Now it’s time to learn our ABCs – musically, that is.

December 1, 2019

When learning a new language, it’s important to learn the alphabet used. Latin based languages like English, Spanish, and French use the familiar A,B,Cs, while the Greek, Hebrew, and Chinese languages use entirely different symbols.

I suggest that we go about learning music in a similar way. To become literate in music, let’s start with simply knowing the “alphabet” that is used: A,B,C,D,E,F, and G. Then they repeat.

These “letters” refer to the tones and/or pitches of Western music. We can also call them “notes.”

In between some of those notes are what we call “sharps” – which uses a # symbol or “flats” – which uses a lower case b as its symbol. Here’s where the sharps go: A,A#,B,C,C#,D,D#,E,F,F#,G,G#.

If we chose to use “flats” (b) instead, they would go here: A,Bb,B,C,Db,D,Eb,E,F,Gb,G,Ab.

Whether we use sharps or flats to talk about those notes, you might remember that there is always a sharp or flat between every letter, EXCEPT E and F, and B and C. Why are there two ways to refer to these extra notes? Let’s just save that discussion for later – in the meantime, that’s the way it is. And it’s pretty simple to learn.

Look at this diagram of a piano keyboard: there you have the white keys: A-G, and the black keys inbetween are the ones labeled # or b. There are 12 unique notes in all.

There’s your alphabet! Learn it. See that piano diagram in your head whenever you talk about music, and you will begin to see the relationship between notes.

We can go on and on about what to do with these notes. We can start to notice whether two notes are right next to each other, or separated by other notes. There are chords, intervals, scales, and all sorts of “theory” we can discuss, but for now – just learn this.

Now, some of you may say that there are a great number of successful musicians who don’t really know this. I agree. There are some people brought up in the church or in other musical families where music was a constant. From a young age, they absorbed music and can play magnificently without really thinking about the theory that goes into playing.

That’s sort of like how we learn to talk, isn’t it? From a young age, we listen, repeat, and start to learn how to form words and sentences. As we grow, this information is ingrained in our minds.

But you are learning music as an adult, I am guessing, and we simply don’t have the time to learn it intuitively as a young child does. We can fast-track our learning by getting to know the basics, and going on from there.

Feel free to comment and/or to ask questions.

Rhan

 

When In Rome…

April 18, 2019

When traveling to a foreign country, a one-time visitor may wish to participate by “parroting” a few simple phrases and memorizing the route to the most popular museum or tourist destination. One mispronounced word, however, and you may be saying, “I want to fish your pants heavenly,” instead of “Where is the bathroom?” Taking one wrong turn to the “best bakery in the city” may lead to the back alley behind who knows what on a one way street to the fish cleaning facility.

For safety and comfort, some people will want to stay with the tour group – huddled together, speaking through an interpreter, and always close to the bus that will take them back to familiar surroundings.

But for someone who wishes to really learn about the culture, language, and lay of the land; someone who plans on returning again and again and exploring – a different approach is suggested.

A language lesson or two to learn how to pronounce the words is a good starter, along with some basic understanding of key words – that will get one started along the path to learning the language. And rather than learning “left-right-straight for two blocks- turn right” style directions – a look at a map can help to understand alternate routes to get to where one is going, in case one gets lost.

I believe the same ideas can be applied to learning to play music, which is what you are doing when “strumming” your uke. Mimicking an UDDUD pattern may get you through a particular song as long as you play it right and don’t get lost. One wrong strum however, and may find you playing the opposite of everyone else, moving to the next chord early or late – and unable to rectify your simple slip of the hand.

Saying things like, “A em” instead of “A minor” is alright if you’ve never seen a chord name before (Am), but after that you might as well hang a sign on your head that says “DON’T TAKE ME SERIOUSLY – I’M A MUSICAL TOURIST!”

Sure, your first few visits to “Music-land” may find you getting lost in the song, or mispronouncing a musical term, but if your goal is to continue to participate in the most amazing experience in the world (in my humble opinion) – playing music – then a simple change of intention will get you started.

Begin by embracing the notion that with some time and commitment, you can become fluent in the language of music. Comfort yourself by knowing it won’t happen immediately, and that there is no time limit, but head in that direction nonetheless. Imagine yourself stepping away from the tour group and trying out a few phrases with a native speaker. Try taking a few lessons from a professional musician – someone who knows the language and can instruct you on the proper pronunciation and use of terminology. Make a point of acquiring new information and adding it to your musical “toolbox.”

Again, there is no time limit or test to pass. The key is to keep moving forward, rather than being content to simply idle in place. This is what I teach. This is how I instruct. I want you to step on the path that is shared by the rest of the world’s musical travelers, rather than to isolate yourself with the notion that you are “only a uke player.” You still have, and always will have, the option of deciding how far from the tour bus you want to venture – but I want you to know you can go as far as you wish.

