Classical Music on a Ukulele

Today’s post come courtesy of Paul Mansell. Paul’s a a professional ukulele player and author who specialises in classical music. He’s just released a new book Classical Uke and was kind enough to share his thoughts on the uke being used for classical music.

As we all know, the ukulele was for many years seen as a basic instrument only good for strumming, but it has, in recent years, started to be taken much more seriously. Thanks to players like Jake Simabukuro, and, let’s face it, a certain invention called the internet, the ukulele began to be taken seriously. But there is now a second wave coming, with the advent of many players starting to tackle classical music on the ukulele.

One of the earliest pioneers of classical music on the ukulele was John King. He was a ukulele expert who used a style called ‘Campenella’, where you play one note of the melody on each string and let them ring into each other. You try and never play two consecutive notes on the same string. He released what is widely regarded as the first accessible (and not to mention big selling) book on classical music for the ukulele. ‘The classical ukulele’ was published in 2004 through Hal Leonard and is still readily available. John sadly passed away in 2009, but he left us a wonderful body of work. Below is a piece from it called ‘Tarantella Italiana’ played by myself on a soprano ukulele.

After John Kings book the next book to really address classical music on the ukulele was ‘From Lute to Uke’ by Tony Mizen. Published in 2011 (again by Hal Leonard) this is an essential book for anyone interested in playing classical music on the ukulele. In my opinion, the classical pieces featured in it are slightly easier to play on the ukulele than the ones in ‘The Classical Ukulele’. The arrangements are not in the ‘Campenella’ style but more closely related to classical guitar playing. The book also came with a CD featuring Tony’s sublime playing, recorded beautifully and good enough to stand up as an album on its own. Here is a video of ‘Bransle de Champagne’ taken from Tony’s book and played by myself.

The recent surge in interest in playing classical music on the ukulele has in no small way been helped by the amazing work of Colin Tribe. Firstly, as an arranger, Colin is second to none. Watch the video below of me playing Colin’s superb arrangement of ‘Adagio from Conciertio for Guitar’ by Joaquin Rodrigo and you can only marvel at just how Colin managed such a feat. It is one of those pieces that I felt honoured to be able to play. This is a live version, but if you want to hear it recorded in the studio then check out my debut album ‘Me, My Ukulele & I’ on which it appears.

Colin has arranged hundreds of classical pieces, all of them done with sensitivity and understanding of the diminutive instrument on which they are played. The way he manages to get such a little instrument to tackle such a grand piece as the Conciertio for guitar’ is just so impressive. As well as being a great arranger and performer, Colin is also the man behind the ukulele syllabus for the VCM (Victoria College of Music). The VCM syllabus for ukulele now goes all the way up to Diploma level. I had the pleasure of taking the Diploma and I must say it was very well thought out and rewarding. To be able to say you have a diploma on the ukulele is something I am very proud of and very grateful to Colin and VCM for making it possible. In many ways legitimises the ukulele as a classical instrument.

Another person who is a fine exponent of classical music on the Ukulele is Sam Muir. She runs the I Love Classical Ukulele website and her arrangements of Sor and other classical composers are tremendous. Her playing is sublime and she truly shows us what the ukulele is capable of and I thoroughly recommend checking her playing out. She is currently studying for a PHD addressing classical music on the ukulele – what an achievement that will be.

With all of these great books and players, I was very excited to sign a publishing deal myself, with Kevin Mayhew Ltd, and release my book ‘Classical Uke’. ‘Classical Uke’ brings us very up to date as to where we are with Classical music on the ukulele. It features 20 pieces by classical composers such as Bach, Tarrega and Sor amongst others. I am grateful that it has been very well received and when I play up and down the country I receive a lot of positive feedback about it. The book has a wide range of pieces in it and it is suitable for beginners and advanced players alike. It begins with relatively easy pieces such as ‘Masquerade’, a 16th century Lute piece which should not cause too many problems for students just beginning their ukulele journey. After several relatively simple pieces it moves onto intermediate pieces such as ‘Gavotte’ by Bach. You can watch a video of me performing Bach’s ‘Gavotte’ on a Soprano Ukulele below:

Arranging Bach for ukulele is generally quite tricky. Most of Bach’s pieces were composed on Piano and span several octaves but on the ukulele you only really have two octaves to play with, so it is not without its challenges.
I wanted to put some more complicated pieces in the book, so that it also appealed to the more experienced players. I think that the hardest piece to play in the book is, for me, Canarios, by Gaspar Sanz. This piece was popularised by John Williams performing it on guitar. It works very well on the ukulele, as is hopefully demonstrated in the video below where I perform it on a ‘Leho’ Concert Ukulele.

The book ‘Classical Uke’ comes with a CD of all the pieces, played by myself, exactly as they are tabbed out in the book.

So, what next for classical music on the ukulele? Well, with the help of the people I have discussed here, it has come a long way; it still has a long way to go. That is what is so exciting. I feel very lucky to be part of this movement and once my next book is published (which is a book on how to teach ukulele, published by Kevin Mayhew) I hope to start working on Classical Uke 2. I am really looking forward to future publications on classical music on the ukulele by Tony Mizen, Colin Tribe, Sam Muir and others. I saw recently that someone had arranged Asturias by Albeniz for the ukulele and this is a great demonstration of where we are heading. Arrangements of more complicated pieces will come along, as well as pieces by less known composers. I am also hopeful that more composers will take to the ukulele now understanding what can be achieved on it. If you want to learn more about classical music on the ukulele I will be running a workshop on classical ukulele, followed by a 45 minute performance, at the wonderful Uke Rooms in the Forest of Dean on Sept 22nd 2018.

You can find out more about Paul on his website and pick up his book here.

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