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Finding Your Muse by Jon Rissik

 In my experience there are three key components to writing an original song; the instrumental arrangement, the vocal melody and the lyrics. In order to create something that works as a coherent whole, these three elements need to have both an individual power and the capacity to work together to form something stronger.
Unsurprisingly, many of the songwriters I have spoken to feel comfortable with one of these components more than the other two. Personally I find that writing instrumental arrangements and vocal melodies come quite easily. My ukulele playing gets me by, but has its limits and although I am constantly trying to stretch myself, I find that putting together interesting chord progressions is a relatively simple task. The same goes for finding a melody. Although I am more confident in my singing than my playing, I really know the tones and range that suit the limitations of my voice. I also know the style of songs that I want to perform. That’s not to say I am constantly ‘playing it safe’, but that I know what I like and I am at that stage in my songwriting – and life in general – where I can write for myself first, and then hope that others like it. So, if arrangements and melodies are a relative box-tick, where do I struggle? You guessed it – I am lyrically challenged. How often do you really listen to the lyrics of a song? Others I am sure will disagree, but personally I find that the melody and overarching tone of a song are the components that excite me – or turn me off – to a piece of music.
Conversely, I am rarely either instantly put-off or attracted to a song because of its subject matter, lyrical wizardry or clichéd couplets. For me, if the arrangement and melody is the skin of the onion, the melody is the first layer beneath that, critical to the overall sensory experience, but not the first flavour to reach the mouth. So if they matter less, why do I find lyrics so darned hard? Why can I nail down a melody and arrangement in an hour, and yet find myself pouring over the accompanying lyrics for weeks! Well, I think it may have something to do with age and circumstance. Let me explain: Some of the most memorable popular lyrics ever written were born out of the passions of youth. Those years when love burns brightest, when pain cuts deepest, and when there is a naivety of the wider world. Stevie Wonder wrote ‘Uptight (Everything’s Alright)’ at the tender age of 15, Kate Bush penned the hauntingly beautiful ‘The Man With The Child In His Eyes’ when she was a mere 13 years of age, and George Michael famously wrote his most enduring song, ‘Careless Whisper’ – including that sax intro – as a 17 year old in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
Okay, so these three artists possess songwriting and performing abilities that sit beyond my wildest imaginings, but I reference them to illustrate the point that very often artists write their best material at a young age, when they feel emotions most acutely, when their well of creativity is at its most full and when they quite simply have lots of stories to tell. Fast forward over the careers of many successful artists and how often will you hear it said that although the body is willing and the raw talent remains undiminished, the creative juices have stopped following. I believe that one of the causes of this is security, be that financial or emotional. I am 48, and I consider myself to be very lucky. I am thankful to have a pretty good job and a loving family. I find writing about finding love, or losing love, or generally being down-on-your-luck to be challenging as a result. I just can’t fake it with any conviction. It feels false to me and therefore I think that any audience I play to will see it as such. The same goes for what could be described as ‘angry’ or rebellious songs. I might have written a song about the current US President (‘Ship Of Fools’) but that’s almost too easy a target. In general I struggle to write songs about ‘The Man’ because in many ways, I am The Man – privileged and middle-class. My life is far from perfect, but I am very content, and that’s not a condition that makes for dramatic, autobiographical storytelling. I need to find my muse – my source of inspiration. The well is pretty dry and I need to find a new source. It would be great to read other people’s thoughts in the comments section below. Am I alone in struggling to find lyrical inspiration in my late-forties?

 

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OUS Artists of the year- Victoria Vox and Jack Maher

The OUS platform is 2 years old with approaching 3000 members on FB and 92 artists with their own pages on the main site. Its a wonderful creative space for original songs.

Each year I have decided to announce an OUS artist/artists of the year and the winners for 2017 are Victoria Vox and Jack Maher.

This previously unreleased performance was done in one take in 2016 in my kitchen in the UK and this is what OUS is all about, smart, brilliant melodic music brilliantly performed. BRAVO Victoria and Jack and for those watching and listening here’s a clip that can now be enjoyed by everyone.

Also check out http://originalukulelesongs.com/victoria-vox/ and http://www.victoriavox.com/

If you get a chance to see these guys live, grab it.

