21 Studies for Ukulele
After a hectic few weeks of teaching at festivals and events in June and July I retreated to Spain for August. Floating around the pool gave me time to reflect on what I had learnt and start planning for the year ahead.
One thing that really impressed me was the enthusiasm amongst ukulele players to improve and develop their skills. People liked the workshop booklets I’d made as it gave them something challenging to take home and work on. I also took hard copies of my 12 Progressive Studies and these sold out pretty quickly. (I was chuffed about that!) Several people said they like to strum and sing in group situations but at home on their own they prefer finger-style and instrumental pieces. That was certainly food for thought. Although floating around the pool all day had a certain appeal, I decided to do something more constructive.
I’d recently been playing some of Leo Brouwer‘s Estudios Sencillos (Simple Studies) for the guitar (on the guitar!) and they inspired me to start developing new ideas for a set of ukulele studies. When I play the Brouwer studies I really feel as if the composer is reaching out and saying, look, you can do this, or this, or this. You can play chords, melodies, fast, slow, legato, staccato, aggressively, beautifully, rhythmically, campanella etc. There’s so much variety in these Etudes that even the simplest study demands a lot of thought from the player. Here’s Brouwer’s Etude no.1 played by Gohar Vardanyan. Gohar also gives a tutorial on using different techniques to create dynamic variation.
In writing my 21 Studies I wanted to create pieces that would help players delve into the mysteries of the fingerboard, while at the same time developing and experimenting with musical and technical ideas. Initially I was thinking about 12 or 16 studies to follow on from my popular 12 Progressive Studies… but I got really inspired and ended up with 21!
The first Studies are quite easy but the last pieces are more challenging. The Studies are for high g C E A tuning and require a ukulele with 12 frets. That is to say, none of the pieces venture beyond the 12th fret, so if you have extra frets, that’s fine, but you won’t be needing them. The score is in easy to read tab and notation. Right and left hand fingerings and dynamic markings are included. My aim was to create a set of short, succinct studies which are idiomatic to the ukulele and enable students to develop technical and musical skills associated with finger-style playing.
The dynamic range of the ukulele is often overlooked. People tend to think that because the ukulele is physically small its sound is small. Hence, players usual play flat out because they think that is the only way to be heard. There is always a huge fuss at festivals about amps and mics. This is often because many audience members, especially the other artists (tut tut), are usually talking while people are playing. As the playing gets louder so the talking gets louder. It’s a vicious circle. I’ve seen this time and time again at uke events and I really don’t get it! The other problem is that when playing in a group everyone is just going for it. Sometimes it feels like there is a battle going on to see who can play the loudest. The Studies encourage players to experiment with the full dynamic range of the ukulele from loud to soft. It’s surprising how quietly you can play if you have an attentive audience. By playing pp (pianissimo) you can draw the audience in and create a very intimate atmosphere. While some of the studies are gentle and flowing, others are dark and edgy, and some are brash and a little crazy. I hope players will find them useful and fun to play!
In this blog I’ll look at each study in more detail. There are YouTube videos of all the Studies.
A simple study in 1st position which focuses on right hand fingering. The timing is 2/2 or two minim beats per bar. Alternate bars have syncopated rhythms. They can be counted:
1 a (+) a (2)
Brackets indicate beats which are counted but not played.
A single melodic line moving up the fingerboard from 1st position to 5th position. Position are marked with Roman numerals. The position corresponds with the fret and the placement of the 1st finger. So, in 5th position the 1st finger is placed at the 5th fret; the 2nd finger at the 6th; the 3rd finger at the 7th; & the 4th finger at the 8th.
Another study with a single melodic line and shifts in position. One feature of this study is that all the potential open string notes are closed (see the tab). For example: the 4th fret of the C string could be played as an open 2nd string E. The 3rd fret of the E string could be played as an open 4th string G. The 5th fret of the E string could be played as an open 1st string A. You could experiment with playing these notes open to appreciate the subtle differences in colour and broaden your knowledge of the fingerboard.
The melody is placed across the strings in campanella style so all the notes should ring on for as long as possible.
This study explores playing 2 notes together with the index (i) and middle (m) fingers of the right hand. The thumb (p) plays the ‘bass’ notes on either the 3rd or 4th string. All the notes should ring on to give the effect of 3 voices. In the 2nd section, from bar 9, the piece becomes more animated with quavers moving up and down the fingerboard. Pay attention to the left hand fingering particularly in bars 13 and 14 where the 1st finger can be used as a guide finger. Using guide fingers wherever possible helps when moving around the fingerboard. Think of the strings as little paths leading to new places. The trick is to slightly release the pressure in the finger and then follow the line of the string. Using feel and touch is more fluid, and accurate, than jumping.
