 chords in a song? And also because the only other workshop was for intermediate/advanced players, which I am definitely not. So, I have another handout to work through. There’s not much to say about that particular workshop. It was songs. With two chords. ‘Nuff said.

Next was ‘Strum Along with Jumpin’ Jim’, which was listed as a sort of play along. There was nothing opposite it, so this was also pretty much a no-brainer. It was listed as ‘all levels’, but I’m going to be dead honest here, as a beginner, if the first thing you did wasn’t learn 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000 chords, there was really no way in hell you were ever going to keep up. I mostly ended up only playing parts where there were chords I knew. The rest of the time I was silently fingering chords I didn’t and not strumming at all because by the time I got my fingers into an unfamiliar chord shape, we were already five or six chord changes down, and I had no idea where we were in the song.  Still, this one came with a hand out, too, so I can go through the songs, learn all these chords, and practice at my own pace.  If nothing else, there are a lot of chords I can practice in the handout, so it’s not like it was a waste of time, but it was literally impossible to even come close to keeping up when you only know half a dozen chords or so.

Then it was a break for dinner, which I had chilling in the gorgeous weather, chilling on top of my car.

View from the hood.
View from the hood.

I killed some time sketching in my notebook. And then enjoyed a nice folksy concert. I really loved the contrast of the double bass with all the ukes. They exist in sonically opposite placed, with the uke being high in pitch to the point of sometimes being plinky and overly bright (I think that’s part of what people love about it though, really), and the bass inhabiting the low end of the scale.  Hearing the two together created a really cool sort of play between contrast and balance.

There will be one or two more posts on the subject of the festival – loosely, while I go over the toys I picked up while at the festival, but that’s more or less a wrap on the workshops.

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