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Some thoughts on learning to play the uke from the internet by Phil Doleman

First of all, I’ll come clean; people pay me for ukulele lessons, and they buy my book. I have a vested interest in persuading people that it is best to seek out tuition! Of course it is perfectly possible to learn how to play the uke for nothing, using nothing but the internet to guide you, but it is a minefield. Here are a few thoughts I’ve had when browsing the internet recently.

 If you choose to learn from the internet, you need to be very discerning. YouTube, Facebook, etc. has no quality control. There are indeed wonderful free lessons available, but I frequently watch or read ‘lessons’ which are disseminating bad advice or which are completely incorrect. Of course, if you are a beginner, how can you tell what is good and what is bad? The easiest way is to do your research, ask around of ukulele forums, seek out players that you know have a reputation. Another way, which is a lot more long-winded, is to compare lessons. Don’t just take the first search result as gospel, see what others have to say on the subject. The third way is to get a teacher and ask them!

 In the last week, I’ve seen people ask for advice on Facebook groups and be told completely the wrong answer, and have that poor information backed up by people saying things like, “do it your own way, there’s no wrong or right! It’s the ukulele, just play!”. Now I don’t mind how people play the ukulele or what they want out of it, but as far as music is concerned (and the music made on a uke follows the same rules as music made on any instrument) there is absolutely right and wrong! I’ve watched people told to miss out a hard chord, or substitute it with one that is in no way a suitable substitute. I’ve looked at sheets downloaded from the internet to find that they are completely wrong. The problem is not only when people take this at face value, it becomes and even bigger problem when, as the internet and social media encourages, that misinformation is then shared. The odd thing is that this doesn’t seem to be the case with other instruments as it is with the ukulele. As a player of the banjo, I rarely see banjo players telling other would-be banjo players to skip the hard bits, in fact it’s more often the opposite; practise and you’ll get it!

 There’s something else at work here, too, though. Let’s take a little trip back in time to when I was a teenager learning to play guitar. If I wanted to play a song I had on record (vinyl!) I could either work it out myself, by ear, or go to the music shop and buy the score. The score was usually in the ‘piano/vocal/guitar’ style, which meant is was essentially a piano arrangement of the song with chord boxes over it. At best this served as a rough guide, as it didn’t show the guitarist how the guitar player on the record actually played the song, so even with the score (if indeed there was one available), there was still a certain amount of working out by ear, lifting the needle of the record over and over again to try and catch that tricky bit. It took time, it was laborious, and there was no way to check what you were doing as there was no internet. We frequently got it wrong, but then would play it in front of another player and they might correct us, or we might see the performer play it on video and see their hand go to a different place to us on the neck. This sounds awful compared to the world of instant gratification we see daily online, but it wasn’t. This was learning; this process was invaluable. As we worked out songs, we trained our ears, we learned new fingerboard patterns, and, yes, we learned theory as we started to see that certain chord patterns occurred over and over again. We were even training ourselves for the time when we would get up and play with others by playing along to the record. Recently, someone asked about coming to an intermediate workshop of mine. They told me that they were worried it would be too easy as they had been playing for a month. A month! People are constantly told that the uke is easy, and of course physically it is much, much easier to get a pleasing tone out of a uke on day one that a violin, trumpet, or flute, but once you get playing, well music is music! Yes, a three chord song on a uke is easy enough to learn, but so is a 3 chord song on the piano! What isn’t so easy is to understand what you are playing and why, to go beyond reading the little pictures of chords, to jam with others, to compose songs, to really play music.

 So what can a teacher offer that the internet can’t? Firstly, a teacher will find out where you are and where you want to be and plan a route to get you there. In doing this, they’ll also know what kind of things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know (I’m starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld)! They can repeat, rephrase and re-explain anything as many times as you want, and can present you with learning materials that are suitable for you and correct (unlike so much of the material available for free online). On top of a that, a teacher offers a two-way learning environment, meaning that while you play, the teacher will listen and observe, and be able to correct poor technique or spot those tiny mistakes you didn’t notice. A teacher will stop you cherry picking the easy stuff, but will introduce the tougher aspects gradually at an achievable rate and will be able to adjust that difficulty to reflect how easy or hard the student finds it. Your teacher will also be there to answer any questions between lessons. Finally, having regular lessons gives you a deadline (the next lesson), and having a deadline is a great motivator for practice. Yes, you also have to be discerning when finding a teacher. Look for recommendations, look for reputation, and yes look online for free content that the teacher provides as well. Remember that anyone can call themselves a teacher (I witnessed someone go from non-player wanting lessons, to a ‘teacher’ with a professional-looking website in a matter of weeks).