A graceful piece with the melody mostly moving across the strings. In the 1st section repeated notes are placed on different strings. From bar 13 to 16 the movement is all quavers. In bar 15 the notes move up to the 5th and then 7th frets. Use the 1st finger on the 1st string notes as suggested in the fingering.
A fast moving melody with several shifts in position. Start slowly and only build up the tempo when the fingering has been throughly memorised. Shifts can be anticipated on the minim beats. For example: In bar 12 the 3rd beat is a minim on the 5th fret. Use the extra time to move into 8th position ready for bar 13.
Short 2 bar phrases of alternating strings ending with single notes moving up the fingerboard. Note the ritardandos (slowing down) over the single notes (eg bar 2) and the pause at the end of the phrase. This allows time to relax and reset the hand for the next phrase.
A slow and fairly easy study. The direction is cantabile which means singing so use this study to work on making all the notes ring on for their full duration.
Rather loosely in G major this study is more atonal with lots of accidentals (or sharps that aren’t in the key signature). I was looking to create something a bit more ‘out there,’ something mysterious and edgy. The notes are all in the comfort zone of 1st position so it’s a good opportunity to experiment with some dramatic dynamics, especially from bars 9 to 12.
A little march with lots of staccato notes. These are indicated by a dot under the note. Staccato means short and detached and the effect is punchy.
Exploring 2 note chords either played together or alternately (broken). Use i and m fingers throughout.
A study in 3/8 time, or 3 quaver beats per bar. From bar 17 to 24 the melody note falls on the 2nd beat of the bar. Give these notes a little more emphasis to make them sing.
Quite a challenging piece with sudden jumps in position. Well organised left hand fingering is a must for this piece. Start very slowly and gradually increase the tempo when confident with the fingering.
Another study which focuses on playing 2 notes simultaneously. The 2 notes, played with the index (i) and middle (m) fingers, should sound as one. The notes should sound legato, or smooth and attached, so aim for the left hand fingers to glide into position. It’s quite a different feeling in the left hand from the jumpy Study XIV. In case you were wondering, legato is the opposite to staccato.
A flowing Jig in 3/8 time. This study has a number of slurs which are indicated by a curved line between 2 notes of different pitches. The hammer-on starts with the lower note played first and then the left hand finger literally hammering down to produce the next note. In other words the upper note is not plucked by the right hand fingers. The sound is created by the left hand finger, hence the name hammer-on. The pull-off is the opposite effect with the higher note played first. The left hand finger then pulls off the string to sound the lower note. Make sure you have both notes held down before executing the pull-off. It helps if the pull-off finger moves in a slightly downward motion while the other finger remains firm. In effect the left hand finger is plucking the string.
The slurs should be fluid and rhythmical.
A contrast to the previous study with choppy clusters of notes followed by staccato chords. The shifts in the 1st section are made easier by keeping the 1st finger on the 1st string. Use the 1st finger as a guide when shifting positions. The 2nd section, from bar 9, consists of repeated 3 note chords.
A short, crazy study in triplet movement. Bars 1 to 4, and 13 to 16 are the same. The middle 8 bars feature shifting chord shapes up and down the fingerboard. For bars 5 to 8 use the G7 chord shape. For bars 9 to 12 use the E minor shape. The tempo direction is Rapido so you can let your hair down and play as fast as possible. Having said that, you will get just as much out of this study by playing it slowly!
The tempo and mood of this study is Cantabile, or singing. The idea is switching from playing chords to playing a melodic line. From bar 17 the chords have an accent over the 3rd beat. This means these notes should be emphasised.
An exploration in campanella style with the notes placed across the strings. Hold all left hand notes for as long as possible. In bars 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11 & 18 the slurs are delayed. This means that another note (or 2) is played before the slur is executed. At first this feels counterintuitive but with some slow practise this very pleasing effect is achieved.
The last 2 studies are the most challenging technically. Number XXI is a slightly frenzied, dissonant study based entirely on the G7 shape. That is, apart from the final F major chord! The chord shape moves up and down the fingerboard. The best way to learn this piece is to memorise it right form the start. This way you can look at the fingerboard and make sure you land on the right fret. Just work on a few bars at a time rather than trying to play the entire piece. This study will certainly toughen up your finger tips*. From bar 16 to 23 the chords should be strummed. I suggest the tempo should be Presto but this is just a guide. Find a tempo that suits you.
*Callouses are the ukulele player’s badge of honour. 🤓
Here’s the full playlist (backwards).