Now, more than ever, is a great time to play ukulele.
Making music shifts emotions and gives us a happy high. Playing ukulele is the easiest happy high I’ve ever found.
It’s an instrument full of good cheer. And no calories, and no hangover.
What’s not to like about that?
Playing music with friends amplifies all of this, plus it produces feelings of connection.
Ukuleles and distance
When there are concerns about virus transmission, big groups of people playing music in the same room may not be practical or safe.
There’s evidence that Covid can be transmitted by singing. Wearing masks probably won’t completely prevent this. Also, it’s very hard to sing while wearing a mask.
However, new research from the UK suggests that singing at low volumes may have similar transmission rates to speaking.
Two safer options for ukulele groups
1. Meet outdoors, e.g. in a park or other public space, to allow for plenty of social distancing.
A space with some walls and hard surfaces will be better for sound. On a grass field the sound will disappear, and you won’t be able to hear each other easily.
Depending on the size of the group, the leaders may need a small amount of sound amplification, e.g. a busking amplifier and microphone.
Some groups that are meeting outside use a 10 foot/ 3m pole to ensure everyone keeps the correct distance!
2. Hold group meetings online on Zoom.
There are many ukulele groups meeting online these days. It’s not as much fun as playing together in “real time” but it’s much better than not meeting at all.
And online ukulele groups are a great way to get social interactions and to build connections with other people in the ukulele world.
Canadian ukulele player Earla Dawn Legault used to love her weekly local Harrison Ukulele Gatherings (HUGs), but these days she’s enjoying online jamming.
“All I have to do is walk up my stairs or out to my front porch to join lovely, fun-loving players from all over the world,” she says.
On July 1st Earla participated in a cross-Canada online ukulele event. “One song led by someone from each province – that was loads of fun!”
Earla maintains her local group’s Facebook page, which is a great resource of tips and notices about online events.
How online ukulele groups work
With online ukulele jams, one person sings and plays, and everyone else joins in with their microphone off. This is because of the time delay (also called latency) with online meetings. This applies even when we’re meeting people online who are in the same neighbourhood.
Also, the Zoom sound settings go crazy if more than one person is speaking or singing at the same time.
Zoom isn’t the only online meeting platform, but it seems to be the one that works best for many people.
There’s a considerable amount of diversity in how online groups are run.
Heathcote Ukulele Group
My friend Amanda Collins leads a ukulele group near Melbourne, Australia. The Heathcote Ukulele Group (another HUG!) has been meeting online ever since Covid self-isolating started.
Amanda does regular play-along Facebook Lives in the HUG Facebook group, and also leads Zoom uke jams every few weeks.
I’ve co-led a few online jams with Amanda, including a tri-nation collaboration with our Canadian friend Earla.
Amanda says: “We have just gone back into second lockdown, and we know from the first experience that making music is vital to our mental and physical wellbeing. When we sing, however wacky we think we sound, we open up our breathing and settle our hearts.
“And if we can be funny and laugh, all the better. That’s got to be a good thing in a time of tension. Playing along with someone live is not the same as our monthly uke circles at the local brewery, but it does help.”
Here’s where you can find and join Amanda’s HUG Facebook group.
Zoom ukulele groups
What you need to lead an online ukulele group
- A computer that’s fairly recent
- A Zoom Pro account, so you can host meetings
- Ideally, a good quality USB microphone, to optimize your sound – Blue Yeti is a popular model
- Good high-speed internet connection
- A songbook that everyone has a copy of (more about this further on)
- Be prepared to lead songs – and/or organize other people to do this.
3 tips for leading songs
The main requirements for leading songs are
- Start and finish the song
- Keep in time
- Sing reasonably tunefully while you’re playing.
Not everyone can manage these three factors. But we can all improve with practice. If you’re unsure whether you’re missing beats etc., get feedback from an experienced musician, ideally someone who will be kind and constructive.
You don’t have to be perfect. A uke jam isn’t a performance, it’s a participation event. People won’t be critical. They will be appreciative (even if you miss beats).
7 tips to optimise Zoom sound:
NB these instructions are for PC or Mac computers. Tablets and phones don’t have the same settings.
- On your computer, go into the audio settings of Zoom and change these settings:
- Uncheck “Automatically adjust microphone volume”.
