Rather than prattling on in my normal fashion about the amazing talent and generous nature of the subject of this interview, I offer instead a short poem about Ken Middleton in honor of his love of Haiku:
As you will find out in the interview below, Ken is passionately engaged with the art of music, and with those who share his interests. His commitment to musicians and their craft is clearly demonstrated in the care and detail with which he answered my humble questions.
Donnie Bubbles: In addition to the ukulele, you also play guitar and piano. When you choose an instrument for a song, how does that choice influence the structure of the song? What makes you choose the ukulele for a particular song?
In short, I just choose the songs that interest me and I don’t pick them just because I think they will sound good with a ukulele accompaniment. I try to keep the accompaniment straightforward and uncluttered. Fancy playing doesn’t necessarily make good music.
When I am recording a song I usually play it live one vocal part with one ukulele part. I try to avoid overdubbing, miming and multi-tracking. I like the simplicity of this process. That’s not to say that I don’t use multi-tracking at other times. I think that modern audio software makes just about anything possible, and some YouTubers use it to great effect.
When I record a song, what I don’t usually do is to listen to the original before I record my version. Neither do I practice the song very much (if at all) before recording it. I find that this keeps the music fresh and gives it the live feel that I really like. It may have a few wrong notes, but so what?
DB: As a lifelong Glass/Reich/Riley fan, I was so excited to hear you doing minimalism on the ukulele. Have you come across a song or style of music where the ukulele could not work?
KM: I really feel that the ukulele has not even come close to reaching its potential as a serious instrument. I’m really interested in expanding the possibilities of the ukulele. In the UK particularly, many people still think of it as a comedy instrument and immediately start talking about George Formby. Now I’ve nothing against that style of playing, it’s just not for me.
I was recently teaching the topic of Minimalism to a high school music group and I realised that the ukulele was the perfect vehicle for conveying some of the effects and techniques of this style. Just as Steve Reich had used the marimba, I decided to try the ukulele. Minimalism works well if you are economical with the way you use the instrument. Because the ukulele has its limitations (like few strings, range of only a couple of octaves, less volume than most instruments), it should work very well only playing a minimal amount of material. I have hardly had chance to explore the possibilities of minimalism yet. There will be more to come this year.
DB: The bulk of your covers are Leonard Cohen songs. While most people know of him, far too few could identify more than a couple of his songs. What could we all learn from a closer study of Cohen’s works?
So, what do I admire about Cohen’s songs? Well for one thing, he accompanies very sparingly - sometimes just a guitar. Perhaps this is one reason why they seem to work well on the ukulele. Another important factor is that he writes simple, beautiful melodies. But because he sings in that deep, sonorous voice, people often fail to recognise just how tuneful his songs are. Again this helps them to stand up with only the simplest ukulele accompaniment. One more thing I must say about Cohen’s songs is that they have wonderful lyrics. His words are sometimes mysterious, often obscure, but always interesting. Perhaps this is why the song Hallelujah has become so well-known. I really don’t think it has anything to do with Jeff Buckley.
DB: Everyone knows you need to practice, practice, practice to become proficient at an instrument. Of that practice time, what skills do you think are the most important to focus on for a beginner, and for an intermediate player?
KM: I don't practice as much as I should. As I have already said, I rarely practice songs. But one other thing, and this will horrify some people, I never play scales. However, I am definitely not saying that these things are bad – it’s just that I do things a little differently. I am not very interested in being a brilliant, virtuoso player. I don't care if I am never able to play Gently Weeps. What I prefer to do is to play simple things, but play them well. What I practice is techniques. And when I do a video for a piece of bluegrass or Celtic music (for which I have done a tab sheet), I like to get it more or less right so that less experienced players can learn from it.
The biggest asset to have when playing any instrument is to be able to understand the music you are trying to play. It doesn't matter how many different chords you can play if you don't understand how to use them. Learning something about the rudiments and theory of music is vital. This is perhaps the most important thing for an aspiring ukulele player to find out about. If you understand what you are playing, you don't have to rely on other peoples understanding, and you don't have to keep asking for the tab for a song that you like. There are a lot of young players out there who think that they can learn to play by some kind of osmosis. What they actually need to do is to practice and understand the basics. The problem is, of course, that young players hear something that they like and, naturally, want to play it for themselves. I have to say that there is a great deal of real enthusiasm for the ukulele at the moment and that is a really positive thing.
DB: I think know what you mean. I have been playing ukulele for just over a year. Most of my practice time has been spent leaning specific songs from tabs and chord sheets. While it is gratifying to be able to play my favorite song from beginning to end, and physically I am getting more and more comfortable with both fingering and strumming, I am starting to see the gaps in my musical knowledge and how those gaps are keeping me from moving forward from being a "player of songs" toward being a "musician."
KM: There is a bigger problem though. Compared to other instruments (guitar, flute, saxophone, etc.), there is a real lack of good instructional material for the ukulele. Great players like Dominator and Wilfried Welti are producing beautiful and inspired arrangements, but how do people get to the stage of being able to tackle these pieces? They need to learn the basics, but this is easier said than done. However, the situation is rapidly improving as the ukulele gains in popularity. New tuition books are becoming available all the time and I would encourage aspiring players to purchase some of this material and work though it conscientiously.
My wife Liz, for instance, would love to play the ukulele. The problem is that she wants to learn it without doing any work (she's given me the okay to say this). Just as with any other instrument, you must approach ukulele playing with a serious intention to learn correctly. This means practising the right things - and not just playing through your favourite song over and over again. I don't know whether Liz will decide to put the time in or not, but, if she wants to learn, this is what she has to do. For both the beginner and the intermediate player, the most important skill to learn is to understand the music you are trying to play. Then you need to practice it properly.
Fortunately, for those learning the ukulele, ukulele players are the most friendly, helpful, generous and considerate musicians that I have ever had the honour to be associated with. It is just incredible how many real friends you can make, and all because of one thing - the ukulele. It truly is a wondrous instrument.
DB: What projects do you have in store for us this year?
KM: I shall, of course, carry on with the things I am already doing. There are plenty of Cohen songs I haven’t tackled yet. As I’ve already said, I shall be composing some more minimalist music for the uke. I hope to record more jazz/swing music, particularly songs from the 30’s and 40’s. And I shall continue to review ukuleles. Any company that sends me an instrument will get my honest and impartial judgement.
However, I do have a project in the pipeline that I am really excited about. I am in the process of putting together several eBooks of ukulele music which should be available for purchase later this year. The first one is likely to be a collection of either bluegrass or Celtic tunes. These will be all-new and are not currently available on the Internet. The music/TAB will be in PDF format and will probably be accompanied by a MIDI file. By using a MIDI file I can email the eBook to the buyer. MIDI files can also be slowed down to make practice easier. The books will contain lots of information about how to play each of the tunes.
2008 was a really good year and things are going very well for me this year. I would really like to take this opportunity to thank all the players and ukulele enthusiasts who have given me so much support and encouragement on YouTube.