Today we debut a semi-regular Monday feature entitled 3 Questions in which we interview ukulele luminaries with the goal of gaining insights into their approach to learning. Today our guest is Canadian ukulele virtuoso James Hill. Not only is James a great player, he is also a fabulous teacher. Together with Chalmers Doane, James created an entire ukulele curriculum entitled Ukulele In The Classroom.
1. What does the phrase “playing by ear” mean to you?
JH: I’ve learned a lot from Chalmers Doane about playing by ear. I learned that “playing by ear” really means “playing by intelligence” (that’s Chalmers’ terminology) . In other words, “playing by ear” means using everything at one’s disposal (e.g. ears, eyes, experience, intuition, attitude, preferences, etc.) to make musical choices. The phrase “playing it by ear” usually implies that there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved (e.g. “when should we meet for lunch?” “Oh, let’s just play it by ear.”). That’s not what “playing by ear” is in music. “Playing by ear” is a skill that can be developed and refined over time.
2. Where do your ideas for new music come from, experimenting with chord progressions or melody lines?
JH: I get a lot of ideas while I’m out walking. I think it’s the increased blood flow to the brain and the steady rhythm. I’ve decided that whenever I go for walks from now on I’m going to take a soprano uke with me and write music as I walk. For me it’s usually melodic and rhythmic ideas that come first and I experiment with harmony later. If melody and rhythm are the gift then harmony is the wrapping paper… so many colours and patterns to choose from!.
3. Do you have any shortcuts to quickly memorizing new songs?
JH: Look for patterns and group as many things together as you can. For example, don’t think of the opening phrase of “Joy to the World” as eight separate “events” (“Joy to the world, the Lord is come”). Just think of it as one event: a descending major scale. Also, with practise you’ll come to recognize common melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic patterns in the music you play. Once you know the archetypes, you only have to memorize the parts of a song that break from those archetypes.3 Questions Interview, James Hill