This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Sam Muir. Sam is recognised as one of the best ukulele players in the world. She is a performer, teacher, author and composer. She specialises in playing and arranging classical music on the ukulele and has released numerous books of classical ukulele arrangements as well as her own compositions. She told me how it all started, what she is currently up to, and where she is heading in ukulele terms. She also discusses her writing process and her practice routine. If you're into ukulele then this is a fascinating interview. You can read the interview here :
1) Can you explain when and how you first got into the ukulele ?
It was 2012 and I remember it very clearly. One of my guitar students, who was preparing for her ABRSM Grade 8 exam, asked me if she should join her school ukulele group. I was quite shocked. Firstly, because I only associated the ukulele with Tiny Tim and that was not an endearing image! I’d seen Tiny on TV in the 1970s singing Tip Toe Through the Tulips and found him quite terrifying! I also had no idea the ukulele was undergoing a revival so when I did some research on the internet I was really surprised at the ukulele’s popularity. As there was no school guitar ensemble I encouraged my student to join her school ukulele club. I thought it would be good for her to be involved in some kind of music group, especially as she liked to sing. When she asked me to teach her how to play the ukulele I initially regretted my enthusiasm! Anyway, off I trundled to my local music shop. Of course, I only went to look… Half an hour later I came out with my first ukulele was a Tanglewood Soprano.
2) You are a classical guitarist too – can you explain what the different challenges are when you play classical music on a ukulele ?
There are two basic challenges. The lack of bass on the ukulele and the quirkiness of the re-entrant tuning. Having spent many years playing a linear tuned guitar I was initially floundering with the fourth string high G. On the guitar your thumb usually plays a low note but on the ukulele when the thumb hits the fourth string it produces a high note. This can be very disorientating and surprising. It’s a bit like having your musical world turned upside down. I only started to come to terms with the re-entrant tuning when I discovered John King and his seminal work The Classical Ukulele. That book/CD is the benchmark for classical ukulele and I was fascinated by King’s campanela approach. King’s work really taught me how to use the high G and incorporate it into my own arrangements and compositions. My classical guitar background is, of course, hugely influential, particularly regarding my technique, but I am always mindful of treating the ukulele as unique and distinctive in its own way. I don’t want classical ukulele to be a sideshow to the classical guitar and this is why I started composing original works for the ukulele around 2016. I had made a lot of arrangements by classical guitar masters including Carulli, Sor and Tarrega but I began to realise that what classical ukulele needs is its own repertoire.
3) You have written several very well received books. Can we start with you telling us a little about your self published ebooks including ‘The Little Book of Sor’ and ‘The Little book of Carulli’.
My first book was The Little Book of Carulli. It happened almost by accident. I was just mucking around on the ukulele one morning and decided to try playing some guitar pieces. It didn’t go well until I picked up a book of easy studies by Carulli. These pieces worked surprisingly well on four strings. I either left out the lower notes or played them an octave higher. I was so excited I went running off to play them to one of my friends. It was her idea to create an eBook. I made YouTube videos of the pieces and was really amazed at the response. The next book was The Little Book of Sor and then (I think!) Carcassi and Giuliani. In between those books I also arranged The Little Book of Songs and Sea Shanties. I love folk and traditional tunes and many of these pieces are ideal for campanela style. Since 2017 my works have been published by Les Productions d’Oz. They have now published 8 books including the first ever dedicated classical ukulele method which is (unsurprisingly) called, The Classical Ukulele Method. The d’Oz books range from easy to advanced as there is a real need for progressive material.
4) From personal experience I find Carulli much easier to arrange for guitar than Sor. Sor was often accused of not really catering for beginners – have you found Sor to be more challenging when arranging ?
Sor was a wonderful musician. He didn’t just think about what was practical to play on the guitar he really thought about the harmony and the different voices. Consequently his music is more harmonically complex – even the easy pieces! When I arranged the first 12 Progressive Lessons from Op.31 by Sor (published by Les Productions d’Oz) I had to make some difficult decisions about either leaving out notes or putting them up an octave. Many of the pieces are quite awkward to play on the ukulele but they are also worth the extra practise as they are beautiful miniatures.
5) As well as your self published books, with the publisher Schott you put out the ‘Scottish Folk Songs’ book. Can you tell us about this book ?