 I understand that lessons cost money, and that one lesson can cost more than a beginner uke (the disadvantage of ukes being relatively cheap; the same price for cello lessons doesn’t seem like much of an outlay when you’ve spent thousands on a cello!) but it’s worth mentioning that, although we love our instruments, they are just boxes with strings on. The real value in an instrument is being able to play it well, and the real value in being able to play is boundless; a new and rewarding social life, the pleasure of being able to entertain yourself and others, the ability to express yourself in a new way, the ability to play with others, the appreciation of your audience, maybe even paid gigs! I know people with 20 or more ukes who tell me they don’t want to spend money on lessons. That’s like owning a Ferrari but begrudging paying for a driving instructor!

Check out www.phildoleman.co.uk

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Jake Shimabukuro – Pushing the ukulele boundaries

I spent some time in Nashville talking to Van Fletcher Jake Shimabukuro’s manager about the next Jake record after Nashville which was already a departure from what many uke folk might expect. Van and his wife were good enough to invite me to listen to some of the new tracks which are yet to be fully mixed and mastered. Its clear to me that Van is a 100% music lover and his basement is remarkably similar in some ways to my onw music listening room – serious high end hi fi with multi speaker set up and a collection of box sets, CDs and Vinyl that essentially tells the history of all great music.

Michael Ross who runs Guitar Moderne and who is a long time friend and our wives were in for a treat that was really quite something. I’m not going to go into detail about who is playing on the next album or the tracks, but let me say now, this is a whole new jump for ukulele playing. Like many folks I love Jake’s brilliant covers of Queen and The Beatles tracks that made him so famous. When I interviewed him literally two years ago I was amazed at his diverse musical interest and I now know where a lot of this came from. The Nashville album hinted at what Jake is capable of in terms of pushing the boundaries of the uke. The next album is a whole quantum leap that I think will amaze many folks and really show just how this mighty instrument can be used in a really exciting way.

I for one really welcome these explorations which will only help show that the uke can be used for a huge range of sonic expression far beyond what many folks might imagine. Keep an eye out for Jake in 2018 and prepare for something that will really rock your musical world.

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HOW TO WRITE AN ORIGINAL SONG THE SHIRLEY C WAY.

Firstly – the rules – there are no rules when it comes to song writing. Song writing is simply art with words and while some may say certain colours should not mix together- who decides these things . Its simply a matter of interpretation.
The only guideline I have is – would my Grand Mother or Grand children be offended if they listened to this – if the answer is yes, then I would not put that song up for the public to view. That does not mean I would not write it – if the words are going round in my brain – inevitably, they will come out in the form of a song. Just not for public consumption.
Some examples of this include my hysterectomy song which starts with the opening line ‘ I’ve got staples in my p-bes and my arms are full of tubes – or my song which asks Ed Sheeran ‘ does the carpet match the curtains – does the duvet match the rug… you get the idea.
There will always be the humpf brigade who take offence at everything but at the end of the day I have to live with the decisions I make without compromising my integrity.
Where do I get my ideas from? – Inspiration can come from anywhere and I often write about things close to my heart or what is happening to me. Politicians and public figures are fair game and there is always a funny side to everything if you look hard enough.
Which comes first – the music or the words. Usually for me, both together and often at the most inconvenient times. I live 25 k from the nearest town in a remote part of Southern New Zealand. I frequently find myself pulling over while driving to town, taking out my cell phone and recording the rough draft of a song.
I have discovered to my dismay if I don’t do this, by the time I get home, the lyric is gone. The early hours of the morning are also when my brain works best. However in the interest on marital bliss, I no longer prance around the bedroom with my uke at 3 am. My shift working husband does not always appreciate the urgency of my musical endeavours. (theres a song in that I am sure)
So there you have it – I write songs because I can, because there is an urgency in my inner being to communicate with others via music. Not all of them are masterpieces, but most of them will make you laugh. It’s the oil that keeps my engine running.

