Bad Ukester! Bad Ukester!

What I’m playing on my ukulele right now:

Courtroom from The Passion of Joan of Arc by Tom Peters (I’ll explain below)

Image

Aaaaand we’re back. Life does throw its little curves at you, doesn’t it?

 My last post was written from a Maui condo overlooking the islands of Lanai and Molokai during our honeymoon in October. Since then, we’ve dealt with moves, job changes, family illnesses, graduations and a host of other of major life events. One event involved having me perform at the Toronto Silent Film Festival in April, which brings me to the topic of the day—the uses and abuses of the ukulele.

Now, the ukulele is in my opinion, one of the happiest, most joyfully expressive instruments ever created. It’s almost impossible to hear a ukulele’s sweet tones and not crack a smile. It seems criminal to use it any other way. I seem to have done just that.

Let me explain.

Some of you who may not know that I’m a professional classical musician and composer. My specialty is writing and performing music for silent movies, and in fact I discovered my love of the ukulele while writing music for the 1927 silent version of Chicago in late 2012.

The next score was the 1927 horror comedy The Cat and the Canary in October 2012, and OF COURSE the ukulele figured prominently. Which brings me to the Toronto Silent Film Festival. I was asked to provide a score to The Passion of Joan of Arc, a cinematic landmark. This harrowing film is considered to be one of the greatest ever made, so I did not take the task of composing music for it lightly.

 In one of the early scenes, Joan is being interrogated by the Judges of Rouen during her trial. I wanted to depict the terror she must have felt in the courtroom as it became clear that her demise had been plotted. I wanted to musically depict trembling. I reached for my ukulele.

It worked.

After that, the ukulele permeated the score, even—believe it or not—during Joan’s immolation scene.  While most of my uke-ing activities involve Tin Pan Alley and hapa haole songs, my uke and I do occasionally make it to the dark side.

My next score is Vormittagsspuk (Ghosts Before Breakfast) which I’ll perform at the Wayward Chapel in Seattle this weekend along with my score to Nosferatu. 

Here’s what the Courtroom Scene sounded like.

I promise I’ll get back to posting videos next time!

 

The Dreaded 4-Finger Roll

What I’m playing on my new toy—the 1920’s era banjolele! (With thanks to my Sweetie. What can I say? I have a great wife! See The One That Got Away)

Big Bad Bill by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen

When you hear really good ukulele players, you will often hear a rapid da-da-da-DUM strum before certain measures of music. This is commonly known as the 4-Finger Roll, where the player flicks his or her right hand fingers in quick succession, making a sound similar to a drum roll. The players of the 1920s, particularly Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, had the 4-Finger Roll down to a science and used it extensively.

It seems to be a stroke that is endemic to the ukulele. Other plectrum instruments—guitar, banjo, mandolin and the like—don’t seem to use it, but you do hear something of the sort from flamenco guitar. Considering that the ukulele is derived from the machete, cavaquinho and rajao, brought to the Hawaiian Islands by the Portuguese, I suppose it makes sense that Latin techniques would become part of the ukulele landscape.

However it made its way to the ukulele, it sounds really neat.

There are 2 ways to do a 4-Finger Roll—forwards and backwards. The forward way is the one Cliff Edwards used with 1-2-3-4, holding back each finger with your thumb. The backwards way—which, I believe, is the more traditional flamenco way, is to do the same, but with 4-3-2-1. Done correctly, you get a nice, even triplet before the beat. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Well, it isn’t.

Most of my attempts result in da-da-THUD, sometimes da-THUD or even just THUD. Like a good musician, I’ve been practicing it slowly:

da——–da——–da——-DUM

Speeding it up…

da—–da—–da—–DUM

da—-da—-da—-DUM

da—da—da—DUM

da–da–da–DUM

da-da-THUD!

I know what you’re thinking.

It’s been 306 words and he hasn’t mentioned the word “Aspergers,” “Aspie” or any other form of autism. Well that’s where you’re wrong. This is Asperger’s Ukulele, after all and I’m not one to disappoint.

You see, within an Aspie’s Special Interest there are little Special Interests contained within! It’s sort of like the finding prize in each specially marked box of Quisp, and it’s every bit as disappointing and irritating as your average cereal box plastic decoder ring (and if you get that reference, you’ve seriously dated yourself).

For me the 4-Finger Roll is my Special Interest within the Special Interest! Not only can’t I quite seem to get the 4-Finger Roll right, but I find myself practicing it on every animate and inanimate object I can get away with. So far, my wife and son have been spared but I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.

My right thigh has been the most repeated, egregious victim of my 4-Finger obsession, as has the steering wheel of my car. I’ve been doing a lot of freelance playing this summer, which has kept me stuck in LA traffic for many, many long hours. How do I keep my self-occupied (in addition to trying not to run into the car in front of me)?

Both hands on the steering wheel at 2:00 and 10:00, and…

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM!

da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM! da-da-da-DUM!

My Path to the Ukulele

What I’m playing on the Ukulele right now:

Bidin’ My Time by George and Ira Gershwin 

I finally got my tenor ukulele back! The fine folks at RedZone Guitar Works in Pasadena, CA—love that place, by the way—exchanged my buzzy instrument with a nice new one. At the present time I have my old soprano uke and my new tenor, and I may be getting a nice, old baritone that’s been in our family for quite some time. I’m hoping to complete the collection by picking up a nice concert size uke when Linda and I finally go on our Hawaiian honeymoon in a few months. At some point in the near future, I’ll do a geek post about my instruments.

 

So what was my path to the ukulele?

