None of us would pick a pandemic, but pandemic picking is another matter. Salli Chmura describes the Ukulele Orchestra of Greater Brisbane’s picking adventure pre-pandemic, during lockdown and the easing of social restrictions.

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COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in the musical world since its onset and sent many of us to find refuge in Zoom sessions. Let me tell you about our adventures in this realm with a picking group that I set up.

in January Lesley Allan, Cath McCourt and I (Salli Chmura) attended a week-long picking workshop at Bellingen with Cathy Welsford, and followed this with Lesley, myself, Geoff Dancer and Leeanne Horne participating in a one-day ukulele orchestra in Sydney run by Ian Porter.

Based on our enthusiastic enjoyment of both these activities, the picking group started on Wednesday nights from the end of February, working on three pieces – the Rose, Chanson d’Amour and Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom. Luckily we had four practices before COVID hit.

Zoom then became the lifeline for our group – now named the Ukulele Orchestra of Greater Brisbane – and Julie Minto (Mama Juju) joined us. We persevered with two sequential 45 minute sessions a week, working on the three pieces and adding a fourth piece, La Paloma. Unlike other music groups using Zoom, we were mad enough to have everybody playing simultaneously (unmuted) with Salli keeping the group together trying to count out loud while picking and listening to the delayed feedback of all the other pickers.

Ukulele Orchestra of Greater Brisbane

If you’re interested in how difficult and crazy this was, just check out the sound file …

I think we would all have gone crazy if the Zoom sessions had continued for much longer. However, we had lots of laughs throughout the sessions, which was very therapeutic. Our playing certainly improved when we got together in person again.

Now the UOGB is getting together once a week and we’ve welcomed Judy Holdaway to our group. We rotate homes for practices, and have a fun time catching up on gossip while working hard on our pieces. Members of the group are learning about conventional musical terms with Salli talking about first and second time endings and the like. Our practices are excellent for developing listening skills, as in a picking group it is important to be very precise with playing exactly on the beat. We are all improving our skills in reading tabs or musical notation, and Geoff, Leeanne and Lesley are having fun getting their heads around reading music for C ukuleles after having learnt to read the music at Irish sessions with their ukuleles tuned to D.

We have added several more pieces to our rehearsal list – the Harry Lime Theme, Puttin’ on the Ritz and Sweet Dreams. Puttin’ on the Ritz is very challenging but we are chipping away at it a little at a time. Some of Sweet Dreams is a challenge as the notes go up to the 15th fret, where it is difficult to produce a good sound.

Our group is very enthusiastic about the pieces we are playing. We are looking forward to exhibiting some of our expertise in the future when we can all get together again. We are very fortunate that Julie has agreed to sing with a couple of the songs and Cath is adding a fuller sound to the music with the addition of u-bass to one of the pieces. Down the track we might add some strumming to other pieces. However, we’re primarily a picking group which is how we would like to maintain it.

Everybody is learning heaps. Some are learning more about standard musical terminology and improving their skills in reading tabs. Some of us (for example me) are discovering playing the notes further up the fretboard in 7th position (I never even knew what that meant a few months ago!). Others are improving their counting skills, especially with the more difficult rhythms and counting multiple bars of rests. We are improving the tonal qualities of our notes. Lesley is working on playing in campanella style and for one song is using a tenor ukulele with baritone.
If you’d like to hear a sample of a rehearsal when we were able to get together again, click on the link.

HAPPY UKULELEING

Salli Chmura (a mad picker)