By Vinícius Vivas
Have you wondered about how to play and teach complex jazz chords on the ukulele? Or how to make simple chords sound even better?
Sometimes we fall into teaching chords in the same way that we learned them, even when there may be a better way. Perhaps we need to try less obvious strategies to make the chordal sphere (the world of chords!) more interesting and more fun!
Strange as some chord names may seem, we just need to find the best way to make them sound beautiful and viable to teach. We also want to choose a good fit for the previous and next chords in a song to create interesting transitions.
Just as we don’t need to eat everything on the menu, we don’t really need to play more than four notes to express a harmonic idea.
But where can we find these chord ideas? A chord chart or chord dictionary, as good as they are, can feel like a big department store with many incredible products but you're not really sure why you need them or how to use them.
Many chords with pompous names are really easy to play. Just as we don’t need to eat everything on the menu, we don’t really need to play more than four notes to express a harmonic idea. Just think of the four voice parts of SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) or a classical string quartet. Here in Brazil, most guitar players play complex Bossa Nova chords using just four notes. Believe me: four strings are a big deal!
Studying music theory and harmony is not necessarily everything. We can explore songs that help us try out magical new chords, like old jazz tunes. As James Hill says, “The Uke has a wonderful way of making jazz accessible and fun.” Check out and learn from great ukulele jazz masters.
Look for chords that make sense together and work well in songs. The “twin chords” (James Hill’s Booster Uke Method) are the best example of accessible chords that sound fantastic playing Hawaiian music, jazz, blues and much more.
After trying the twin chords methodology (not only as teacher, but also as ukulele player), I started discovering my own collection. Some of those I called the “Miles Twins” and the “Gypsy Twins.” I strongly advise giving nicknames to chords as a fun strategy to memorize them.
While most students are working on basic chords for a song, more advanced students might need more. Some of James’ tools like rocking the chord, the dip and lift trick, and mandolin voices sound beautiful and keep everyone challenged.
Harmonized scales exercises and singing each string of the chord (changing the note when chord changes demands it) are great ways to keep chordal and melodic spheres connected and can even lead students to solo arrangement playing.
If you want to step up your ukulele orchestra arrangement, try writing upper structure triads. When a student plays the F chord and another one plays Am on a higher pitch, we hear a third chord called Fmaj7th. Simple to play, fancy to hear!
Yes, chords are very important, but it does not necessarily mean we need to start with them. Ukulele in the Classroom teachers learn that “An initial focus on melodic techniques greatly facilitates student development in all areas of musicianship.”
If your students are learning to pick before strum, you can develop harmony experiences by writing harmony parts for advanced students, trying canons (the instantaneous harmony experience) and, in the right time, linking well known melodies and scales to the matching chords.
Another tip from James: create expectation of a possibly complex chord before teaching it and let the students feel relieved when they discover it wasn't difficult to learn.
Don’t forget to keep yourself studying harmony and figuring out how to ukulelize new chords. But mainly, lead students to fall in love with the chordal sphere and help them make harmony magic!
Vinícius Vivas is a performer and educator from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, teaching at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and at international festivals, events and more. https://semanadoukulele.com.br/
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