Learning a song is like carving a head from a block of wood.

When I am teaching a song to someone, or for that matter, to myself; I often think about how much learning a song is like carving a face from a block of wood.

It wouldn’t make much sense to start carving the eyelids and forehead wrinkles when you haven’t even knocked down the corners of the chunk of wood, would it? There are several steps to carving a face, as illustrated in this picture: first you do some basic markings to guide you through the process. Then, you start to get a general shape of the head, adding in details slowly. The face begins to take shape long before the details are in place, and it is only after certain steps are taken, that one can begin to work on those little details, like the eyebrows and hairlines.

So it is with music, as well.

A picture showing how a wood carver carves a face from a block of wood.

Learning a song – from left to right.

First you take a look at the song you want to learn. What are the chords involved? Are there any extra hard ones you need to spend a little time on first?
(This might be the first carving picture – where you are marking the wood, and starting to knock some of the corners off.)

Then, without even trying to play the song – can you make the transitions from one chord to the next?
(Knock some more of the corners off.)

Then, try the song slowly and evenly – perhaps not even paying much attention to the lyrics – just keeping a simple strum.
(3rd picture? You start to carve out a little of the major facial features…)

Pretty soon, it begins to resemble the song you are working on.

Perhaps, you start to add the lyrics, keeping your tempo down to a manageable pace.

See – you are building your new song on a sturdy foundation ( to change metaphors a bit) and as you add details, they will fall into place and won’t have to be re-learned when you find that you had missed something earlier.

Fancy strums and tricky background vocals can be the final touches on your new masterpiece.

Like the woodcarver – patience is a virtue. Take your time and have fun doing so –
all in good time.

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5 Responses to “Learning a song is like carving a head from a block of wood.”

  1. ME Says:

    I really like your thought process. Simple but spot on! Thank you!

  2. keithmj Says:

    You hit it on the head. Not only can you play but are good with the responses also. I play because I want to play and enjoy doing it. I can do just about anything there is to do but I am not great at just one thing. I taught myself to juggle, I can put together a computer, play the ukulele so so, fix a car but want to play the ukulele better.
    I listen to others playing and hear some of the mistakes they make, I notice that some can’t play and sing at the same time and some just can’t sing at all but they are still having fun. As it should be.
    Send us some of the simple exercises that we can do and practice with and sooner or later we’ll say that this is simple and we can do it.
    I enjoy your blog, keep up the good work..Strum-on..Cheers..Keith

  3. keithmj Says:

    Thanks for the tip. Question..Do you ever feel like you are not getting anywhere by practicing? I have been playing for awhile and have learned a lot from you and others but then I hear some others playing and I feel like I can’t play at all. Is this normal? Thanks again for everything.

    • Rhan Wilson Says:


      I actually hear this question a lot, and the short answer is yes – sometimes I don’t notice any huge improvement when I practice.

      But the better answer is a bit longer and more involved.

      Why do we play?
      Do we love to make sounds from whatever instrument we choose?
      Are we comparing ourselves to others?

      I often go to Bluegrass festivals, where I see amazing, blazing guitarists do things I only wish I could do. ( I have been playing guitar for 45+ years.) Some of these guitarists are kids!!!!!

      I used to call up a friend and tell him how inferior I felt, compared to these players. “I suck!” I would tell him. He would assure me that I was indeed, a good player, and that these others players were brought up in different conditions than I. That helped a lot.
      (By the way, some of these great guitar players can’t do much of anything else.)

      So again, I ask: are we comparing ourselves to others? Because if we are, then there will always be greater and lesser talented people.

      And I ask: what ARE you practicing?
      I see so many people wanting to get better, but when I ask them to practice certain simple exercises, they never do. When I learned to play drums, I spent countless hours playing “rudiments” – simple exercises that help to teach patterns and dexterity. I loved playing those, and then – when I went to play actual music pieces, those rudiments helped a lot! There are similar rudiments one can play on the uke as well, but one has to have the patience to work on them.

      And why do we play?
      I hope it is to enjoy the process – like taking a stroll in the park with no real destination in mind – in the course of strolling, we look around and smell the roses, and encounter the random vignette we might have otherwise missed.

      So Keith – hang in there. Sometimes you will certainly feel like you are getting nowhere, but take a moment now and then to reflect on how you played when you first picked up the instrument.

      What HAVE you learned?
      Some things fall into place at different times.


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