equivocality — Jeff Ngan's collection of thoughts, experiences, and projects, inspired by pretty much everything
30 Aug 10

Aguado Dionisio — Study in A Minor (arranged for ukulele)

Got my new tenor ukulele and it’s an absolutely gor­geous instru­ment, although I’m sure that’s related to the cost1. After a few weeks of try­ing out the Aquila’s they came with, I put on some Worth brown strings with the low-G.

Study in A Minor is a great piece to learn because it’s rel­a­tively sim­ple (so I don’t get dis­cour­aged too eas­ily), but there are three tricky parts to focus on improv­ing. They’re also each dif­fi­cult in their own way, grad­u­ally work­ing the dex­ter­ity or flex­i­bil­ity in a cer­tain fin­ger or two.

I wanted to film this as a record of the way the ukulele sounds now; it’s a solid lace­wood spruce body, so the tone will develop over time as the wood matures. Also, so I can have a quick ref­er­ence of what it sounds like with longer nails on the pick­ing hand (which were promptly cut after, because they were dri­ving me nuts). It’s rel­a­tively clear sound, whereas with­out nails it’s sort of “wet”.

I first learned this on a soprano ukulele, and I had to retrain my fin­gers to stretch on the tenor. It was a BIG dif­fer­ence, and I didn’t think my fin­gers would stretch far enough at first.

It feels amaz­ing to prac­tice some­thing for weeks, and to finally have it click one day. Then you never want to stop play­ing cause you’re afraid you may lose it the next day.

  1. Jesse says I paid “real instru­ment” price for it. []
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03 May 10

Famous Blue Raincoat (ukulele cover)

Almost three months ago, I walked into a music store and bought a ukulele. I didn’t even know the frets on the ukulele (or gui­tar, for that mat­ter) were raised; I thought they were just lines painted on the neck used as guide­lines for fin­ger posi­tions. Ever since, it’s filled a void in me. A void I didn’t even know existed until I found myself feel­ing empty when I didn’t get a chance to play.

Famous Blue Raincoat is one of my favourite Leonard Cohen songs. I wish I could write let­ters like this.

I haven’t quite fig­ured out what kind of style or genre I want to apply to the ukulele, but I think my singing abil­ity (or lack thereof) will limit me to the soft Sam Beam folk sound unless I started tak­ing singing lessons. Borrowed in my inter­pre­ta­tion is a vari­a­tion of the pick­ing pat­tern Cohen uses in a lot of his ear­lier songs, such as Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye, adapted for the soprano ukulele.

While my brain picks out the mis­takes and details I need to work on when I see myself play, I try to keep in mind the words of my Tai Chi teacher, “We’re never as bad as we fear nor as good as we would like”. I don’t think I’ll ever be sat­is­fied with my musi­cal abil­ity unless I could com­mit a lot more time to it. Unfortunately, that would mean less time for another hobby, so I have to accept that this will prob­a­bly be close to the limit of my abil­ity. Hopefully, I’ll be able to clean things up in another few years. Patience will come from learn­ing to be sat­is­fied from the act of play­ing itself, and not the mas­tery of it. For now, this’ll serve as record of my progress.

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03 Apr 10

Make Hymn Cry + Cover

In the win­ter I made a short video teaser for Jesse’s upcom­ing album by get­ting him to per­form a song off it called Make Hymn Cry. As the only ukulele piece on a rap album, it def­i­nitely stands out.

Then it dawned on me this morn­ing to see if I could cover it. As I was try­ing to fig­ure out the chord pro­gres­sion, I real­ized it’s a fairly sim­ple song that only alter­nates between the G and C chords. The strum­ming in Jesse’s video is slightly sim­pler than on the album, the lat­ter of which is the pat­tern I use in my ver­sion, and includes the pick­ing arpeg­gio for the sec­ond verse.

Still, it took me half the day just to get com­fort­able with the strum­ming pat­tern because it’s syn­co­pated in a way I’m not used to yet, the rhythm at the end of each bar divided beyond eighth notes into six­teenth notes. This is what long week­ends are for.

The main thing I’m con­cen­trat­ing on is count­ing the beats so I can strum off them and keep track of where the extra strum is at the end of each bar. The next is try­ing not to speed up, which is a very bad habit of mine, regard­less of instru­ment. I also need to pay atten­tion to softly rest­ing my hand on the strings when tran­si­tion­ing to the sec­ond verse; firstly, to pre­vent the last chord from ring­ing too long, and sec­ondly, to phys­i­cally feel where the strings are so I can get my thumb on the C string. I’m def­i­nitely not good enough to know where it is at all times. Most of the rest came by itself (i.e. I’m not con­sciously focus­ing on it), prob­a­bly from already lis­ten­ing a few times to a pre-release copy of the album Jesse gave me.

