Playing and Singing 'Off The Book'?

TopDog

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This came up at one of our groups last meetings before Lockdown. I often start to play/sing a song from our group 'songbook' without reference to the songsheet. I know the song, I like the song and we have played it as a group, many, many times.
One of our group was astounded and asked 'How did you know that?' I pointed out all of the reasons I have given above. He was amazed that I 'knew' the song. I explained that as a younger man, like most folk, if I liked a song, I sang along to the record, and the song was lodged into my memory, lyrically; later, as I learned the chords, the whole thing was there in memory for me to access.
He asked how many of our 200 plus songs I could do this with; I replied in all honesty, that I had never counted, but certainly the majority of our songs, if not actually all of them.
The idea of playing/singing 'Off the book' really seemed to freak him out, as though I were doing something magical. I asked if he assumed that live performers always used a songsheet (aside from Classical players who of course, generally do!) He pondered this and decided that he could maybe play half a dozen songs 'from memory'.
I said that it was something most players could do, simply love a song and learn it for future use; he was still sceptical and I think he believes I have a pact with the Devil or something!
So offhand, am I right, that most of you can play a good number of your favourites 'off the book'? It's something I just take for granted!
 

DownUpDave

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I have a number of songs memorized which I can play at a whim. The trick is to continually play them, if I don’t play something for six months to one year there is a good chance I might forget some part. Reputation is the key, as school children that is how we learned everything from the alphabet to spelling to counting to adding, subtracting, multiplying etc. You have to put in the work though, of course if you love the song it doesn’t feel like work does it?
 

TopDog

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Absolutely correct! I was a guitarist in a 'former life', and when I fell for the ukulele, many of my favourites transferred across with me; the chords I already knew, and the lyrics of course. Just an adjustment to the chord shapes on uke as opposed to the chord shapes on guitar. And yes, I agree that the songs I play most often, come easier to mind! I just take it as read, that any player who plays for the love of the instrument or his music, will automatically pick up some stuff along the way. I think that the chap who was 'amazed' at my ability to learn a song, was strictly a 'by the book' type. Give him a song sheet and he will play it; remove the sheet and he flounders. I think this is because some folk rely too much on having everything laid out in front of them.
 

mikelz777

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I'm song sheet dependant. I don't think I could play any song by memory but in all the years I've played uke, I've never tried to memorize a song which might seem kind of weird. I also like variety so there aren't a lot of songs that I play over and over. I guess when I play I'm in the moment and when I'm done, I move on to the next song. I suppose I'd be able to play songs by memory if I put in the effort but as of yet, I haven't felt the need. It's not something that would happen with me naturally, I would have to put the effort into it.
 
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DownUpDave

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I play guitar a bit and the best advice I got was develop a repertoire. If you are having a sing along with a guitar around the campfire you best know at least 20 songs off by heart.

As a ukulele player how many times have you been asked “hey play Over the Rainbow for me” :shaka:
 

Rllink

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I memorized my first song on the ukulele as I learned to play it. I thought that's what you do. It didn't dawn on me that one would go around with a pull cart full of music everywhere they went. People tell me that they can't memorize songs all the time. The first songs that I memorized were really tough. I'm an old guy and I wasn't used to memorizing. But after a while it got easier. Another thing, I think that memorizing songs helps one pick up on something they hear and play it. I hear more since I started memorizing songs. You get in tune and recognize similarities. It makes those songs easier to memorize because you realize you already memorized parts of it.

I don't know if I have some sort of mental formula or routine that I've developed or what. Nothing that I'm aware of. But I pick them up pretty quickly now. Both singing and memorizing. I don't know why people expect to practice an hour a day for who knows how long to learn to play the ukulele, but think that if they can't sing a song or memorize one right off the bat they can't do it and don't even make an effort. It takes practice. The more you do it the better you get at it. Old folks can memorize songs if they try.
 
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John Colter

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People tell themselves they can't memorise chords and lyrics, so they don't try. I was like that until an embarrassing happening made me decide to commit one song to memory. Once I'd done that (it was "Between The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea") I thought, "Why not memorise a couple more?" So I did. Before I knew it I had about a dozen in my memory bank.

