Learning the uke eventually means teaching the uke

James Hill says that once you learn the ukulele, teaching comes with the territory. It doesn’t matter if you’re a rank beginner like me–someone will see how much fun you’re having and ask you to teach them.

In my case, that someone is my mom.

She bought a uke last month and I’ve been teaching her the basics. She now knows the C, F, G7, and Am chords (“the big four”) and is working on changing between them smoothly. Yesterday, I had her try to figure out the chords to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” by ear (like me, she’s classically trained and depends too much on sheet music so I wanted to show her how empowering learning by ear can be).

The ukulele, more than any other instrument I’ve encountered, is incredibly social. I don’t know whether it’s because of its unintimidating size, its cheerful sound, or the laid-back culture surrounding it, but I’ve noticed the ukulele draws people in. Sure, you can play it seriously, but you don’t have to and that’s okay. And even if you play it seriously, that doesn’t mean taking yourself seriously, and I love that.

I can’t wait to see where Mom’s ukulele adventure takes her.

The ukulele learning curve is getting steeper

I started working on lessons from Ukulele Corner Academy this past week and holy crap, learning fingerstyle playing is hard!

My current practice routine is focused on getting my right hand index and middle fingers coordinated enough to “sweep” (not “pick”) the strings with a clear, even tone and coordinate those movements with the C major scale and the chromatic scale. My guitar lessons have helped with the initial training in keeping my left hand fingers low and close to the fretboard, but it still takes a lot of concentration transferring that skill to the ukulele. I’m also cleaning up my chord changes in the more common keys (C major is pretty much drilled in my brain, G major needs work, and I haven’t even tackled F, A, or D major chord progressions yet).

I know I’ll be stuck on Grade 1, Unit 1 for a while, but I enjoy figuring out why I’m making mistakes, fixing them, and watching myself incrementally improve (is there any other kind of improvement?). My guitar teacher says that practice is a form of meditation, and perhaps that’s what draws me back to my practice space day after day.

Music practice doesn’t always involve making noise

To help relax the fingers and forearm (and shoulders, and neck, and everything else), my guitar teacher wants us to do preliminary exercises at the start of each practice session. Her suggestions include slowly walking our left-hand fingers across the strings, slowly moving our right hand up and down in our picking motion without touching the strings, and gradual string push downs to sensitize each finger to how the string feels before it contacts the fret.

I admit I was rather perfunctory about these exercises in the past, but I decided I should spend some extra time and attention on them this past week. I’m glad I did because they revealed some previously overlooked tension in my shoulders and fingers while I played. Arrgh!

I know I sound like a broken record talking so much about muscle tension, but it seems to be a universal problem among musicians. When you think about it, playing an instrument requires you to hold and move your body in unnatural ways for long periods of time. No wonder our muscles complain.

Staying relaxed continues to be an uphill battle. I don’t know what this says about me, but it’s not surprising. #recoveringTypeA

On the uke front, things are starting to get challenging. I’m practicing the C major pentatonic and diatonic scales and am learning how to play my first 8-bar chord melody song. It’s harder than simply playing chords and strumming, but I’m not much of a strum-and-sing person anyway (I’m a bad singer). Someday, my clumsy fingerpicking will sound musical, but for now I’m simply glad to hit the right notes.

Making music without hurting myself (plus bonus chord progression video)

This past week, I cut my guitar practice in half (to 30 minutes a day) to reduce the risk of injury. Yesterday, I got cocky and practiced over an hour.

My left arm reminded me that was a bad idea.

I know better. I mean, I wouldn’t go and run 6 miles right out of the gate, or even after a month of training, so why did I think playing an instrument would be any different? Especially something as unwieldy as a guitar?

I’ve managed to make surprising progress in 4 weeks, but I have to remind myself it’s only been 4 weeks. My finger, hand, and arm muscles are still in the beginning stages of development. I’m still learning how to be aware of how my whole body responds and to let go of any tension that occurs while I practice. I’m glad my teacher emphasizes good technique and whole body awareness to avoid problems later on. Even Steve Vai had to learn this the hard way (although he still manages to shred with only one hand).

I was never taught the importance body awareness in my previous music training, which may explain why I hit plateaus I couldn’t break out of and, in the case of drums, had to ice my arms for a week after over-practicing with poor technique for months.

To improve my ergonomics, I use a guitar support to hold my guitar at the correct angle without a footrest. I also sometimes use a strap on my ukulele when I want to play standing up or move my left hand more freely without worrying about supporting the neck at the same time (thanks to, um, female anatomy, I’ve found it nearly impossible to support and play the uke higher on my chest, so I rest the uke on my right leg when I’m not using a strap).

Injuries are depressingly common among musicians. It’s not easy being patient with myself to avoid them, but that’s why focusing on the long game is so important–practicing less now and gradually increasing my time will let me practice more in the future.


Bonus: more chord progression fun with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Previous post on chord progressions here.

