Page last updated at 09:46 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 10:46 UK

My Prom debut... on the ukulele

Musician Jim Simmons signed up to join a chorus of 1,000 ukulele players at the Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms on Tuesday night.

He reveals how he got in shape for the gig - and whether it sounded any good...

Jim Simmons and his ukulele at the Royal Albert Hall
More than 1,000 players, of all levels of ability, joined Tuesday's Prom

Aren't ukuleles brilliant?

They're cheap (mine was £25), they're easy to learn (if you know some chords on the guitar, then you know some on the uke) and, best of all for someone like me who has spent most of their musical life lugging giant keyboards around the country, they're small.

Really, really small.

You can get some beautiful mellow music from them, as proven by Israel Kamakawiwo'Ole's haunting rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and George Formby's sensitive interpretation of With My Little Stick of Blackpool Rock.

I first picked up a uke a few years ago and, despite not actually being very good at it, I couldn't resist the opportunity of performing at the Proms with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

I've seen the orchestra several times now and, as well as performing witty arrangements of many a rock standard, they prove what a fun and versatile instrument the uke is.

I got my ticket as soon as I could and signed up as a "performer". I downloaded the sheet music from the BBC website and watched the training videos... A useful first tip was to tighten up my tuning pegs with a screwdriver.

David Hinchcliffe and Proms director Roger Wright discuss the ukulele Prom

The piece selected for audience participation was Beethoven's Ode to Joy. As I read through the sheet music, I was disappointed that they hadn't left a pause anywhere so that we could hear Ludwig spinning in his grave.

I practised in front of my seven-week-old son, who was transfixed.

My three year old daughter on the other hand just kept shouting: "Stop Daddy! I want to watch beebies!"

There was a tricky chord change from G something to F sharp something but, after an hour or so, I think I'd got it. If I played it wrong on the night, I'd blame it on the notoriously difficult acoustic at the Royal Albert Hall.


I arrived at the venue early and walked around the Albert Memorial, which was surrounded by a couple of candle-lit gypsy ukulele encampments.

All seemed quiet as I approached the hall but as I walked round I came across the endless queue of Prommers snaking round the block, many with their little ukuleles in their hands.

This was to be the gathering of the clans: A secret brother and sisterhood united by the mantra "four strings good, six strings bad" had at last risen up.

Jim Simmons
In the chorister's stalls, awaiting my prom debut

Sat in the choir, I was surrounded by ukuleles of all sizes and hues. I couldn't stop myself from thinking that we could have a lovely bonfire if we chucked them all in the middle of the room. Then the Ukulele Orchestra, the leaders of our cult, took to the stage to lead us through rehearsal.

Rehearsal may be too strong a word. We played round it once.

The gig contained many of the usual favourites. Anarchy in the UK; Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries mixed with Hawkwind's Silver Machine. Then, after Jerusalem and Psycho Killer (they should try that on the last night), it was our turn.

To be honest, I could only really hear the three or four players around me, so we slipped into our own mini ensemble. They were playing the chords, so I took the melody. It probably wasn't the most beautiful noise ever to have come out of the proms but it was a joyful experience.

Afterwards, in one of the slower numbers, the audience replaced lighters aloft with ukuleles aloft which was a strangely poignant sight.

I bet U2 don't have that.

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