DVD Review: Play Ukulele by Ear, by Jim D’Ville

When you head to a jam session, is your collection of “must-have” music sheets heavier than your ukulele?

That’s what it’s like for me. Wait—let’s change that: That’s what it was like for me before I spent some serious time with Jim D’Ville’s DVD, “Play Ukulele by Ear (click the link here for buying details).”

Jim, a gifted teacher and an ukulele player with some seriously awesome chops, created this DVD based on his popular workshops around the Portland and Pacific Northwest. Jim is also the co-author of the book/CD combo: “The Natural Way to Music.”

“Stop learning songs the old-fashioned way, one at a time,” reads the promo for the DVD. “Let Jim DVille teach you all the songs in advance by training your ears to tune by ear, hear chords, chord progressions, musical intervals and melodies.”

Uh oh; it sounds suspiciously like it’s dancing cheek to cheek with (close your eyes, it’s that ever-dreaded trepidation-filled topic of many ukulele players)—music theory.

You can open your peepers now. It’s not so scary—not the way Jim approaches it at least. In this DVD lesson package, he introduces you very gently to music theory, and he achieves it without sheets of paper scored with music notation and all those arcane sounding musical terms (well, except for a brief mention of C6 and why it is what it is—but then he drops that subject really quickly when he notices that eyes are glazing over).

But better than being an oh-so-benevolent beginner course on music theory, Jim’s DVD presents something that I think a lot of us ukulele players need (but don’t know how to put into words): He teaches us to listen and truly hear musical chords and tones and their relationships to each other.

Using nothing more than a tuning fork, he has even the most tuner-addicted amongst us confidently recognizing the right sound of an A note (lots of humming is involved) and then going from that starting point to tuning all four ukulele strings. For those of you who are scoffing right now that “anyone” can tune an ukulele without a tuner, please skip to the next blog entry; this DVD is not for you because you probably already “get” all the listening and putting of tones into your head and having it come back out in your fingertips.

For the rest of us, stick around with Jim for the full 52 minutes of this DVD and you’ll learn to really hear major chords—the “angst” of the IV chord, the tension of a V7 and the comforting home of a I. For this DVD, Jim uses the familiar key of C to make these concepts real, but he also explains how to count (with your fingers, this is simple stuff, you know) to do the same in other keys.

He mixes up the progressions of these three chords and before you know it, you’re playing a host of songs that you’ve discovered how to “find” in those sounds.

And that’s the major impact of this DVD: You truly learn how to listen to what you’re playing. Without a song sheet in front of me, I can now “hear” where the chord changes are in dozens of two- and three-chord songs. While Doctor Uke has a list of those songs and explains how to do it in words, Jim teaches in the DVD how to listen and hear those sounds through humming and assigning a feel and sound to each type of chord.

For those who previously considered themselves “tone deaf,” this is majorly reassuring—and effective. As Jim points out in the DVD at one point, “You’re not looking at a book. You’re not looking at a piece of paper. You’re feeling it and playing it.”

I’m looking forward to Volume II in which Jim promises more on diatonic chords (imagine—I now now what that means!), scales and the circle of fifths. But in the meantime, I have plenty to practice since Jim is very clear in the DVD about guiding the viewer toward developing a better ear through suggested practice ideas and concepts.

Have you ever tried to learn from someone who internalizes a concept but can’t explain it in terms you can understand? I believe this happens a lot in music—most teachers are so “tuned in” to their ears that they think everyone else also listens that way—and then they secretly believe you’re a bit stubborn when you don’t immediately hear it, too; they’ve run out of ways of explaining something that to them is as intrinsic as breathing.

Thankfully, Jim D’Ville seems to know what it’s like not to “hear” music and tones and intervals immediately. Through words and examples he’s gifted at explaining the concepts—and making sense of them—for even the least confident of us.

If you’re the type of player who relies on oodles of songsheets but would like to be able to “hear” the songs without all the chords written down, this is definitely the DVD for you. Not only is it easy to digest (Jim’s a funny guy), but it’s chock-full of methods to get you out of your “head” learning and into your ears.

“A little bit of work with your ears,” points out Jim, “And every song is at your fingertips.”

7 thoughts on “DVD Review: Play Ukulele by Ear, by Jim D’Ville”

  1. Hi, Tonya. Glad to see your post. Thanks for the review. I really appreciate your extended description of the DVD and opinion, especially the idea of ear training. I think I’ll get a lot from this video.

    Hope to get to see you again ( and have a lesson ) at next summer’s Windy City Uke Fest.

  2. I am a old guy in Redmond Oregon, involved in old time fiddle music mostly. Have a concert and a baritone uke and guitars and a couple of fiddles. I have been working on the fiddle mostly the last two and a half years.

    Your latest post strikes close to home for me. Thanks. I have used paper, sheet and tabs on the guitar and fiddle for years and need to get the by ear thing in place. Am working on it but it comes very slow. It would be nice to pick up my instrument of choice and play any favorite song and sing along without paper. My surfing on fiddle, violin, mandolin and guitar web sites get into the by ear vs sheet and tabs from time to time. I have a pretty long file of the thoughts and conclusions and what works for them thing. Some pretty deep stuff at times and disagreements, some of which I have included below. Hope it is not a big waste of time overkill for you.

    In any event the general consensus seem to be that you just have to lay the paper down and pay your dues on the by ear. How they did it and results get a pretty good working over on the various site forum threads. If you did a search on most of these music sites or a general Google search on learning by ear or some such you should get several hits

    It seems to come down to the probability that the brain is in general somewhat split left and right side and works some different on each side. The sheet or dot reading, tabs and fingering and muscle memory seem to be on one side and the by ear stuff on the other though there is obviously some interaction. To do the ear stuff you have to have a reasonable grasp of the instrument fingering and chord fingering and picking and strumming and be able to tell you hands what to do, hopefully pretty much up to speed. It needs to be ingrained enough that you can work on playing a tune without having to tell your hands and fingers what to do. It needs to get on automatic to where you just play what you hear.

    You just have to take the time every day to lay the paper down for a while and work on the tunes in your head and play along with your you tube favorites or cds or dvds or whatever. A slowdown capability such as on Windows Media Player may help. I have a cheapie casette player and a sony digital recorder, the walmart $40 one that I record my favorite or “to learn” tunes on. fiddlehangout and fiddlefork have music sections with lots of tunes to listen to if any of them fit your desired repertoire. You do have to sign up to access them but it is free. It seems like playing with others gives the fastest results though. Jam time….. I don’t have much opportunity here in central Oregon. Oh to be near a lot of venues.

    Have a nice day and enjoy and thanks again for your great site.

  3. Thanks,Tonya. I met Jim at the Portland Ukefest 09 and loved his workshops. It was thanks to reading your blog about your own adventure at the 08 ukefest that I wanted to go to the 09. And fortunately it worked out I could go. Was a great experience. Judy

  4. Tonya, thanks for the review. I play the guitar and ukelele. I’m guessing I should be able to work on Jim’s DVD with my guitar but would like your confirmation. I can’t seem to find such user-friendly DVD for the guitar. But I’m sure in theory what I can learn from Jim will apply to other instruments too.

  5. I think it’d work great for you, Jeff. The “common” chords that ukulele players like to play are a focus of the DVD, but, as you know, you can just use the same chord name with your guitar chord shape. Jim’s focus is on listening and “hearing” the difference between major chords, minor chords, sevenths, etc. Those are the same regardless of how many strings are under your fingers! Enjoy the DVD and tell me how it worked for you.

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