I Don’t Care What the Audience Thinks

January 7, 2019

Perhaps you’ve have you heard the phrase, “You opinion is none of my business.”

In personal life, we can take that to mean that we needn’t let other people’s opinions based on their life’s experience, influence how we conduct ourselves.

In musical life – as an artist – I follow a similar mindset. The music I craft and present to an audience is a reflection of who I am and what I value. To ask for feedback and/or opinions is a can of worms I don’t wish to open.

Imagine asking 10 different people what they think about what you’re wearing. Depending on who you ask, you could get 10 different opinions, varying from “it’s wonderful!” to ” I don’t like it at all,” and anything in between. Who are you going to listen to?

If I were to ask a happy hour crowd what they wanted me to play, I could get a variety of answers, depending on who I asked. The woman who just got off of work and wants to party would want me to play something fast and familiar so she could dance and sing along. The older man who popped in for an afternoon beer might want a country western song. Another person might only want to hear happy songs, as they were just adjusting to life after a nasty divorce. Someone else might not like any music at all – they just came in to watch the game and want the TV turned up all the way.

If I wanted to be a “people pleaser” – who would I please? I could try to satisfy all their needs – compromise – but no matter what I did I could not please everyone.

And – oh yeah – there is that other opinion that mattered… MINE! The most important opinion in the room is that of the artist – the one who is on stage and is there to create! By following my heart – my intuition – I am playing the best music I can at that time and by doing so, I will attract listeners who like what I am doing. Little by little, gig by gig, I will attract a larger and larger audience of people who love my music. Those that don’t care for my choices will find another musician that better serves their needs and they both will be the better for it.

But what about constructive feedback? What’s wrong with seeking out some honest, helpful comments about your presentation? Nothing – but consider this:

I read something very helpful in a book about wealth. It said “If you want financial advice – don’t ask your parents or your friends… ask someone who knows. Ask someone who is wealthy!”

So, if you want advice about your music – ask someone who has already achieved a certain amount of success. Ask other musicians who present a similar stage presence and who have gathered a large following. Ask someone who you admire what their secret is.

Don’t change what you do – learn how to do it better!

Step back and listen.

August 23, 2018

Imagine you were a painter and given a nice set of paintbrushes, some paint, and were asked to contribute to a group painting.¬†Eager to use all your new “toys” – you zoom in on an area and start using them – creating your masterpiece. You use lots of color and nearly every one of your brushes. After all – that’s why you got them, right?

But stepping back – if you chose to do so – you’d realize that your contribution didn’t take into consideration the work that all the others did. Seeing the whole picture, you’d find your use of color was excessive, and you only needed to use one of your new brushes, saving the others for another piece of work.

And so it can be with playing music. Being part of a group doesn’t mean that it’s your opportunity to play every lick, every time, all the time. It isn’t the place to practice all the cool runs and scales you’ve been learning. It also may not be the time to hog the microphone and sing louder than everyone else.

Take a step back and listen to what is needed at that moment. The music may need a lot of your help, but it also may be that you only need to play one solitary note at just the right time to make that masterpiece complete. And that is your job: to provide what is needed, not to exercise your excess musical energy. There will be more songs to play, more gigs to participate in. You will have more opportunities.

Step back. Don’t use all your paint on one small area of the painting.

 

Don’t you think you ought to learn how to take off and land the plane first?

August 15, 2018

Perhaps you’ve admired those stunt pilots who turn and spin in the sky, leaving behind a trail of colorful smoke. Now suppose you decide you want to pursue that skill and take some stunt-flying lessons.

It would be a pretty good idea to learn now to take off, fly level, and land the plane first, right?

So who do so many beginning ukulele players (and players of other instruments, as well) want to start learning fancy “strums*” and fingerpicking patterns when they haven’t yet learned some of the very basics of rhythm and melody?

Like venturing into the woods without a basic knowledge of the terrain – memorizing a step-by-step set of moves is okay as long as you don’t get lost.¬† But take one step off the beaten path and you can suddenly find yourself lost, both in the woods, and in the music.

Think of how much more satisfying your playing experience would be if you knew a little of what you were doing. This doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice all other musical exercises until you know all about theory and rhythm. There are plenty of things to learn, and as long as you are learning something – you are doing good.

Fortunately, if you get lost and don’t know that to do while playing the uke, you won’t find yourself plummeting¬† toward the earth in a death spiral.

But take the time and effort to learn the basics. It’s worth it.

 

* Strums… let’s say “strumming patterns” instead.