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Practice Makes… by Harry Parker

You probably completed that title with PERFECT and if you did, along with me and thousands of others, you’d be completely wrong and here’s why. It’s well documented that the way most people practice, whether it’s dancing, acting or playing an instrument, is to practice doing what they already find easy or know how to do and keep repeating that in the belief that they will somehow become quicker, more proficient and the whole thing will become second nature. The bad news is, that’s almost never the outcome. That way of practicing doesn’t make what you’re doing perfect, it makes what you’re doing permanent – it hard wires your bad habits and you practice and learn to keep ‘getting it wrong’.

For over 11 years, with my partner, I’ve been teaching an American Vernacular Swing dance called Balboa in the north of England. As dancers and teachers ourselves we soon learned that the way students become better at what they do is to identify the things they can’t do or don’t do well and work in a very focused and structured way on those things until they get them right. Then – other than occasionally reviewing those new skills and incorporating them in their everyday dancing – they move on to something else they can’t do and learn and practice that. My good friend and International Dance Instructor Bobby White, calls this ‘purposeful practice’ – really concentrating and working at acquiring skills one at a time until you own them. Remarkably, in spite of this knowledge gained from dance, when I took up the ukulele a couple of years ago I learned some chords, adding new ones as I went along, played covers (over and over) in the belief that I would ‘somehow become quicker, more proficient and the whole thing would become second nature.’ Guess what? Yeah, you’re right. That wasn’t the outcome. Moreover, it’s become increasingly clear to me that when you post original music, as we do in this group, it’s really important to perform it well.

Having come to the realisation that the way I was practicing wasn’t turning me into the next James Hill or Jake Shimabukuro, I’ve now, quite recently, begun applying the principle of purposeful practice that I already knew, to the ukulele. Whatever your current level of playing proficiency, you can make real advances in your playing by taking this approach. It’s also important to understand, however, that if you are trying to become the next Jake or Victoria Vox – unless you’re already pretty close to what they do, you’re heading for a lot of frustration and disappointment. You have to identify clearly where you are now so you can measure if you’re getting better. To take a really profound and important example from dance, Mikhail Baryshnikov said: “I do not try to dance better than anyone else. I only try to dance better than myself.” That’s a great thing to aim for in your practice, always striving to be better – tonight, tomorrow, next week, next year – than you are today. In the books ‘Outliers’ (2008) by Malcolm Gladwell and ‘Bounce’ (2010) by Matthew Syed, it’s been argued that to be considered excellent or outstanding at any skill requires around 10,000 hours of very efficient practice. Think about that for a moment: even if you could learn to practice that way, really working at improving your chord repertoire, chord changes, picking, strumming, riffs – at two hours every day without missing – it would take over 13 years! For most of us (especially me age 67), that’s unrealistic so it’s not surprising that relatively few players reach the level of excellent/outstanding. But you can – very definitely – become better than yourself and this is why even though many of you who read this are already more proficient and talented than I am,

I know that if you apply what I’m telling you to your own practice, you’re going to make some outstanding improvements. In my case – having identified where I am now – I’m currently working on my strumming and trying to master some really interesting patterns and rhythms used by Paul Cameron and Matt Hicks, two guys in this group who’ve generously published videos explaining how they do what they do. I’m also working my way (slowly) through Phil Doleman’s excellent book ‘How Music Works on the Ukulele’ I know those things are achievable and at the end of each practice, I can already see and hear my progress. My writing and playing is improving and I’m really getting a lot out of it. Believe me, there is no better feeling than when you forget about feeling inferior to the really outstanding performers because you’re too damn busy feeling great about yourself because you’re better today than you were yesterday.

References: ‘Practice Swing’ (2016) Robert White ‘Outliers The Story Of Success’ (2008) Malcolm Gladwell ‘Bounce The myth of talent and the power of practice’ (2010) Matthew Syed ‘How Music Works On The Ukulele’ (2016) Phil Doleman

 
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OUS – The BIGGER picture and the story so far

When I launched the OUS platform November 2016, the intention was always to make this a global project. One of the reasons for creating the platform was that I noticed that often the ukulele scene, especially in the UK was very territorial, which is often the case for niche music. This can be seen online, in magazine articles and at events, usually (but not always) with a focus on playing cover versions of songs. Uke Magazine to its credit did publish a series of articles and interviews I wrote to show a wider picture than just the same small group of artists, often only from the UK. I am especially pleased with the articles I wrote on the Japanese uke scene and the interviews with the late Bill Collins and master musician Martin Simpson. Both individuals pushed the boundaries of what is possible and I’m my view make the world a far more interesting place. Of course understandably event hosts and magazine editors need to be mindful of commercial considerations to get readers and crucially bums on seats, but such commercial considerations can all too often limit opportunities for artists interested in creating original material.

