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!

 

Take a Hard Class

July 3, 2018

Wouldn’t it be fun and informative to be a fly on the wall at a top level meeting where they are discussing a topic that is of interest to you?

Perhaps you have an interest in marketing and would like to know how the big decisions are made about logo placement and audience targeting – wouldn’t it be an eye opener to sit in on a meeting on a top floor executive meeting? Or imagine another “inner working” you’d like to be privy to… like music.

I teach a lot of music in both private and group settings and something I have observed is, that in many cases, students just want to review what they already know, or they are there just to have fun.

I often start a workshop by asking the attendees why they chose my particular workshop – in this case, a workshop on leading and following during play-alongs. One lady responded, “I just wanted to play some songs.” When I informed her that though we might be playing some songs in the class, we were really there to learn how to be a song leader and how to follow others who were leading. She got up, packed her uke, and left.

That was both a good thing and a not so good thing. One one hand, it’s good to be clear on what you want – on both our parts. She just wanted to have some fun, and I made it clear that I was going to teach some useful information. We both were better off. (By the way, we did have fun while learning.)

But it got me thinking about how much one could learn by challenging oneself. It’s true that reviewing information is helpful – taking an easy class to confirm your existing knowledge, but there are so many opportunities to do that without paying money to attend a festival or workshop series. Think of how much that woman would have learned about playing together – which was actually what she said she wanted to do!

And that brings me to my first paragraph’s statement: wouldn’t it be fun to be in a group where they are discussing top level information?

Why not take a class that is hard once in a while? Challenge yourself! Sit there politely and let the “know-it-alls” talk, but rather than look frustrated and let things “go over your head”, you simply listen and absorb the information discussed. Sure, you won’t know everything they are talking about but take notes and imagine yourself in that league. Make it a goal to someday soon, know what they are talking about. Put it in orbit! 

I remember as a young man, sitting in on rehearsals with a bunch of older musicians who were in a salsa band. I was so eager to learn and so honored to be allowed to sit there and listen to them discuss rhythms and how to improvise. Once in a while, they would let me play a simple part, but mostly I would just sit there and observe. I didn’t interrupt nor try to divert the conversation to something I could understand – I just listened. Wow, what a difference it made in my musical learning.

So I ask you: what do you think about what I’ve said?

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.

You Deserve to Know the Truth

February 1, 2018

I often get a bit critical when it comes to discussing play-along groups – specifically ukulele dominant gatherings and their leaders.

While I absolutely love the community that is created by the legions of adventurous and enthusiastic uke players, many of whom are for the first time in their lives discovering the joy and pure pleasure of playing music – I sometimes cringe when I hear a group leader dispense incorrect advice and instruction.

“But what’s the harm,” you might ask, “as long as everyone’s having fun?”

“That is absolutely true,” I say to myself. But something nags at me. An inner voice tells me that it is important to point out when incorrect information is being inserted into the DNA of these minds starting out on the musical trail.

I have solved the dilemma of how to dispense correct information to these groups: I lead workshops at uke events, and I started my own weekly workshop/performance group in my home town – The All In Good Time Orchestra.

But I have been struggling with how to answer the question of why do I feel the need to “put the train back on the track.”

Because the train has fallen off the track. The train that was on its way to a wonderful musical destination fell off the tracks somewhere near the station from where it just departed. No one was hurt, thankfully. In fact, no one even realized that they had stopped. They just started playing where they were – but never moved on.

Again you might ask, “So what’s the problem with that?”

The problem is that some of those people wanted to continue their ride. They were hoping to join others at the other end. They wanted to learn how to play with the native music speakers they admired and hoped someday to be.

Imagine taking a language class in preparation to travel to Mexico city and you find yourself in a classroom of people being taught by someone who simply adds an “o” to every word and calls it Spanish.

“I have to go to the bathroom-o.” “Where-o is the library-o?” “Muchos grass-ias for your help-o.”

I imagine it could be a fun class, but imagine your embarrassment when you actually get to your destination and say that out loud. You would be wishing someone had spoken up in class and pointed you to a better teacher.

You may not be planning a trip to Musicland, but you may change your mind. You may want to “speak” with other musicians in actual musical language – not some localized pidgin concoction that is shared by only a few.

You deserve it. You deserve to be led in the right direction with the best information you can get.