Yes! Colin Tribe asked me to do the 35 Scottish Folk Tunes book as he was busy doing a couple of other books for Schott. I was absolutely delighted to take on this project as my dad was Scottish and I felt like was discovering my heritage. Musically it was a huge project as Schott also wanted a CD of all the arrangements. I did a lot of research into Scottish music as I wanted a mix of well known pieces like the Bonnie Bonnie Banks and less well know pieces like Ba ba mo leanbha. It was also a great opportunity to really explore campanela style in pieces like the Jig of Slurs.
6) Recently you have been putting out more of your own compositions via Les Prodcutions d‘Oz, including 12 progressive studies. Can you explain the idea and aims behind 12 Progressive Studies.
I started composing pieces for ukulele around 2016 because I really felt the ukulele needed its own repertoire rather than one borrowed from other instruments. Arranging pieces by Carulli and Sor etc was great but I always felt like I was reducing everything in order to play it on the ukulele. I wondered what would happen if I took the perspective of trying to expand on what a ukulele can do. The result was The Falling Rain and Variations on the Dowie Dens of Yarrow. These are advanced pieces which are now published by d’Oz. Initially, however, d’Oz wanted repertoire pieces for beginner to intermediate players and that is how 12 Progressive Studies came about. Due to the success of that book I followed it up with 21 Studies for Ukulele. All of these pieces are intended to aid fingerstyle technique. Although they are studies I wanted them to be musically pleasing. I was really happy that d’Oz liked them and wanted to publish them.
7) You arrange lots of classical pieces for the ukulele. Has your approach to arranging changed much over the years ?
Not really. I love using arpeggios and also campanela and I don’t imagine that will change. I have, however, become a lot more interested in composing and I think that is thanks to all the arranging I have done. When you arrange a piece you glimpse it through the composer’s eyes. It’s like looking through a microscope and what you see can be really beautiful and inspiring. It’s quite a different perspective from a performer. It’s also humbling because when I was arranging, for instance, the Prelude BWV1007 by Bach, I found myself apologising to Bach when I had to move something down an octave! It really felt like sacrilege! So, I would say arranging has made me a more thoughtful musician both in regard to what I play and how I play it.
8) You are very much in demand as a performer, workshop provider, teacher and writer. Do you get much time to practice these days and what are your top tips for practicing?
To be honest there never seems to be enough time to practise! So when I do practise I make it very moment count. I focus on the bars I can’t play well. I practise them slowly. Really slowly! I think about the left hand fingering and also the right hand fingering and try to understand why I am struggling and how to overcome the problem. One tip is to play just the right hand fingering without pressing down the left hand strings. It can sound a bit odd because you only hear the open strings but it is the best way of overcoming right hand picking problems. The same applies to the left hand. I practise the shifts and the different shapes. I work out which finger needs to be released, or pressed down, and when. It’s like a slow ballet and the benefits can be huge. If you don’t anylise your playing mistakes can easily become practiced. This means that if you go wrong in the same place more than 3 times you have ‘learnt’ your mistake. The most valuable tip I can give anyone is to practise S-L-O-W-L-Y!!! Detailed practise can be quite tedious because it’s easier and more fun to play the bits I can do well! So, discipline is important. But this is practise and there are many times I just pick up the uke and play for fun. Sometimes I’ll play something while waiting for the kettle, or the potatoes, to boil. Sometimes I play for 20 minutes before I go to bed. So, have ‘practise’ sessions but also have ‘play’ sessions.
9) Who is your musical hero and why ?
John Williams – as in the classical guitarist. My mum took me to see him play when I was about 11 and from that moment all I ever wanted to do was play the guitar. And now, of course, the ukulele! What I love about JW’s playing is the control and fluency. The sound is very pure and connected. I also like the way he just ‘plays’. He doesn’t make faces or wiggle around. I know a lot of people like performance ‘antics’ but when JW plays it’s like watching a graceful bird in flight. It is effortless and poetic.
10) And finally, if you could go on a car journey .....
A) Who would be your pillion passenger (it can be anyone from history) ?
John King! He pioneered classical ukulele and I have a lot of things I would like to discuss with him.
B) What music would you listen to ?
I would like a range of music to cater for different moods and landscapes. I would certainly chose John Williams’ El Diablo Suelto and Barrios CDs. Also, some Midnight Oil, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Plus, Max Richter, Arvo Part and the Bach Cello Suites. If I only had to chose one it would be the Bach Cello Suites.
C) Where would your destination be ?
Western Australia. I love this landscape – the colours, the flowers, the birds and the endless sky.