"Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time!“
This quote comes from one of my favorite 90’s movies ‘Cool Runnings’! In fact I just watched it with my sons this past week on Disney+ and they loved it. They sure don’t make movies like they used to. ‘Cool Runnings’ is based off of true events when a bobsled team from Jamaica made it into the finals of 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta. Throughout the movie you witness the team learning to jive together, not with just their physicality, but with their differing personalities in order to make it to the olympic finals. They must learn to meld their summer track skills with the otherworldly sport of bobsledding. This is just what one has to do in order to sing while playing the ukulele! After you read this go watch the movie..... its a classic!
As a ukulele player... that sings (seriously, many of the world’s best can’t), I’ve heard it more than a few times of how difficult it is to play and sing at the same time. Many people either play or sing well but when they try to put them together they fail miserably! It’s almost as if you needed two brains to do this. Try and pat your head while rubbing your belly at the same time... pretty weird huh?
The ultimate goal is to help you develop an independency between your strumming rhythm and singing rhythm. In other words, we need to be so comfortable with our strumming that we don’t even have to think about it. This will allow us to sing how we please and not have our strumming pattern dictated by the rhythm of our vocal cadence.
Use the tips below to learn how to sing while playing the ukulele.
1. Musical welding!
Like a pianist who uses both hands to play two different rhythms concurrently, or a drummer who uses all four limbs working independently, you need to meld your strumming and singing rhythms so that they sound seamless. If you can believe it, there are drummers that can play with all four limbs and SING the melody! Check this out. This is 18 year old Paulina from the band The Warning. Don’t get discouraged if your mind is blown. Learning to play and sing on the ukulele is a lot easier. But the first thing to learn and understand is playing and singing aren't two separate things.
2. Simple rhythms, simple rhymes...
Don’t complicate the task unnecessarily by choosing songs that exceed your skill level. This will only leave you feeling frustrated and defeated. I know you want to learn the new Shawn Mendes ditty but it may be too challenging off the bat. Start off learning easy songs that you know well. Songs that only have a few chords, a simple strum pattern and lyrics you can easily remember like ’Happy Birthday’. Check out our friend Bernadette‘s lesson for ‘Happy Birthday‘ here. Keep things simple.
3. Build a strong foundation!
Trying to remember how to hold the Em chord while playing is going to make singing at the same time virtually impossible. Your ukulele playing must be at a level where chord changes are effortless. You need to be so comfortable with your strumming that you don't even have to think about it. This will free you up to concentrate on singing.
Its back to basics. Run through chord patterns until they are second nature. Drill scales to strengthen finger dexterity. When you can get to chords quickly without looking at your fingers, you have built a strong foundation.
4. Practice strumming with a metronome... ... ... ... ...
For better timing and rhythm practice with a metronome. Although it will feel a bit restrictive at first a metronome will make help with staying on beat. If you‘ve ever played with a group you realized how important it is to stay on beat. For practice spend 5-10 minutes a day practicing a simple strumming pattern with a metronome. You will notice significant improvements in your timing within a few weeks. A pro tip is to tap your foot along with the metronome as you practice. This will help build a metronome in your mind and body. Watch professionals on stage and you can often see them tapping their foot to the beat as they play. The craziest part is they don’t know they are doing it. It becomes autonomous!
5. Master the song; the playing and singing... separately!
Play the music on your ukulele until you have it memorized and can perform it fluently. One way to tell if you've mastered a song is to play it flawlessly while watching a movie or having a conversation.
In addition to getting all the chord changes down you have to know the melody and lyrics. This will require putting the ukulele down in order to focus purely on the singing portion of the song. Play and replay the song in the background. Drive it into your memory and sing along to it whenever you can. Now to be completely honest, in middle school I secretly loved The Backstreet Boys. I new every song by heart (though my friends never knew, haha). Last year they came and ended their world tour in Hawaii. It amazed me that after 20 years I knew, by heart, every lyric and vocal rift. It was awesome! Get the idea? This is what I mean by mastering a song. It’s engrained in your brain foreverrrrrrrr!
6. When all else fails, hum!
It is helpful to first hum the parts of the melody over your strumming pattern before actually singing them. This will allow you to get used to any chord changes without having to concern yourself with lyrics. Once you get used to humming different parts of the melodies, you'll gradually become comfortable singing it. It will flow naturally. You will start adding words while you hum. Humming through a song while playing can sound beautiful as well. Be careful as this type of training can put people within earshot into REM sleep...haha!
“Practice is the best of all instructors.”
No one gets anywhere without practice. You have to be patient when learning this ’skill’. It will not come over night and you will need to train diligently. Learning to incorporate vocals into your ukulele playing takes practice. Even after you have acquired the basic skill, you will be adding more songs to your repertoire, some of which may contain awkward combinations of rhythms that can trip you up (thanks James Hill, Voodo Child). When this happens, break the song down into parts and work through the problem areas. Then slowly string them back together.
These tips will help you master singing and playing ukulele together. This skill is difficult to learn but most players can master it. Give the process the time it needs and don’t forget to “feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, tune your uke up, its jamming time”.
Keep jamming and aloha!