Many of you know that I recently been teaching myself how to play the ukulele.
For someone who has never learned to play an instrument, learned how to read and write music or even dared sing in public, this is a big deal for me. You can read how I got started with this instrument in my post Ukulele Dreaming.
Admittedly, when I first bought the instrument, it was a whimsical purchase. It was on special for $26 and I had a hankering to buy something. Anything. Other women buy shoes, handbags and Le Creuset cookware. Me, I’m a little bit different. I like quirky stuff.
So the ukulele it was.
“After all, ” I reasoned to myself, “it’s time to put my theory to practice. Can I learn an instrument all by myself with only my self-motivation and a myriad of websites, apps and YouTube clips?” I had to test it out. I may not have 10 000 hours of practice to become an expert but I had the next best thing – massive amount of resources, references, videos and information at my fingertips.
Pft. How easy was this going to be?
How have I been learning?
Initially I practiced in front of the computer. The computer was my ukulele teacher.
It wasn’t a bad teacher but boy, was it scattered and unstructured! Google sent me down all sorts of paths. I started to get lost. I questioned the value.
The computer provided me with lots of information, examples, resources, sound clips and videos in no particular order or logical sense. There was SO much information out there on the internet that my brain simply couldn’t make sense of it all. Every person who has picked up a ukulele and strummed it seemed to also have created some resource to share with others online.
And if they’re weren’t teaching you the ukulele, they were showing how their cats were playing too….
It was getting too much for me because I spent more time surfing the internet than actually playing. I felt guilty every time I looked at the clock and saw that an hour or two had flown by when I could have spent that time actually PLAYING the instrument.
I had the formula all wrong.
It wasn’t about reading, seeing, watching, listening to everything and everyone’s opinions, suggestions, advice in the hope of picking up some pearls of wisdom to become an expert.
I actually had to pick up the instrument, play, practice, repeat. Mistakes and all.
If anything, I became confused. My brain reached cognitive overload to the point where I strummed mindlessly without any clear plan of what chords I should learn, how to strum, what to practice, when to practice. I had no plan to follow. No goal.
I was in dangerous territory I was neither progressing nor regressing. I was zoning out.
No man’s land.
The same brain space you’re in when you leave the house every morning to drive to work only to find yourself at work some time later with no recollection of your drive.
I started to question, “why am I even doing this if I’m not achieving anything and going around in circles?”
So what did I do?
He had seen me practice long enough to realise that it wasn’t a passing fancy. Playing a quality instrument made a difference because it sounded different, more resonant.
For the first time, I felt that my strumming sounded better and this meant that I had to take some action of my learning plan.
First to go was the time wasting on the internet.
Secondly, I was going to use the book that came with the ukulele. (Really this was to prevent me from using the computer or the tablet so I didn’t have my attention diverted to other websites or incoming messages, tweets, Facebook posts, IMs, DMs, emails…).
The old fashioned book forced me to focus on the chords I wanted to learn. Just the chords.
Thirdly, I decided that I would only use JustinGuitar for his basic video tutorials on chords and strumming. He seemed like a nice enough chap and his videos were short. I play them right through from start to finish once or twice and then stop to replay sections with him to practice the chord he has just demonstrated.
He wears peak caps too so he gets my vote.
Fourthly, I had to get my strumming and timing right.
This tip came from my father who played flamenco guitar for many years. He showed me how to tap my foot in time. Harder said than done but he did promise that I could borrow his metronome (all these new words I’m learning – I called it the tic toc thing!). When you’re trying to get your fingers in the right position, to get the strumming pattern right and on top of it all, trying to tap your foot in time, it does get muddled up.
He sat down with me one afternoon and taught me to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star but rather than strumming the uke, he showed me how to pick the strings.
The lesson then morphed into how to play the ukelele like a flamenco guitarist followed soon after with it being played like a bouzouki with Zorba The Greek, so I don’t know if this provided any actual benefit to me but I guess this instrument brings out all sorts of funny situations for guitarists. They too, begin to zone out into their musical world strumming away while the rest of us mere mortals stare blankly at their prowess.
When you don’t know how the ukulele is meant to be played, you keep your mouth shut and take a free lesson where you can get it.
