Five Etudes for solo ukulele is an exciting new release for classical ukulele by composer Loretta Notareschi. The Five Etudes reflect the craftsmanship of an experienced composer and the intimate knowledge of a player. In this blog I’m going to take a closer look at the Five Etudes.
First of all, here’s some background information on Loretta Notareschi:
A couple of months ago I received an email from Loretta telling me she is composing classical music for the ukulele. A quick look at Loretta’s biography got me excited. Loretta’s credentials include a PhD in composition from the University of California at Berkeley and a Fulbright Scholarship from the Zoltàn Kodàly Pedagogical Institute of Music in Kecskemèt, Hungary. Loretta is currently an associate professor at Regis University. Her compositions include a string quartet, choral works, electronic works and pieces for large ensembles as well as solo instruments. Here, at last, was a trained and experienced composer writing for the ukulele!
As an introduction to Loretta and her work you might be interested in watching her Ted Talk: Understanding Mental Illness Through Music. There’s also a performance by The Playground Ensemble of two movements of her beautiful work, “String Quartet OCD.”
In 2018 Loretta composed an edgy piece for amplified ukulele called No Fascist U.S.A. It was written for classical ukulele player Dr James Cline of Denver, Colorado. Here is a video of the premiere performance:
Five Etudes for Ukulele: finger style studies for the advanced beginner
Etude is the French word for Study. It sounds less like school homework and slightly more sexy (well it is French) than study. Unfortunately, a lot of baggage seems to surround the word ‘study.’ The immediate implication being that a Study is going to be laborious and boring. It’s worth remembering, however, that some of the greatest composers have written Etudes/Estudios/Studies. Listz, Chopin, Rachmaninov and Debussy to name just a few. Guitarists will be well acquainted with the studies of Fernando Sor, Villa-Lobos and Leo Brouwer. These are some of the most loved and played works for the guitar. The Five Etudes by Loretta Notareschi are musically sensitive and technically astute; both challenging and rewarding to play. In every sense they are an invaluable addition to the ukulele repertoire.
The score of Five Etudes is very well presented. The layout, by a professional copyist, ensures the score is both pleasing to the eye and easy to read. The music is in tab and standard notation and is intended for soprano, concert or tenor ukuleles with high g re-entrant tuning, or g C E A. In other words, if you have low G tuning the pieces are not going to sound right. Moving the 4th string notes up an octave doesn’t work either because the pieces rely on patterns moving across and up and down the strings. So, get your high g’s on!
Five Etudes is available as a digital edition (PDF) or printed score (US only) and available to buy from Disegni Music. Click here to buy.
The Five Etudes are intended for self-learning. A lot of thought has gone into the presentation with many useful details including right hand and left hand fingerings, metronome markings and detailed dynamics. I particularly like the dynamics which encourage players to experiment with shades of loud and soft. If you listen to James Cline’s performances you’ll appreciate the range of sounds that the little ukulele is capable of producing (videos are embedded below). There is a Table of Contents and About the Music page which explains the dynamic markings and also the use of the ossia (alternative) passages if you only have 12 frets on your ukulele. The ossia is a nice touch, giving players the option of using either a shorter (12 fret) fingerboard, or a longer fingerboard. Each piece has a title to help evoke the idea of the music.
The overall concept behind Five Etudes is to explore unchanging left hand shapes and repeated right hand arpeggio patterns. The left hand shapes move up and down the fingerboard providing an excellent opportunity for players to venture into the ‘dusty end.’ Maintaining the left hand shape makes shifting less intimidating and, once you get your eye tuned to the destination fret, it’s quite fun. Simply keep the fingers on the strings and slide them up to the next position. Voila! You can prepare for these shifts by looking in advance at where your fingers are heading. For example: if moving from 4th fret up to 7th fret focus your eye on the 7th fret before you need to be there. Look and then move, don’t just whizz up the fingerboard hoping for the best.
Etude I: Conundrum (1 + 3)
OK, let’s see if I can work out the conundrum…
1 + 3 = 4
So, this piece, although in 12/8, is felt in 4. Also, only 1 finger is needed to hold down the melody note on 1 string even though 3 strings are played.
If you find an alternative solution to the conundrum please put it in the comments below! I think the message here is that the composer is really encouraging us, the players, to think about the music.
In Etude I the melody moves up and down the 3rd string (C). Start with either finger 2 or 3 on the 4th fret note (E) and then in bar 3 slide the same finger up to the 5th fret. When sliding release the pressure in the finger but keep it in contact with the string. Use the string as a pathway, or guide, leading to the next note. If you try to slide with full pressure your fingertip is going to hurt! Really hurt! But a gentle too-ing and fro-ing up and down the string is relatively easy to execute and rather mesmerising. The dynamics follow the pattern of the melody moving up (louder) and then moving down (softer). It’s simple but very effective and creates the sense of yearning which the composer has indicated. At the end of bar 8 there is a pause and this gives a little time to prepare for the shift up to the 6th fret.
The pause is not only helpful mechanically, it also allows the music time to breathe at the end of the phrase. Phrasing is indicated with pauses and little commas above the notation so even if you are reading from the tab make sure you look for the signs above the notation. As obvious as this may sound: make sure you glance over the music before trying to play it. Once you’re focusing on the notes it’s easy to miss these essential details. And it’s these details that transform a ‘Study’ into an effective piece of music. The composer has taken a lot of care in preparing the score so do pay attention to all the markings. Technically this study is quite straightforward but musically it is more demanding. It’s up to us, the players, to bring out the ebb and flow of the melody and articulate the phrasing as indicated.