Once memorised, they have to be played fairly regularly, or they start to fade. For me, that was the limiting factor. At one time I had as many as thirty songs I could play from memory, but keeping them all fresh took too much effort. I was about sixty-five when I started playing from memory. Now I'm eighty-two. I don't perform much nowadays, so I've only got about a dozen songs of which I could be confident.

A few are only three or four chord songs, but most are much more challenging. You can do it, you just have to apply yourself. It's not difficult.

John Colter
 
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acmespaceship

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I used to be amazed at people who don't even try to memorize songs. If I always needed tab, I would give up ukulele. Where's the fun in it? How can you sing a song from the heart if you don't know it by heart? But. If folks are happy then who am I to complain? Chacon au son gout. To each his own.

I do stick to my guns in one respect. Whenever someone asks me how to become a better player/singer I always tell them step one is to memorize the damn song. It never fails to make a big improvement. You have to practice more, which obviously helps. But mainly it frees you to pay attention to other things besides the tab: what you sound like, and what the words mean, and if anybody's listening how are they reacting?

Memorizing songs is a skill you develop over time. It don't come easy and it takes practice. Just like learning how to play ukulele. Too many people say "I can't memorize songs" when they've never made a serious effort. You tried? How many hours a day? How many weeks? It might take a month to memorize a song. The first one is the hardest. Pro tip: start with a song that has 3 chords instead of 17. How many people say "I can't play ukulele" because they gave up?

But, again, if you're happy playing from tab and you don't want to put in the time and effort to memorize, more power to you. Last I checked, this was still a hobby for most of us, and the Ukulele Police have limited jurisdiction.
 

Teddy

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I have a few that are memorized. Mostly ear worms or just popular songs that most anyone would like.

Lately some have been falling off but those are mostly from my Ukulele Jazz book. And that one does a great job of keeping all the songs on two pages so you can just open and play. Something that other books don't do and I really have come to appreciate it.
 

Mim

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It is a bit like a muscle, the more you do it the easier it is! I never thought I could play off book until my friend Seeso encouraged me to do it for one gig. Once I got past 10 it became easier. Now I just need to review a song before a gig and generally I am good to go. I do usually do one good major mess up per set... I have decided to own it. It is what I do!
 

mikelz777

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I used to be amazed at people who don't even try to memorize songs. If I always needed tab, I would give up ukulele. Where's the fun in it? How can you sing a song from the heart if you don't know it by heart?

I do stick to my guns in one respect. Whenever someone asks me how to become a better player/singer I always tell them step one is to memorize the damn song.

There is a difference between knowing a song and memorizing a song. I've never bothered to sit and practice a song over and over in an effort to memorize it but I know every song that I play. Knowing a song enables me to sing and play it from the heart with nuance, understanding, dynamics, emotion, color, embellishments or what have you. Memorizing it would merely be the same performance without the song sheet.
 

mjh42

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Most of the musicians I know don't use any kind of sheet music, notes, cue's and what not when playing a gig or in a jam session....of course they have much of the music in written form somewhere it's just not on stage with them or in a jam, they are not playing from it much of the time.........some make a set list and the the rest is just play the tunes....I couldn't fathom to guess how many tunes my spouse knows......hundreds......maybe several thousand......I know she does keep some note cards with the first measure noted.........she's says sometimes it helps to have that first measure so you play the correct tune, an yea she keeps songs and sheet music and books just like everybody else and uses them as needed.......but she needs them a lot less than the average uke player......her brain is musically wired from exposure and playing music from an early age......it's a skill many of us can build....it just has to be nurtured.....

The last cord melody I wrote I just started playing around with some cords and rhythms and then I was .........oh I better write this down.....I have tended to remember the few songs and melody's that I've written myself better than other songs....
 

DymnDog

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While I'm only a few years into ukulele, I've played trumpet semi-professionally for several years in different groups. I think there are different skills about being a musician that some are better at than others. It has to do with how you approach and understand music. Some people can improvise solos without even knowing what the chords are. Others can sight read music perfectly on the first try. Some can play in harmony with someone else without that part being written down. And then there are people like myself who can hold their own, but it takes a lot of work.
 

bunnyf

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For basic 3 and 4 chord songs, you do develop an ear after awhile and just can sense the chord change from where the the melody is going (see Jim D’ville for an explanation of this). I also see the common patterns in songs, like 1 4 1 5 1. I usually just have to remember if a minor 6 is thrown in somewhere. For chordally complex songs, I just have to like it and play it enough to commit it to memory.