- Scroll down and click on “Advanced” on the right.
- Check “Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound…”.
- Click on the two drop-down menus and choose “Disable” for both “Suppress ___ Background Noise”.
- Every time you open up your Zoom room for a music session, you must click on “Turn on Original Sound” in the upper left corner. You want it to show “Turn off Original Sound”. Here’s a Youtube video with helpful and specific advice.
- Always re-check: If you have been using different online platforms, always re-check your sound, Amanda Collins says. “Going from Webex to FB Live to Zoom can throw up some funny arrangements.”
However, even if you follow all these tips and have a good microphone and great internet, there are still variables beyond your control with Zoom ukulele meetings, including the internet speed of other people on the call.
I’ve had to let go my attempts to get everything right – repeatedly!
People will enjoy themselves even if it’s not perfect.
Tips for organizing group music
These points apply for both online and in-person jams.
One option is to use a published songbook, and get everyone in the group to buy a copy. That’s how Amanda Collins runs the Heathcote Ukulele Group. They mainly use the Ukulele Club Songbooks Vol 1 and 2.
When you use a printed and published book the songwriters will get a small royalty from each book that is sold. Which I think is great.
Online ukulele music resources
Many online groups use song charts created by other online ukulele groups.
Earla Dawn Legault loves putting together songbooks for ukulele events. She uses resources from other groups with permission, especially the Bytown Ukulele Group and Jim’s Ukulele Songbook. Earla also enjoys creating her own arrangements when she can’t find a chart for a particular song.
My local Waikato Uke Jam has songbooks that can be accessed by members.
Create a playlist and circulate it before the uke jam. That means people can get their music organized ahead of time. Also, some people like to practice!
Earla recommends creating a Spotify playlist as well as a songbook – so people can listen to the songs if they don’t already know them.
Tips for planning the song list
All group leaders will do this differently. Here’s my system:
- Twenty songs is plenty for at least an hour of jamming, whether it’s online or local.
- I include about seven three-chord songs that beginner players can join in with.
- Start with two or three easy songs, to warm up.
- Finish the set on a high note, with a song that’s optimistic and reasonably easy to play.
- Choose a mix of styles and pace, fast and slow, happy and sad.
- All the songs are fairly well known – nothing really obscure!
- Three or four recent (i.e. 21st century) pop songs
- One or two blues songs
- At least one Beatles song (just because I love the Beatles).
- Being from Aotearoa-New Zealand, my song list features three or four well-known New Zealand songs, including a couple of Maori waiata (songs).
- Most of the songs should have straightforward chords, and not too many. E.g. a seventeen-chord song like “Georgia On My Mind” is too much of a challenge for most uke jammers.
Most of the Waikato Uke Jam songs have five chords or fewer. I personally think eight chords is the maximum for a uke jam song.
Also, when you’re leading, fewer chords is much easier on your nervous system.
Some tech-savvy online uke jam leaders post the song charts on the Zoom screen during the jam. There are various ways to do this. E.g. one way involves using a separate computer that’s just for the songbook in Word document form.
But, that’s yet another element for the leader to organize. I think it’s easier to circulate the song list ahead of time (ideally a songbook plus Spotify playlist, as Earla Dawn suggests).
Participants can manage their own music, whether they print it out or have it on a screen.
Ukulele club leader resources
The Ukulele Club Leaders’ Facebook group is a great place to find people who are leading local and online ukulele groups, and get advice from experienced leaders.
The Bytown Ukulele Group (BUG) website for excellent song charts.
Jim’s Ukulele Songbook is another great resource.
Here’s my post with more about ukulele groups in general.
Thankyou to Amanda Collins and Earla Dawn Legault for reading this post and adding valuable comments. Also, for being all-round inspirational creators.
Thankyou to the folks who run the Ukulele Club Leaders’ Facebook page.
And thankyou to all the ukulele players out there, who turn up to online and in-person jams.
We’re transforming the world, one song at a time!
More about ukulele
Here’s my post about teaching ukulele in groups.
And here’s a post about what to do if you get a sore shoulder from staying up all night playing in Zoom ukulele groups.
And if you sign up here you’ll find my Youtube channel with lots of ukulele tutorials.