Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

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.


What was that again?

August 7, 2018

I teach a couple of large weekly classes as well as private lessons to those who are interested in learning music – (mostly on ukulele.) Because there are so many students of various skills, I often “scatter shot” the info I deliver in the hope that some part of it will reach all students. Some of it is simple for the beginners, and some of it is a bit advanced for those who have been around longer. I remind the less advanced students to ask questions, but to also simply put that information they don’t understand “into orbit” – to let it fly around above their head for later, when it will make better sense. (Read my post about that here.)

Often times however, many feel overwhelmed and even a bit discouraged at the idea that they aren’t learning fast enough and that they may never will.

But have you ever read a book and after finishing, felt there was something you missed – so you read it again? And again? I’ve done that a couple of times, and with each re-read, I understood it more and I even discovered some things I previously hadn’t noticed. Obviously, the book was something I cared about enough to finish in the first place, and then to read again and again. Sometimes, I have re-read a book simply to be reminded of its valuable message.

And so it is often that way with music: we want to learn, so we play, practice, and take lessons. But sometimes it is only by re-visiting a lesson, or by being reintroduced to a particular idea over and over, that we can really begin to integrate those difficult concepts into our minds and understanding.

It happens all the time – that’s how we learn.

Could you drive a car the very fist time you sat in one? Did you learn to cook in one evening? Writing, sports, sewing, graphic design, photography… you name it – they all take time to learn and even more time to discover all the little hidden tricks and minutia associated with those skills.

The notion that a ukulele is “easy to play” is very misleading. Sure, it is easier to play, as it only has four strings, and some chords require only one finger on one string – but music… that’s a skill that simply takes some time to learn.

It’s easy to begin however, and that’s what is so wonderful to realize. Just get started and go from there.

To quote from a book I’ve read over and over:

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive”
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

What’s Missing in Teaching Ukulele…

July 10, 2018

Imagine if you were interested in cooking and wanted to take it a bit farther than simply following a pancake recipe on the back of a box of pancake flour. Imagine wanting to actually know how to mix ingredients to make what you are wanting to make; to know what various ingredients do when added to each other.

I would think that you’d take a culinary class. The teacher wouldn’t give you pre-measured, color coded portions of mystery powder and a recipe that was pulled off a questionable website – they would teach you units of measurement: teaspoon, tablespoon, cup, etc. They would teach you about oven temperatures and how to season properly to achieve the desired effect. How does yeast work? Why? Vinegars, sugars, flours, corn starch…

A good teacher would teach a willing student about cooking.

So why doesn’t this happen as often with ukulele instruction and group meetings?

Why are so many players content to learn the minimum with the least amount of effort and playing off of inaccurate song charts pulled from the internet? I hear them “say” they want to get better, but….

I see uke players “charts” scribbled full of instructions: strum [C] 12x [F] 4x UDDUUDDU…  No actual musician I have ever played with ever counted 12 “strums” of anything. We are taught to think in measures (groups of 4,) so we would think of 3 measures (groups of 4,) followed by one measure… (so much easier to count and keep track of)… and all that DUUDD business only works if you already have a knowledge of what down and up means.

Why aren’t teachers teaching this?

Well, I have two reasons to offer: One, is that they themselves don’t know. They are self-taught, doing the best they can with what they know, and they are happy to share it. That’s cool.

But here’s a more important reason it’s not being taught: many ukulele players don’t want to do the work.

I’ve had several students who, after telling me they want to improve their playing, suddenly decide they aren’t that interested after all, after finding out that there will be some work involved.

I’ve taught a lot of private lessons, group lessons, and workshops over the years and I have come to realize that many ukulele players (and players of other instruments, as well) don’t really want to learn about music – they just want to hold that cute, little instrument in their hands and be part of a community.

And that’s fine. As a matter of fact, that’s more than fine – it’s great! No entry fees, no tests, no… nothing. “You’re in!” Heck, you could bring a picture of a ukulele and be as welcome in a uke club as if you had an actual instrument.

But as people begin to want to learn more about their instrument and participate in Open Mics, bands, and other group activities – they are in a position where a basic music education would be helpful.

And I want to provide that. I want to teach you about the basics: notes, chords, rhythm… because you will be and feel amazing as you experience what it has to offer.

It’s not easy. If you want easy, sit down in front of the TV and do nothing – that’s easy. Everything else takes effort. But it’s worth it, and it’s fun, and what else are you doing?

You say you want to play the uke and get better?

Let’s do it!


Musical Seeds Need Time To Germinate

June 20, 2018

I often hear my students say that some part of their musical learning is not happening, such as new chords or strumming, or some little doodle I taught them. I try to remind them that these skills, like seeds, take time to germinate. It doesn’t mean that the seed is dead – it just means that some sprout faster than others and, with care and attention, they will all sprout eventually.

Continue to work on your strumming patterns and rhythm in general, even if your chords aren’t up to par yet. Or, work on your chord shapes while you slowly get a handle on your strumming hand coordination. Meanwhile, miscellaneous music theory tidbits will start to gel and make sense.

No one learned to juggle by starting with 5 balls in the air at once. (I switched analogies here – sorry.)

Keep up the good work and tend to those seeds.