I see the same folks in my jams for years, playing “Jambalaya”...2 chords and they still need a sheet to play along. I want to say, “let’s put our sheet down and trust that we can figure it out”. A leader can facilitate that by doing something like James Hill has done in some of his workshop, where he moves his uke up or down to indicate a chord change (different positions for 1 4 & 5).

Listening is such a great skill. Learning a little music theory is also super useful. These two things can get me playing along on tunes that I don’t know or even have never heard before. One more thing, learning my arpeggios in closed position has done the most to put the melody under my fingers, in any key, anywhere on the fretboard.
 

Uncle Rod Higuchi

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I think the first step to playing 'off the book' will be to pay attention to what you're doing.
Be there in the moment, and aware of what you are doing with your uke.

If questions arise, so much the better because, if you try to work them out you will be
more engaged and aware. (Why did the chord change from C to Am? or from C to F?
Could any other chord change have been appropriate? If so, how could that be? Can I
make similar changes in other songs? etc.)

This is where knowing a little Music Theory could be helpful... but even if you don't know
any Theory, if you sincerely try to understand the situation, you will be working out a
Musical (Theory) understanding of what you're doing with that piece of music.

Anyway, paying attention and asking questions (being engaged with what you're doing)
can help you to become more familiar with what you're playing and that
familiarity will go a long way to helping you feel more comfortable and confident when it
comes to playing and re-playing that song.

my 2 cents :)

keep uke'in',
 
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Rllink

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Even though I usually know songs in my play list well enough to play them without the music in front of me, a lot of times I tape a few lines or chords to the top of my uke though to help a little. But I like busking and if you are looking down at your music all the time when you are out busking it is hard to interact with people passing by, and that's where the tips are. Even if you don't have the song committed to memory you have to know them well enough to be able to look away from the music long enough to make eye contact and get their attention.
 
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robinboyd

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I can probably play less than 10 songs from memory, but if I can learn that many, there is nothing stopping me from learning more. My problem is that I struggle to remember lyrics, so most of the songs I can remember are instrumentals.
 

TopDog

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My brother in law could always remember the chords to a given song, but even as a young man, could NEVER remember the lyrics, even to songs he had sung since he was a child! He had some kind of memory lapse, and even a simple school song was beyond his recall. If I gave him the first line, he was generally okay, but even at that, I have seen him sruggle with the second line! Everyone has a different take on this, I suspect. I could always remember the words, long before I had the instrument (or the ability) to play the accompaniment!
 

bunnyf

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Lyrics are my downfall. I can usually remember the catchy chorus. If the verses follow a story line (found a girl, lost the girl, lonely and blue), it helps me remember. I play a lot of bluegrass, where using song charts is not encouraged. I do see the occasional good player break out a tiny cheat sheet (like they are embarrassed to be using it when they lead a song). The good thing is that if you’re not leading, you’re not expected to sing the verses.

With a lot of extra time on my hands, I am trying very, very hard to memorize cold, the lyrics of a core of say 25 songs and have a simple solo up to speed on a dozen. The chords come easier for me (by ear) but those lyrics are a struggle. I’m picking songs that I really like and am willing to listen and sing along to a million times. I am determined.
 

UkingViking

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I find it difficult to maintain a proper repertoire og songs to play be heart, but I will not question that it is the only right way to do it.
I don't gig, so when I spend a long time learning a song it is often just to not share it properly.
My way of sharing stuff I play has primarily been the Seasons of the Ukulele challenges here on UU. But those only give you a week to learn a new song and record it. This makes me play songs while I still need the sheet and hurry from song to song without learning them properly. Every now and then putting a sheet in the pile of songs that I would like to learn better. But in stead of practicing it I end up practicing another song that will actually have an audience.

I should take it more serious and learn a repertoire that will work for a setlist in case I ever find myself at a bonfire or something.