“Little Brown Jug” broke me

I get it, I need to learn simple songs since I’m a beginner, but does every song have to be, well, kind of lame? I was fine with “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” because everyone starts with that or “Hot Cross Buns.” Then came “Oh My Darling Clementine” and “Li’l Liza Jane” (I spiced it up with my own lyrics) and after that “Wayfaring Stranger” (I actually liked this song and learned to play in a minor key). I managed to get through “What Did The Deep Sea Say” because singing along to a moderate calypso strum was enough of a challenge to make me forget I was dying inside. I tolerated “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Down in the Valley” to learn how to strum faster. I even got through “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” especially with Tiger’s Opening Day coming up.

Then “Little Brown Jug” appeared in my next lesson. We’re supposed to learn how to play fast downstrums with accents on beats 2 and 4. The songs after that? “Oh, Susanna” and “Buffalo Gals.”

I just can’t anymore.

It’s been two days and I still haven’t touched “Little Brown Jug.” I’ve practiced the strum technique (it’s not hard), but the song itself makes me want to garrote someone with my C string. It’s not a feeling I want associated with my music practice, and I decided it was time to look around for something that was a better fit.

I’ve wanted to learn fingerstyle playing for a while now. I originally was going to wait until I finished my current strumming lesson plan, but “Little Brown Jug” broke me.

As a palate cleanser, I hunted around and found “Peace Like an Ukulele” by James Hill, which sounded like exactly what I needed. Plus, it was free–you can’t beat that! And the best part is that it’s all played with the thumb, just like when I tune my uke. I love that he wrote it as a simple, meditative piece that sounds harder to play than it actually is.

In case you’re not familiar how innovative James Hill is on the uke, here’s a sample:

It’s time to change gears when the songs themselves make me want to avoid practicing. I’d rather do tedious technique exercises (and I do on my guitar) and learn no songs than do what I’m doing now. Luckily, I found that James Hill has lesson plans that look like they’ll be a better fit (more diverse music, more music theory, and more emphasis on chord melodies). I also plan to sign up for Ukulele Corner Academy to focus on classical music. Yes, classical ukulele is a thing, and I’m so here for it.

I’ll still complete my strumming lessons, but I’ll find my own songs to practice to. That’s not the teacher’s fault, by the way. It’s simply a mismatch of musical tastes. I’m learning how to play, and that’s what really matters.

Ukulele practice is a guitar practice preview

I’ve been studying ukulele for 7 weeks and guitar for 2 weeks now. Learning both simultaneously has worked out even better than I’d hoped. When I started on this adventure, I decided to learn ukulele first to overcome my intimidation around stringed instruments. I thought it would take six months before I was ready to tackle the guitar.

I bought my guitar 5 weeks after buying my ukulele.

The ukulele has a reputation for being easier to learn than guitar, at least in the beginning, and I’ve found that to be true. Fewer and softer strings, simpler chord shapes, less pressure required to hold down chords, smaller size, all of these help. Right now, the guitar still feels unwieldy to me (and my guitar is a smaller model), and the steel strings are much harder to hold down than the nylon strings on my uke. The callouses on my fingertips from practicing my uke aren’t quite enough to handle my guitar either.

Then there’s properly positioning my fingers at the guitar frets–I’m currently only at the fifth fret with my index finger and despite my piano background it’s already a stretch to get my pinky at the right position on the eighth fret when I try to play notes. The pinky can reach, but staying bent and low to the string without tensing up is difficult. This is never a problem with the uke.

Just because the ukulele is easier than guitar doesn’t make it “easy,” though. This week, I learned the D7 chord, which is a barre chord that requires me to hold down three strings with one finger and the fourth string with another finger. I guess barre chords are the bane of every string player’s existence. It took me several focused practice sessions to just figure out the right placement and pressure of my finger and thumb to get the chord to play cleanly while still staying light enough to change chords. I’m still trying to get the chord changes consistent, but at least now I know what a barre chord is and the basic mechanics of playing one so I won’t be flailing (as much) when I finally learn them on guitar.

Thanks to the uke, I’m not intimidated by chords or fingerpicking anymore. I’m not even close to learning those on the guitar, but once I do I’ll just be learning a concept I know on a new instrument. Once I tackle learning the fretboards on both instruments, I’ll work on the uke first, as always. 4 strings and 2 octaves will be a great way to work up to 6 strings and 3 octaves.

Deliberate practice = boring blog posts and that’s okay

On its face, deliberate practice is boring. In music, it’s certainly boring to listen to. Even the most patient listener wouldn’t want to hear me switching between the same two ukulele chords for 5 minutes straight with only my corrections and tempo adjustments to relieve the monotony. Also, who the heck wants to read about it? There are no surprising hacks and no instant results.

But for me, deliberate practice is everything. I suppose it illustrates the disconnect between what looks interesting from the outside and what’s actually important. I’ve always been frustrated by my parents, especially my dad, who are big classical music fans and believe that accomplished musicians simply…appear. The classical music world’s obsession with prodigies doesn’t help. I suppose this was why they didn’t think I could be a musician–because they saw I had to work at it. News flash: we ALL have to work at it. Oh well, I’ll continue to hole up with my ukulele and enjoy the tiny improvements that are invisible to everyone but me.

I also started learning guitar this past week. Right now, I’m focused on building proper technique (I’m learning from The Principles of Correct Practice for Guitar by Jamie Andreas) and will probably not be able to play a song for many months. Boring? Yes. Effective? We’ll see, but I feel this is the right approach for me.

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.