I always thought that there’s an opportunity for original artists to have a bigger voice. Many artists commented that it was hard to get heard  especially in getting live opportunities. Original artists regardless of talent can often be sidelined and public choice is inevitably limited. Some performers may at their own expense travel hundreds of miles to play a set that can be as little as ten minutes. I’ve received a fair bit of flack for mentioning “the elephant in the room” in terms of some of these issues of course, but I continue to consider such discussions are both healthy and essential. Ultimately of course great music is great music, but I suspect in years to come those performers creating an original body of work will be better remembered than those providing cover versions no matter how entertaining.

There’s of course an understandable enthusiasm for new performers wanting to be seen and heard, This often this means playing for “exposure” also known as playing for free. Professional performers (those who earn a living from music) often lament the fact that hobbyists tend to sometimes limit playing opportunities as they are the cheaper option. Commercial considerations often trump creative considerations and OUS is and always will be a platform to address some of this bias. OUS can be a fair investment in time and income, but its for the love of the music and to give voice original artists on a global scale. I just got back from Japan where I had some great discussions and in 6 weeks I’ll be in the USA for a period, also talking to artists interested in original music. These travels and discussions show a very different picture to the UK, and some of the contrasts are quite striking. In Japan there are in my view many builders who make exceptional instruments of a higher quality than I would generally find in the UK, Europe or USA. The Japanese also retain a love of physical music formats and Tower Records remains one of the last major record stores.

OUS brings together artists from all over the globe and I’m increasingly meeting such artists in real life after initial online connections. Alan Thornton and Bernd Holzhausen are good examples of this and discussions have been very useful. The OUS platform has the advantage of being available 24/7 and the numbers are growing online. My main focus is on the main site and the increasing addition and diversity of global artists who can now all be found in one place. As I predicted in 2014 OUS also polarizes opinion and not everyone loves the idea of more focus on original music. I think the discussion about musical creation is quite healthy and of course the original music of today makes for the cover versions of tomorrow.

I’m currently looking at better live playing opportunities for original artists with particular consideration to those who have supported the platform to date. OUS was always part of a much bigger project and that will continue to unfold in 2018 and 2019, but like all major projects, the devil is in the detail and the success of the platform means taking time to do everything properly and remaining true to the central theme of creative expression.  Special thanks to all those who focus on creating original music and who continue to focus on sharing such material. We now have 85 artists with their own pages on the main site and the FB platform approaches 3000 members. This is of course just the start of something much bigger, but so far, so good…

Warm Regards

Nick Cody

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How to find the right instrument – bernd holzhausen

I want to share my own experience of finding the right instrument. It is a very personal point of view but I want to give an insight in what I found is essential to understand.

 Buying a uke is a very tough journey. You can find hundreds of instruments that somehow do what you want or what you like. But there will be one combination that triggers you all-time. As a beginner in something we tend to buy a cheap instrument which is a bad step. Cheap instruments have always something the player needs to correct while playing. It’s better to go to the lower end of the high prized instruments. So in Ukulele dimensions. Better buy one for 350 than for 30 or 60. When you made your first successful steps you can take a cheap one because your hands and fingers will correct the little errors of the instrument intuitively.

 But what is more important to the instrument is the wood. The tonal abilities that different types of wood offer. To share some personal experiences.  Spruce is very commonly used for singer songwriters cause of it’s easy attack. Soft striking the strings results in immediate resonance of the wood. Clear tone, ringing, high notes as low notes are presented easily. Loud resonance. Mahogany which is often said to be a good wood is different. You have to strike the strings harder, the tone will be very equal whatever you do, but it always will be round in the middle frequencies and low in the high frequencies. So for a solo instrument for playing jazz it could be interesting playing the lower range of the uke up to the seventh fret but everything above that will be hard to hear played live. walnut is similar warm like mahogany but the higher notes are clearer to hear and the overall aspect is very harmonic. ebony for me is not a good material for the Ukulele cause it is not taking the light strikes of the strings. You have to play with a harder approach to get nice results and the tone is very thin somehow.