The phrases of the lyrics are also syn­co­pated against the strum­ming; it always feels like your strum­ming is late because the first word of every line falls on the beat before each down-strum), which adds another layer of com­plex­ity. The fact that I made it through with­out any major mis­takes but fucked it up right at the very end1 is why I can’t stop laughing.

My singing is strained cause I’m try­ing to project above the strum­ming to stay in bal­ance, but it’s clearly out of my com­fort zone. I’m not good enough to strum softly with con­trol yet, so I cheated and just raised my voice. The thing is, I never prac­tice singing when I’m prac­tic­ing my play­ing, usu­ally because I need to con­cen­trate on one thing at a time. Singing prac­tice is also bor­ing by itself, so I never do it, even though I should.

Anyway, I had a good day after learn­ing this lit­tle piece, and being able to fig­ure out the chords and the strum­ming was prob­a­bly just as fun as being able to play it.

  1. I lost track of the extra strum in the sec­ond last bar! []
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24 Mar 10

I can hear the june bugs approaching

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(Thanks to Kasi for this one.)

I recently dis­cov­ered that gui­tar chords are the same as ukulele chords, which opens up the reper­toire of avail­able songs con­sid­er­ably. It’s a shame that most online sheet music is in the form of gui­tar tabs, which don’t trans­late to the ukulele. Still, I have enough songs to prac­tice that I can switch to another when I get bored with one. I find it inter­est­ing that since the ukulele requires two hands doing dif­fer­ent things, I run into a bot­tle­neck in hand dex­ter­ity; I can pluck or strum well enough with my right hand, but I can’t get the chords with my left hand fast enough, or vice versa depend­ing on the song. I have to prac­tice each hand indi­vid­u­ally, which is so unlike any other instru­ment I’ve played before.

I have a tele­scope now. My instruc­tor was able to get a great pack­age deal for stu­dents in his astropho­tog­ra­phy course for a 114mm reflec­tor, along with a track­ing motor1 and illu­mi­nated retic­ule2. I put it together today, and it was really excit­ing to be assem­bling all these pre­ci­sion parts to make my first tele­scope, a moment I dreamed about since I was a kid. Astronomy is much more com­pli­cated than I expected. Much of it is sim­i­lar to pho­tog­ra­phy in terms of the equip­ment used (although the terms and con­trols are dif­fer­ent), but now you also have to know your sub­ject, your ori­en­ta­tion, and your weather con­di­tions, not to men­tion being at the right place.

I’m feel­ing bet­ter about things. Maybe it’s the promise of warmer weather. I’m wait­ing for the day I can drive my car with the win­dows down and san­dals on. Those are the days of house par­ties, camp­ing, drinks on patios, and first kisses. Soon, it will be the time of stargaz­ing, bar­be­cues, and who knows.

A few peo­ple have sug­gested my depres­sion may have been due to a chem­i­cal imbal­ance, which I never ruled out. Even though it was one e-mail on that Thursday morn­ing that trig­gered all those bad thoughts, I nor­mally would have been able to han­dle it bet­ter. There wasn’t an imme­di­ate impact. Just a grad­ual sag­ging that got worse and worse through­out the day until I was com­pletely dejected at night. After that, I got a blis­ter on my neck from stand­ing in the shower for too long with water that was too hot. Now that I think about it, I com­pletely under­stand why I felt that way, but it seems kind of silly.

Joe Lencioni also rec­om­mended to me a free pro­gram called Flux — appro­pri­ately head­lined as “Software to make your life bet­ter” — that grad­u­ally changes the colour tem­per­a­ture and bright­ness of your mon­i­tors to mimic the set­ting sun. It’s also local­ized, so it knows when the sun sets for your area and changes auto­mat­i­cally. I’m pretty sure it’s made it eas­ier for me to fall asleep at night.

I’m in such a strange phase right now. I don’t know where I am. When I look back on this time in my life, I won­der whether I’ll look back with nos­tal­gia, pity, or regret.

  1. To move the tele­scope at the same rota­tion of the earth to pre­vent blur in astropho­tog­ra­phy. []
  2. To keep track of a guide star in cal­i­brat­ing the track­ing motor. []
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