Fears to Overcome
I didn’t realise that you had to tune the ukulele often which can be annoying. It’s just another additional distraction that prevents you from jumping straight into your practice. However, it’s critical. I started tuning the instrument myself but I think I’m tone deaf. Hearing the chord on the tuner and then plucking it on the instrument – to me, it sounds the same. I have my husband’s face to guide me. If he grimaces, it’s not tuned correctly.
Instead, I hand over the ukulele to him so that he could tune it and he gladly obliges. It’s because he hates hearing the noise I’m making. To my ears, it’s all music so I don’t know what his problem is. He tells me he uses an iTunes app called GuitarTuner.
I must learn to tune the instrument myself. This is number 1 goal for me.
Another surprise for me was that many ukulele players I have seen on the internet also sing. This was new to me and it was first highlighted again by my father who simply said, “I didn’t have you down for a ukulele player because you don’t sing.”
Singing was never part of this deal.
I didn’t know you had to sing when you play the ukulele but if you don’t, the song melody doesn’t seem to make sense. So I hum. Even humming sounds awkward.
Strumming. Not singing. *arms folded across chest*
How do I practice?
I don’t practice in front of the computer anymore.
My father is an artist and some time ago, he told me that his love of painting seemed to wane when he was inundated with information and reading about how other artists work from the artist magazines and from the internet. I asked him what he meant. He explained that to become an expert or a master at your art, you can read and watch how others do it but it doesn’t detract from the fact that you need to apply it yourself, you need to practice it repeatedly, you need to experiment, be curious, fail and try again. Most importantly, you need to find your own niche and manner in which you paint – your own signature style. Having every expert show you what they do, how they do it, why they do it may only end up confusing and make you doubt your own abilities and skills and question your art and style – so you need to be discerning.
I wondered if this could be applied to all jobs and tasks – or whether it was just for artists. I reasoned that this approach may be for people who have reached some competence in their craft but who want to reach a level of mastery.
I wasn’t there yet because I was unable to discern.
I was trying to use the internet as a teacher but it was more of a performance support tool. It didn’t provide genuine feedback or encourage me to practice. In fact, it was more of a distraction.
So now I use it as a reference instead when I need to move onto the next learning task. For example,to learn a new strumming pattern.
Using the Ukulele tabs website for the strumming patterns, I now pick out one pattern and strum it repeatedly in the chords of C, G, A and F until it becomes natural and flows for me without thinking. The next night, I add another strumming pattern and repeat the process.
To make it easier to practice, the ukulele is on a stand within easy reach. It used to be stowed away safely in its carry bag but to encourage practice, it has to be out in the open where I can just grab it and start strumming. It has to be accessible.
My ukulele practice made me think of the time I was learning how to knit. I taught myself to knit through books when I was in primary school. I never had anyone to show me or attended any knitting classes. One day, when I stumbled upon a Knit Camp in the beautiful town of Daylesford in regional Victoria, my life changed forever. In that one weekend alone, my knowledge of knitting had exponentially increased simply by being surrounded by men and women who were subject matter experts who showed, told, guided and demonstrated knitting techniques that were so simple yet blew my mind. It was the first time that I realised that social learning was important aspect in learning. Imagine how advanced my knitting would have been if I had joined a group to learn and share. I wrote about another situation in What We Can Learn From Craft Networks Social Learning in Action.
So despite my initial thinking that I could learn all by myself using only the online resources, I am now ready to learn with others in a group as it will take my playing to another level and re-inspire me. I had to have that quiet time to by myself to pick up some basic chords and strumming patterns before I could face learning in a social situation. Besides, I’m more confident facing a group with some strumming patterns and some chords under my belt. Of course, also having the right instruments facing them with my Kala ukulele than my $26 el cheapo ukulele will also help. Luckily my good friend let me know that there is the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective – a public group that holds lessons every Wednesday at a Melbourne pub so guess where I’ll be on Wednesday nights. Social learning in action once again.
So with all this new skill learning, it has put the theory into practice and I’m seeing it for real because I’m deliberately making an effort to stop, think and reflect what I’m learning and how I’m learning. You really do need to be internally motivated and self directed. You need to continually practice and repeat; you need to have genuine feedback and a goal to achieve and most importantly, rather than be swamped with information that only confuses you, use subject matter experts like Mr Miyagi from the Karate Kid who can guide and show you the way.
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