A Renaissance In Baritone Ukulele Lessons, Stourbridge, 3 July 2017


“Renaissance music? – I thought the reason for your visit to the West Midlands that week was the cricket?” (I hear you cry) – click here .

But I also wanted to make some progress with my baritone ukulele lessons, or more specifically with my baroq-ulele lessons. Yes, I have two instruments; the one shown above and a baroq-ulele (click to see picture), which I use mostly at the flat and which I used in my Gresham Society soiree “performance” in 2015.

Indeed, it was at least partly with the next Gresham Society soiree in mind that I started having a few tutorials with Ian Pittaway, who is a bit of an expert (to say the least) on early, baroque and traditional music, not least Renaissance music – click here for his site.

I found Ian on the Facebook Early Music Group, which I frequent because Janie and I love listening to early music. But when Ian posted, on 1 April, a “recently discovered ballad that inspired Shakespeare” which sounded suspiciously like Delilah, we engaged in some correspondence (in the way only comedy/parody lyricists can) and one thing led to another.

I am mostly having the lessons via Skype, as Ian lives in Stourbridge. The first was on 3 May. I had a second lesson via Skype on 23 May and a third on 13 June.

The irony of using such a modern medium to learn how to play in such an ancient style is not wasted on us, but the Skype lessons really work.

Of course, the techniques that Ian is showing me don’t only work for early music. Several of the hands-on techniques that musicians started to use  from the Renaissance onwards (before that, such stringed instruments were routinely plucked with plectra only) are perfectly useful and relevant for modern music too. The simple thumb strumming and finger arpeggiation I was using “self-taught” would only ever have got me so far.

It is all a real test of my resolve and patience; I am naturally a magpie with music, wanting to play lots of different songs, tunes and styles without really mastering anything.

Ian seems to be a natural “go with the flow” tutor who is willing and able to impart his skills and knowledge on me in whichever ways I choose and enjoy, giving me gentle but very helpful steers on how to improve and things to try.

Anyway, it seemed to make sense that we have a face-to-face lesson when I was to be “just down the road” at Edgbaston, so I drove out to Stourbridge for a lesson with Ian after stumps on the Monday.

I am struggling with the “thumb inside” multiple plucking  which was the main technique in the Renaissance period. I am also struggling with genuine baroque rasgueado style, although there are some simplified “thumb outside” techniques which seem to come naturally to me. The history of all this stuff, if you are interested, is summarised on this link, which includes a wonderful four-and-a-half minute vid.

The key for me is to use less effort and get more effect; usually by anchoring with my pinkie finger or my thumb and making less extreme movements with the moving parts. Easier said than done, especially if you are me.

Anyway, we went through some of the songs I have been working on. I have gone back to some easier ones (three or four chords, mostly open ones) that enable me to concentrate on the fingering. For example, I have been using Horse With No Name (or rather, my “Song With No Tune” version) to learn thumb inside technique. Randy Newman songs, such as Simon Smith and Political Science, work well with the thumb outside and quasi-rasgueado. Country and dance songs seem to work well with that style too.

It helps that Ian seems to like a lot of the songs I choose. I have also recently returned to We Sell Everything by Leon Rosselson, for example, which works great with these techniques. Ian really likes that song and liked the way I mixed the techniques before he had the chance to suggest similar. On several others, though, Ian suggested some technique mixing which hadn’t occurred to me.

Parenthetically, here is a lovely vid of Leon Rosselson singing We Sell Everything, although he is using far more sophisticated chords and modern style arpeggiation. My version sounds very different but I think still works…

…anyway, you should be a writer of best-selling economics books before you are deemed qualified to sing that song.

Ian suggested that I try Rosselson’s (much harder) Let Your Hair Hang Down for next time and seemed very pleased to see that I already had the chords/words for it and that Janie really likes that song. So I’ll have another Skype lesson before my next face-to-face lesson, probably with Janie joining me, when we are both up for the Edgbaston test match.

Here is Roy Bailey singing Let Your Hair Hang Down. Unlike Leon Rosselson, Roy Bailey has a much better voice than mine, but like all of this stuff, I’ll try a few ideas out and give it my best shot.

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