 

Among the many challenges of being an Aspie, the chief is an extreme difficulty in reading social situations. If your brain is functioning normally—neurotypical, or NT for those of you playing the at-home game—you learn from a very early age to pick up on social cues—body language, facial expressions, verbal inflections, sarcasm and the like. In the case of someone with Asperger’s, this is missing or at least underdeveloped. Making things worse is an impaired ability to view oneself in relation to a social setting. I’ve learned to negotiate cocktail and dinner parties, and occasionally I can do a pretty damn good impression of someone who’s NT, but I come home absolutely exhausted.

 

Regardless of an Aspie’s age or place in life, finding and keeping friends is always a major challenge. Being unable to see how you relate to the everyone around them often causes Aspies to blurt out inappropriate remarks and say just plain odd things, usually at exactly the wrong time. Remember that weird kid in the back of the classroom who couldn’t stop talking about astronomy, bringing in the discovery of Pluto into discussions about the American Civil War?

 

That was me.

 

As a kid, it came as a shock to me that being weird on the playground or in the classroom was not the best way to be accepted by your peers. And of course the more normal I tried to act the weirder I became. Adult advice always centered around “being yourself.” Great. What no one seemed to realize was that the “real me” was far stranger than I was letting on. So what does a hopelessly odd kid to do?

 

Take it on stage!

 

I was always in the school plays, but the roles I played were far too, well, normal.  No—I had to find something truly unique. Something I could do that no one else would dare do. I became a magician, and I was GREAT! (Well, according to my mother I was more cute than competent, but that’s beside the point). I was the only magician at Baldwin-Stocker Elementary School and that suited me just fine. It even halted a bully in his tracks.

 

Scott had been tormenting me mercilessly since Kindergarten. I did all I could to stop Scott and his cronies from pummeling me, but nothing ever worked. After performing my magic act at one of the yearly talent shows Scott came up to me—sheet-white and trembling—and proclaimed, “My mom says magic is of the devil!” He didn’t bother me for a long time after that.

 

What performing magic taught me was that given the right set of controlled circumstances, it is possible for me to communicate what words cannot. On a stage the rules of engagement are clearly defined. Audiences willingly come to you to hear what you have to say, and the communications performers receive back from their audiences is equally powerful; an audience feeds off the performers’ energy and the performer feeds off the audience’ energy.

 

Ever since that time, performing has been a place where I can be as weird as I want to be. Even after over 40 years, I still approach each performance with the excitement of a 6 year-old magician. The communication between the audience and myself is palpable. So is this, then the straight line to the ukulele? No—you’ll have to wait for another post to get the rest of the story.

 

Ukulele Obsessions

Ah yes, Asperger’s obsessions.

 Some Aspies have a life-long special interest, such as the Titanic, baseball scores or Winnie-the-Pooh. Trains and astronomy are biggies. I’m one of those who tend to bounce from one special interest to the next. When I was a kid, it was astronomy, magic and Tchaikovsky. Later on it was marine biology, horticulture and bonsai. As an adult, it has been movies from the silent era, electronic music and John Cage. From my earliest memories to now, music has been a constant thread.

One thing I’ve been enjoying about discovering the ukulele is how easy it has been to learn, especially after spending so much time playing classical bass professionally for over 25 years.

The ukulele has seen a renaissance over the past few years, but it has continually held an important place in popular music. The ease of playing and its portability have had as much to do with its staying power as the warm, gentle tone. In fact, the ukulele got its start as Hawaiian versions of small Portuguese guitars. The legend is that native Hawaiians gravitated to the instrument because it could be easily carried into the fields and played on breaks. It was given its Hawaiian name “ukulele” by the field workers.

The ukulele made an off-island sensation debuting at the Hawaiian Pavilion at 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Tin Pan Alley composers cashed in on the whole Hawaiian craze that swept the nation by penning exotic island-sounding tunes. The uke caught on, becoming the go-to instrument throughout the first half of the 20th Century until it was knocked off its perch by the guitar in the late 50s. My primary interest is in songs of the 20s and 30s.

I’ve been playing the ukulele now for about 3 months and I love it. Frustration has been kept (so far) to a minimum, and I’m really happy with the results. I still have a lot to learn, but it’s been great fun discovering well-known and less-known Tin Pan Alley and Hawaiian gems. My tenor ukulele is in the shop, but when I get it back I’ll post a video of me playing.

Asperger’s and Ukuleles

Tom with Ukulele

My name is Tom Peters. I am a professional musician, composer and non-profit consultant. I’m 48 years old with a wonderful wife and son. I also have Asperger’s Syndrome.

So what is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Asperger’s Syndrome is a mild form of autism, characterized by an inability to understand how to interact socially. Those of us with Asperger’s—or Apies, as a term of endearment—tend to have few facial expressions and are apt to stare blankly at other people. It’s nothing personal; we really can’t help it.

Aspies are often accused of being “in their own world” and preoccupied with their own thoughts.  We are often clumsy with uncoordinated movements, are socially awkward, have repetitive routines or rituals, odd speech and language, and non-verbal communication problems. God knows, I qualify for all of those!

So why is this blog called Asperger’s Ukulele? One hallmark of Asperger’s Syndrome is an intense interest in one or two subjects, and we often torment those around us about our special interests. For me, one special interest led to another. I know, I know…I’m being all Aspie and not getting to the point, but bear with me—I’m getting there.

In addition to performing classical music, I compose and perform live film scores here in Los Angeles for films from the silent era. Last November I was working on a new score for the original film version of Chicago. I needed a jazz-era score, so I pressed my Grandfather’s banjo into service and blew the dust off my old ukulele. The ukulele stuck.

After playing classical bass for nearly 40 years, I’m now on an interesting journey in learning a new instrument. I hope you’ll join me on my voyage of self-discovery and music.