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.”