One of the key lessons I have learned in recent times is the importance of ongoing practice and musical refinements. Of course I always knew about the need for both of these things, but playing live really brings home that time and energy spent on these elements is often the difference between a good and a great performance.
When I say “musical refinements” this includes means figuring out what equipment to use and how to use it as well as developing performing the actual material. It’s all about the details that create the best end result.
In terms of gear, it’s taken the last year to finalize what for me are the best combinations of instruments and amplification. The amp of choice is without doubt the Henriksen Buds, with Fire Eye Red preamps, ultramafic Lava cables. Most instruments are fitted with McIntyre feather pickups which wonderfully amplify the natural tone of the instrument. The Buds act as monitors and we take a line out into the PA system. In terms of microphones I favour Heil microphones over standard Shure SM58s. This is the magic formula for getting a great live sound and of course that inspires better performances.
In terms of ukuleles I mostly play the Rob Collins African Blackwood tenor and 5 string baritone ukuleles. Rob makes terrific no frills instruments for players and I love both of these. I also recently commissioned a second Shimo Comet 3 built for live shows and this has a D-Tar active pickup. This is a seriously high end instrument, “the Ferrari of ukuleles:, but I have to give some consideration to where I take this ukulele as it would be a two year wait for any replacement.
Solo, duo and band rehearsals
Solo, duo and band rehearsals are all different and all essential. I schedule solo practice on a daily basis and Jessica Bowie and I meet every week as a duo to work on and refine material. We have worked in this way for almost three years and this maintains creative momentum for producing new music. It continues to be a fascinating process and once we have worked up songs, we take them to the full band to sort final arrangements.
I have learned to always have a range of different instruments to hand at any one time, rather than stored away in cases. Throughout any day I may pick up an instrument for just a few moments as well as scheduled formal practice. This helps with ongoing skill refinements. It’s also been invaluable to seek out additional tuition so as well as our weekly duo slots, I have music lessons with Phil Doleman and Martin Simpson most months and these guys are great sounding boards for all manner of musical explorations
With band rehearsals it’s important to then establish the final form for each song. Sometimes in a live situation tracks can take on a “Ramones” style delivery, where everything is played double time! It’s essential to have a musical director for the band who ensures that there’s a consistency in how songs are performed. Yes, it’s useful sometimes to review arrangements, but there needs to be a base level where the band knows “how the song is played” For me it’s important to think about all of this as skills refinement and not thinking about this whole issue as “success” or “failure” This whole process continues to intrigue me, as we never truly know when a great song will rise to the surface and before we know it, we are being applauded for playing it at a live performance.