At the end I myself think Koa or European Amaze is a wood that is the right one for a Ukulele because it is giving a very round overall nice covering of your work on the strings. But that is my personal impression after owning and playing some Ukes.

 In general I would go for a spruce top instrument. Whatever the body is built of. As long as the top is spruce it will represent what you do on the strings in a nice way.

Another aspect is the kinetic effect the wood has if you touch it. The haptic aspect is important. Do your hands love to be in contact with the instrument. Aside that you shoud watch if a high gloss finish is the right thing for you or a natural finsh or even an oiled instrument. 

Does the neck supports your left hand or is there something different or even disturbing. Is your right hand on the right spot. Means is the shape of the Uke supporting your positioning of the arm of the right hand. If you are used to put your pinky finger on the body of an instrument it could be difficult on a cutaway body to do so.

And last but not least. A pickup for amplifying or no. I would say no and yes. Plug the Ukulele in an amp and see what happens to the result of you playing a tune you know very well. You will be astonished. Most Ukulele artists are microphoning the Uke because of the percussive work they do with their right hand.

And the last important thing I had to learn buying and playing a Ukulele is the following. Do I want to hear my ideas played on a Ukulele. It is not unimportant that the instrument you play something on could maybe not be the right instrument for what you want to do. I myself have a harp for these situations and a piano for other situations and a bass for even other situations and I use a tenor guitar for other situations, a tenor ukulele for other situations and a soprano Ukulele to test if something I try to do on my concert Ukulele is a mind bug or really an issue.

After all buying the right instrument is a journey that at least has one aspect you’ll find out after you play your instrument for while. The strings. Nick wrote some interesting articles about that on his blog and even published some youtube videos which are good to view.

So as a fazit I can say: You’ll not buy the first Ukulele, you’ll buy some of them to find the one that suits most of your needs. I doubt that it will be possible to have one that suits all situations you’ll find yourself playing music.

http://nickcody.co.uk/diary/2016/01/kitchen-ukulele-string-test/

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Would I like my own music? – Bernd Holzhausen

As I started to think about writing songs, while writing a poem, I sat in a park on a bench. On the other side was a poem in French painted on a bench. My French is really bad, cause after learning it at school I never used it but after some minutes I was able to translate it. It was more or less similar like a poem I wrote years before where I was with a Venezuelan girl. And it was about wind, sky, feelings. I feel like a flower in the wind and you are the wind to me.

But the hell, when I write things like that and I feel like that why am I listening to all that music in the radio or on tv. I stopped listening in those days and started to listen newly.

Again Tom Waits jumped on my mind stage and I listened to his music, then French chanson singers, like Edith Piaf, and folk music from old times, like medieval songs or songs from the 20s and 30s and the translation to these lyrics where important to me. So I read them and started to write my first stumbling lyrics for my own songs. Then I read about Bob Dylan where he said something like: find your own flow. So I started to try. First on the bass guitar which was really hard doing it, cause I wasn’t able to speak or sing playing bass guitar. Something that I never overcame all the years. So the uke came on my stage and I learned to play. Until today sometimes the uke is a bass to me, while playing. But it never stopped me singing or speaking to what I want to do. After writing songs and listen to my songs I asked myself if I would listen to my own music.

Nowadays I would answer YES, but in the beginning I said NO. I think it is important to make recordings of yourself doing the music and singing or speaking to be able to correct your lyrics, your intonation on the instrument and the flow you are in. Listening to my music gave me somehow the understanding of my approach to swing, to stomp with the uke, to sing so that the instrument is grabbing attention cause of its percussive approach aside the notes and my voice is doing what I know it can do. I listened again to the recordings and found that the percussive approach isn’t hearable on the recording. So I performed with a microphone that took the percussion too. And see there I was listening to myself and smiling.

Writing music starts that I became a listener to the lyrics of others songs. And it opened a dimension to listen to music that I didn’t know I would like to listen to. In my case as I bound myself to German lyrics I find myself listening to old German folk songs and really find inspirations in doing that.

I learned to like music newly and every time I listen to something I learn to explore my own songs differently.

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