Posts Tagged ‘concept’

Playing Music with a Microwave

October 2, 2021

A lot of people come to me for music lessons and what I have learned is that I must first ask of them this question: “Do you want to learn to play music, or do you want to be able to just heat something up in the microwave?”

Now that I’ve possibly confused you with this horrible mixed metaphor – allow me to explain: If one were to take a cooking class, it’s doubtful that a good teacher would spend much time, if any, on how to take a package out of the freezer, place it in the microwave, and serve it. Instead, the student would learn a variety of basics: how to use measuring utensils, proper knife techniques, doubling portions, etc.; beginning with simple recipes, moving on to more sophisticated ones, and eventually learning to create sumptuous meals from scratch.

So when a student comes to me with the goal of learning how to play their favorite song or play along with their weekend community sing-along, I start them off with the basics: how to count in time, basic chords, simple charts/songsheets; incorporating little bits of theory and knowledge along the way – all towards the goal of teaching them to play “from scratch” – that is, being able to play along with others with or without music to follow.

But they often lose interest and are discouraged because they thought that, somehow, there were shortcuts they could use to avoid having to learn; that there were the equivalents of “microwave-ready” music skills they could master in a few minutes that would require little or no effort that they could use in all situations forever.

Playing music doesn’t really work that way.

Take conversing, for instance: you can’t really learn a few stock sentences and simply place them into a conversation and expect them to make sense every time. As children beginning to talk, we learn how to substitute words and to change from past to future tense as needed. Each conversation is unique and we must be able to keep up with what’s being said.

And so it is with playing music. You simply can’t learn a trick of two and expect to use it in all situations. Tempos change, arrangements vary, and unexpected hiccups occur, even in a well rehearsed number.

But these are not difficult challenges. If you learn the basics, adjusting your tempo mid song is as easy as adding a teaspoon of water to thin out a sauce. That difficult sounding chord you’ve been avoiding? You just may find out it’s a simple as adding a little Dijon mustard to a sauce you already know how to make.

There’s nothing wrong with “zapping” a burrito now and then, but when you’ve taken the time to learn to gather a few items from the fridge, add a bit of seasoning, and cook them up into a delicious, satisfying meal – there’s nothing like it.

And when you pick up your favorite instrument, strum a few chords, and make up a song (or figure out an existing one) – you won’t believe the joy and sense of satisfaction you will feel.

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.

 

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?

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.

Take your foot off the brakes!

November 21, 2013

(An expanded and/or edited version of this post appears in Rhan’s new book, All In Good Time – a Book About Playing Music for the Aspiring Ukulele Player. It is available at: www.rhanwilson.com/allingoodtime )

So often I have been asked to help someone learn something about music: new chords, strumming, singing, etc., but almost always the first thing they say to me (and often repeated throughout the lesson) is something to the effect of, “I can’t do this.”

There are countless variations to these negations; sometimes they say, “I am horrible at rhythm,” or they will constantly shake their head at the mere mention of a new term they hadn’t heard before.

Now I understand the tendency to want to “warn” me of one’s problem areas, but c’mon – it’s like asking me to help you push your car and having your foot on the brakes! Not only is it not necessary, but it actually prohibits me from helping you.

If you want to learn something, you have to take your metaphorical foot off the brakes and HELP PUSH! That’s right – aim yourself in the direction you want to go, and push! And just like a car – it’s a little hard at first, but as you gain some momentum, it gets easier and easier.

This is always the first thing I teach people, and it often takes up a good portion of the first (and subsequent) lesson/s, because I have found that once I can get my student to “get their foot off their brakes” – then the actual learning of material proceeds rather easily.

We have all formed some bad habits. I, too, have to always watch what, and how, I phrase things.

Here are some suggestions:

Instead of saying:  “I am no good at….”
Say: “I wasn’t good at…”
Or: “I haven’t been good at…”

Instead of saying: “I can’t……”
Say: “I will try to…..”
Or better yet: “I can…..”

Instead of saying:  “I have no rhythm.”
Say:  “I’d like to improve my rhythm.”
Or: “I am improving on my rhythm.”

These are subtle changes, and you might not think them that important, but they make a HUGE difference in how we learn. By simply stating our intentions in the positive, we have effectively taken off the brake and are free to move in the desired direction.

Now, what was it you wanted help with?