Practice By Yourself

July 22, 2016

How likely is it that someone is going to want to hear you play a particular passage of a song, a plucking pattern on just one chord, or scales, over and over for five or ten minutes before moving on to another repetitious snippet of music for another equal length of time?

“My God that’s monotonous,” they are likely to say. “ Why don’t you play a real song?”

But playing a song may not be what you need to work on.

Sometimes, what really is needed, is to focus on just one chord change, one strumming pattern, or a particular picking technique – and repetition is the key to building the muscle memory needed to flex your new skill while “playing a song.” What you need is encouragement and support – not the opposite.

So honor your commitment to being a better musician by setting aside some private time to practice and fine tune the details of your playing. Then, when you’re all warmed up and those new skills are better ingrained – you’ll be able to invite others into your space to play them “a real song.”

Playing by Numbers

July 20, 2016

Have you ever painted a picture by numbers?

I remember the one I did when I was very young; it was a scene of a flock of ducks flying over a pond, out in the countryside. But though it may have had its rewards, painting by numbers didn’t really teach me how to paint. Had the outlines and numbers disappeared, I would have been left with a blank canvas and a palette of colors I had no idea of what to do with, and though I may have been learning how to wield a paintbrush, if I were to really want to be a painter (and an artist), I would need to learn much more about composition, shading, and proportions.

I observe many new users playing by numbers – that is, to be following a set of directions: play 3 strums of C, 8 strums of F, 8 strums of C, 8 strums of G, 4 strums of C, 4 strums of C7, etc. Playing this way may, at first, help you to play along to “This Land is Your Land,” but should you miss one count, or miss one “strum” of any one chord… well, you would likely to be get lost. You’d be staring at a page full of instructions yet not knowing where you were, or where to look.

On the other hand, had you known that those “8 strums” were actually two bars of 4 strums each, and that they weren’t necessarily even called “strums,” but rather beats, you would have had a better sense of where you were and able to get back to playing. You would have recognized those three odd beats at the beginning as simply the last three of four beats of a full measure before starting the song. Soon, you would have been noticing the composition of the overall picture:

simple this land is your landNow, on your way to better understanding how a seasoned musician “looks” at music, you would be able to add new techniques and flourishes as you learn them: rhythmic enhancements & variations, dynamics, and even chord substitutions – much like the seasoned artist knows how to add shadows, light, and depth to his or her paintings.

So go ahead and paint, er…. I mean, play by numbers, but don’t be afraid to actually learn what you are doing as you do so. And though another “paint-by-number” player may be eager and willing to help, ask a more experienced player if they would be willing to give you a few tips here and there, or take a few lessons from a professional to get you started.

That painting I did of those ducks – I wish I still had it, as I was sure proud of what I did, and how far I have come.

There is no magic pill.

July 2, 2016

Do you really want to be a better player? Really?

Often, I am approached by someone who claims to want to improve their playing. We schedule a lesson, and I “hear where they are at” regarding their playing.

Sometimes it’s easy to help them immediately – I can see that they need a better way to shape a chord, or I write out a clear chart showing where chords actually change in a song.

But more often, I hear that they need to work on their rhythm. A chord is easy to learn: you look it up and play it. But rhythm is what makes a song sound right. It is the pulse of the song – the very element that keeps it together. So I start them from the very beginning and explain how to count and I give them some very basic exercises to work on. I even assure them that it’s okay to continue to work on their song, play, have fun, but to spend a little time on this exercise. Very few do.

Some of these extremely eager students suddenly disappear – having gotten “too busy.” Why?

Yes, it occurs to me that it could simply be that they don’t like my teaching style, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they were hoping for some magic pill – a lesson where I disclosed “the secret” to playing great, and that they would leave an amazing player.

“I want a new strum,” they ask me, but when I start to teach them how, they lose interest.

“What can I do to make this song better?” they ask. But when I tell them that the song is pretty good, except for the timing and feel, they move on to another song, as if that was the problem. (Perhaps they thought I would suggest sitting differently, or that they should wear a different outfit.)

There seems to be the thinking that the ukulele is an easy instrument to learn. Sure, it’s small, only has four strings, and is easy to begin to make music on, but the actual playing of music is something that takes time – on any instrument.

