Ukulele 11 days in: setbacks are part of the process

My first few days owning a uke were bewildering. How do I hold this without dropping it? Which peg tunes which string and which way am I supposed to turn it? How am I supposed to hold down this string without touching that one? Where do I press? How hard do I press? Why do I get a “chunk” sound or a buzz instead of a clear tone? I even texted a uke-playing friend asking, “G7 chord WTF?” because I couldn’t get my fingers to land in the right spots.

After a few more days of practice, though, I managed to get the basic C, F, and G7 chords down and even change between them, slowly. The uke still didn’t feel as comfortable and stable as I wanted, but I was at least making passable sounds. My fingers stopped being sore as I built up callouses. I put in more practice time, but I didn’t monitor my body as closely as I should have.

Then my elbow started hurting.

I figured out that the way I was holding the ukulele in my left hand was making my forearm tense. Too much practicing too soon probably didn’t help either. So I’m backing off on practicing chord changes and returning to more fundamental things so I can watch for body tension more closely. Areas I’m experimenting with: the lightest touch I can get away with on the strings (to keep my hand relaxed), different finger locations (a millimeter makes a big difference), arm positions, thumb positions, where the neck rests on my hand, my breathing, my posture. In other words, boring but important foundations.

One problem I caught right away once I slowed down and paid more attention: I was resting my right pinky on the uke while I was strumming. That’s the kind of bad habit I want to eliminate right away before it becomes ingrained.

I used the downtime I would’ve spent practicing in other ways, like studying music theory and ear training. My music reading is a bit rusty and my ear training is non-existent (it’s bizarre that I went through so many years of serious classical music study without it–it’s why I’m now concentrating on learning by ear as much as I can).

I definitely enjoy teaching myself with online lessons more than taking live lessons. I can take as much time as I need to learn something without the pressure to show outward progress each week. If it takes me two months to play “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” smoothly, with proper technique and without tension in my body or hands, that’s okay.