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.