It takes commitment to think about what you’re doing, practicing the individual elements of a song, observing, listening

There is no magic pill, ukers. If you want to get better, then work at it. It can still be fun.

By the way, I do have several students who are committed and work at what I give them and you know what? They’re AWESOME! Every week they improve, and every week I get to show them new material. They are getting what they asked for.

That’s the real magic.

How to take a workshop.

June 29, 2016

Two and a half weeks from now, I will be teaching at a Uke Festival in Bend, Oregon. As I get ready for the trip, I think about what I will be teaching and how I can encourage everyone to make the most out of the many workshops they will be attending.

Perhaps one of those students will be you.

Let’s start with the simple, obvious truth: you aren’t going to learn everything that is presented to you. Not in one 45 minute class with a dozen other people plunking around and asking questions. Not even in one 45 minute private lesson all by yourself with the full attention of the teacher. Multiply by a whole day or weekend filled with workshops, and you may feel like you haven’t learned anything.

But you will be exposing yourself to a variety of ideas and techniques. And like a photographer that shoots dozens of photos hoping to capture one amazing moment, you too, can aspire to come away with one or two epiphanies* over the weekend.

Here’s my suggestion:

Take those classes and workshops. Don’t stress about what you’re not learning, but rather let all that information find it’s orbit around your brain and see if there isn’t something that does make sense. Notice and observe. Don’t mentally discard anything – some of that info may make sense later.

Take another class. What does that teacher have to say? Think of it as gathering miscellaneous parts of a larger machine. Some of the individual parts may not make sense, but when you put them all together – later – they will.

Take another class. Challenge yourself. Maybe it’s too hard for you – that’s okay. Pretend you’re a fly on the wall of a secret meeting of advanced musical beings. Or pretend you’re an anthropologist – observing how other talk and behave.

Just participate. You never know what will stick, and what you will learn.

And have fun.



*An epiphany (from the ancient Greek ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia, “manifestation, striking appearance”) is an experience of sudden and striking realization.

#ukulele #rhan #uke

When Basketball Players Practice…

May 31, 2016

Whether you’re a fan of the Golden State Warriors or the Oklahoma City Thunder, the game last night reminded me of something I tell my students all the time: take time to practice the individual parts of a song as often, if not more often, than actually playing the song.

Here’s what I mean:
Those amazing basketball players spend considerable time practicing the individual elements of a game: jump shots, free throws, passing… as separate elements of the game – going through the same motions over and over. Then, they put it all together in a practice game. Then… the real game against the real opposing team. By working on each individual element, they can better analyze their technique and zero in on what works and what doesn’t.

How does this apply to playing and practicing music?

Well, I often notice when people play a song and they come to a difficult part, they skim over it, mutter something about ‘how hard it is, and then get back to the easy part. This is how they practice: start, skip over the challenging part, continue, and move on to another song. And then they will do the same for the next song, etc. All they are doing is rehearsing  how to play a song badly.

I suggest that a player break the song down into separate parts: the intro, verse, chorus… Practice those parts by themselves, making sure you have it sounding right. Is there a chord that is difficult to change to? Then work on just that: try playing the easier chord before the hard one, and the hard one, and back, and repeat. Slowly – four beats each chord – back and forth until you get it. Then do the same with that hard chord and one that follows it. Back and forth – slowly… four beats each chord. Then try just that section of the song slowly…(but in time) over and over… fitting  in that hard part until your fingers get to know what they are supposed to be doing. Then, after you really give that hard part its due attention, try playing the entire song again. And I suggest that you take time to play a song r-e-a-l-l-y …  s-l-o-w  (but evenly and in time) as part of your practice regimen. By playing super slowly, you can then focus on all the little details you often don’t notice (or ignore) when you play fast: the fingers you have to move from one chord to another, the beautiful sound you are making, the lyrics and pitch of your singing… Then you can get back to playing it at “normal” speed.

By focusing on these individual parts of a song, you will be teaching yourself some important lessons and techniques. And when it comes time to play the big game, er… I mean… your song with others – you will be ready and prepared to play that hard part, instead of skipping over it.

As always, I eagerly await your comments and questions. Have you ever thought about working on a song this way? Are you guilty of skipping over the hard parts? Let me know how else I can help you learn to play music.