Guido Heistek holds a B.F.A. in Music from the University of Concordia and is a CANSTAT certified teacher of the . He makes his home in Vancouver, Canada where he maintains an active teaching practice. Guido taught at the first Vancouver Ukulele Festival and teaches weekly group sessions through Ruby’s Ukes in Vancouver, as well as privately through his own studio. He also performs and records under the name Nicky Needle. Guido is a multi-instrumentalist but ukulele holds a special place in his heart.
1. You also teach guitar. Does your ukulele teaching style reflect a guitar approach or is it uniquely ukulele (or can you separate the two)?
I am mainly a guitar player. I got a uke about 7 years ago when my wife gave me one for Christmas. I have learned quite a bit of traditional ukulele material because my students have wanted to learn it. I also come up with ukulele arrangements for pop tunes, old time songs, or whatever tunes the students request.
There are some unique things about the ukulele that put it in a class of its own apart from the guitar. I think the small range of about two octaves make it perfect for teaching music. If you use C tuning you have a C scale up the C string and in open position. People can get their fingers/ears around these notes really fast and start mucking around. I love that these are also the white notes on the piano which most people have played around with already. Also, I love the clawhammer potential as well as the great melodic ideas that are made possible by having a high-G string, if you tune your uke that way.
2. How does one go about learning how to accompany their singing with the ukulele?
I think the most important thing when approaching singing and playing at the same time is to develop your ability to hear in your head what’s going on with the melody and chords of a song. This will help you to feel where the chords change rather than trying to calculate where the different events occur in the song. It is much easier to play this way.
I get students to listen to the song again and again and lift their finger when they hear the chords change. Many students believe they won’t be able to hear the chords change but are surprised when they can!Now that they know when and how the chords change, they have to get a sense by sound of which chords fit at which part of the song. I often have the students learn just the root notes of the chords and have them sing/play those along with the song and from memory. I also get students to play the root notes on their uke while they sing the melody. If they don’t know the words yet they can just hum.
Strumming patterns can cause a lot of trouble to people who are trying to sing and play at the same time. So, when it comes to adding the singing I will often get the student to not use any strumming pattern per-se. I get them to play the chords only once each as they sing the song, or maybe one down strum per beat.
When we do add strumming I insist that the student be able to sing or clap the rhythm that they are trying to make with the strum. I find many students get so concentrated on the technical aspects of the strum i.e. Down-Down- Up-Up-Down-Up, that they literally have no brain power left to hear what they are doing or to pay attention to how the song is playing in they’re head. When I look around at fellow musicians I don’t see anybody who learned how to strum by thinking of a “pattern”. They just heard a sound or rhythm and recreated it using a fluid rhythmic motion in the right hand. Why should it be any different with a student?
So basically my approach to the very complex task of accompanying one’s own singing is to break down the process into bite sized bits. That way I can ensure that the student really KNOWS the song and can play it from a strong internal musical reference. This makes it much easier because there is so much less to think about. You just have to follow the music in your head.
3. What’s your approach to arranging a chord melody solo.
I think the most important thing is to know the melody. If you know the melody really well you won’t get disoriented in the middle of the song even if you misplay a few things. Once you know the melody you can explore how the chords and the melody can be played simultaneously. It’s possible to integrate the chords and melody in many different ways. You can have chords once in a while to outline the harmony of the song as the melody continues or you can meticulously harmonize every note. I personally feel that the latter style can be a little too busy and I prefer to hear a little of the melody on its own.
The limited range of the uke especially with high-G tuning can create some real challenges for chord melody. When you harmonize the melody you generally want the melody note to be the highest note. In certain keys on the uke this is not possible. You could play the song in a different key, further up the neck but sometimes this makes it much tougher to play.
In I’ll See You In My Dreams for example. The opening melody notes are: open C (I sometimes drop this note), to D on the second fret. The chord is a Bb. I use the Bb note on the G string to suggest a Bb chord and it works pretty well even though it’s higher than the C and D. I taught this arrangement to the advanced group at the Vancouver Ukulele Festival.
One last point. It’s not necessary to use all the chord notes when making a chord melody. Sometimes just one of the chord notes is enough to suggest the harmony. Often this kind of “sketching” approach sounds cooler then denser arrangements.