The ossia at bar 34 provides an alternative for players with only 12 frets, or those who aren’t quite ready to venture beyond the 12th fret. Basically, the ossia melody is an octave lower so the notes are in 1st position. If you are reading from the tab choose line 2 for the easier ossia, or line 4 if you’re ready to visit the outer galaxy of frets 13, 14, 15 and 16! If reading the notation then choose either line 1 (ossia) or line 3.
From bars 34 to 39 there are appoggiaturas on the 4th string notes. The appoggiatura is a little extra note that is sounded just before the main note. In this case the thumb (indicated p) plays rapidly across 4th string to 3rd string. The 2 notes should be slightly broken but even. The appoggiatura comes just before the beat so the main beat is still the 1st beat.
Etude II, Spinning (My) Wheels (2 + 2)
This Etude has the rather amusing direction of Cycling. It starts with a constantly flowing arpeggio pattern in semiquavers. The arpeggio pattern is a little trickier than Etude I which means you’ll have to peddle a bit harder. There are 3 different right hand fingering options so spend a little time experimenting to find what works best for you. You could also use this as a chance to practise different arpeggio patterns and really give your right hand a workout.
The left hand is more demanding than Etude I with 2 strings stopped and 2 left open, hence 2 + 2. At bar 29 there is a funky chordal section (maybe this is the downhill ride with the wind in your hair). There are direction indicators for the strumming pattern. After the chord section the familiar cycling arpeggio pattern returns. The notes move all the way up to the 15th fret. The study ends with the arpeggio fragmenting and fading away, like cycling into the distance.
Etude III, Thinking (3 + 1)
Thinking about it: 3 + 1 = 4
The time signature is 4/4
Another reference to 3 + 1 is that this Etude has 3 stopped strings and 1 open string.
The left hand starts with the E minor chord shape which moves up and down the fingerboard. Watch out for the chord changes in bars 7 & 8. Meanwhile, the right hand fingers move from 4th string to 1st string. The arpeggio may be played p i m a or entirely with the thumb. Whichever fingering you choose make sure the pattern is even. I found playing the arpeggio with just the thumb tended to be more uneven. But maybe this means I need to practise this technique a bit more!
At bar 14 there is a change in both the rhythm and the arpeggio pattern. The left hand continues with the familiar E minor shape allowing the player to focus on the picking pattern, which is now p a m i m. The constant rhythmic flow of semiquavers is replaced by quavers and semiquavers. This section needs to be tight rhythmically so you may want to work with a metronome. Also try clapping the rhythm before playing the notes.
Etude IV, Possibilities (3 + 1)
The direction is percolating which initially made me think it was time for morning coffee! After playing through the piece I realise the composer is percolating a few different ideas. I found Etude IV the most challenging. Although the familiar use of patterns is present there are a few twists and turns. Just as you’re lulled into thinking the left hand pattern remains in the same position for the entire bar it changes. Keep your eyes open in bars 11 and 12 where the pattern starts to move at the end of the bar.
If you’re playing the full version (not the ossia) the pattern ascends to the 16th fret with the tension finally exploding into a series of unpitched notes as the ukulele literally runs out of fingerboard. I love this effect. Notareschi is really stretching the ukulele to its full capacity and beyond. There’s a sense of hitting a wall as you abruptly come to a full bar’s rest. This allows time to recover from all the excitement before a new section begins. This time in the more familiar realms of 1st position but with a challenging syncopated rhythm.
Bars 16 to 26 are in 4/4 time providing an interesting diversion from the triplet feel of 9/8. The tied notes create the syncopated rhythm. Try clapping and counting the rhythm out loud before playing the notes.
From bar 27 there’s a progressively crazier strumming section in 6/8 time. Once again the left hand shape moves up the fingerboard until ‘frets end.’ The chords continue un-pitched ending abruptly with a bar of silence. The piece concludes as it began returning to the original arpeggio pattern in 9/8 with the last 2 chords gently rolled.
Etude V, What Lies Ahead (1 + 3)
In this Etude the melody is played exclusively on the 4th (g) string. So my solution to the conundrum is: 1 stopped string and 3 open strings.
The repeated arpeggio pattern is p i m a which falls very naturally for the right hand. The indication is searching and the piece certainly explores the higher range of the fingerboard – all the way up to the 17th fret. If you don’t have 17 frets then use the ossia. In this Etude the music is more restrained than number IV, remaining within the fretboard landscape. The abrupt end is slightly unexpected and leaves us wondering: what does lie ahead?
In these Five Etudes Loretta Notareschi takes us on a musical and technical journey of exploration and discovery; sometimes thoughtful, sometimes yearning, sometimes percolating and sometimes just cycling through the realms of the imagination. Musically introspective there is a constant sense of searching and reaching for, as the title of the final Etude tells us, What Lies Ahead. The score is beautifully presented with great attention to details such as fingerings and dynamics. The pieces are challenging but accessible. The Five Etudes are a must for any classical, or finger-style, ukulele player looking to extend their repertoire and their knowledge of the fingerboard. With composers like Loretta Notareschi writing for the ukulele what lies ahead is an exciting prospect!
A big thank you to Loretta for composing and publishing these pieces for the ukulele!
Please note: the score is not available from me but is published by Disegni Music.