Posts Tagged ‘uke’

There’s a stud in my wall?

October 19, 2020

In one of the classes I am teaching, we are learning how to write a simple song, chart it out, and share it with others to play. One student remarked that they weren’t particularly interested in song writing, but rather wanted to know how to play songs already written. In thinking of my response, I came up with this analogy:

If you were to want to hang a picture on your wall, and had no idea of how a house was built, you might wonder why sometimes a nail goes right into the wall and falls out when weight is put on it, while at other times, it hits something hard and is quite secure. You might just attribute it to luck.

But if you were to observe a house being built somewhere; if you were to notice how first a foundation is built; then upon that a floor is constructed; and on top of that a framework of studs forms the shape of the walls, over which sheetrock is attached – you would have a better understanding of why you sometimes hit something hard when you were hanging a picture, and why sometimes you didn’t. Observing and learning a little bit about how a house is built certainly doesn’t imply that you are planning on building one yourself – it just means that your future of hanging pictures is going to be less of luck, and more of the awareness that there are studs behind the sheetrock. Knowing that the studs usually run vertically, and are regularly (for the most part) spaced 16″ apart also help you to determine where you can hope to find one when you want to hang something heavy and in need of that support.

So, by learning how a song is laid out; how beats are grouped in to measures; and how by observing when chords change – you are in a better position to know what you’re doing when you play an existing song. Your experience writing a simple song will teach you a lot about playing a simple song.

Rather than guessing when a chord will change, you will be able to anticipate the change. Knowing what chords sound good together will inform you of the likely next chord – even before you get there. Being aware that for many songs, measures are often grouped into fours – you will “feel” changes and new sections as you encounter them.

Music, like a blank wall, may seem like there is no structure behind it, but that is rarely so. Behind the wall – and the music – there is a simple, predictable structure you can depend on when you want to hang your picture… er, I mean change your chord,… er… you know what I mean.

Planting and Tending to Your Musical Seeds…

September 24, 2020

Ah, learning. Isn’t it great? Sometimes we absorb so much so quickly; filling in the blanks, checking off the correct answers like a pro only to wake up another day and feel like we are getting nowhere and unable to remember the last sentence we read. This can be frustrating and quite discouraging – to think that we are spending all this time learning a new skill and feeling like we are getting nowhere.

But if we would take the time to peek beneath the surface; to see that, while we may be struggling to grasp a new concept, we have unconsciously grasped some of the ones we previously had trouble with. I call this planting and tending seeds of knowledge.

While this article is intended to speak of musical seeds, I’d like to relate my experience, briefly, with learning Spanish.

I grew up in a part time Spanish speaking household. I can speak with an authentic accent, yet I am far from fluent. I desperately need to learn the various tenses: past, future, conditional, etc., and add to my vocabulary. I signed up and am taking Spanish online with the Babbel app. I breezed through much of it, already knowing the present tense and many basic words and phrases. But then it started to get challenging. I doubted my ability to ever learn the difference between ” I wanted” and “I would have wanted.”

But as I stumbled through these new challenging courses, I became aware that, although I was not completely understanding these new lessons, I was easily understanding most everything else – even material that just a couple of weeks before was giving me trouble. I had learned a lot while trying to learn even more.

And so I find that some of my music students, while working on some new and challenging chords or rhythms, are able to quickly and easily answer a random question I pose about something we learned (and had trouble with) weeks before.

Here are my directions on how to grow some musical skills:

How to grow musical skills:
Planting seeds starts by simply opening the package.
Look at those new and challenging chords and try to play them.

Place the seeds in your brain soil.
Try the chords again and tell yourself that you really, really, want to learn them. Introduce them to your brain!

Open another package of seeds.
Start to learn something else; new chords or new strumming patterns.

Tend to your seeds – old and new. Nurture them.
Don’t forget about those seeds you first planted. Visit them daily, and make sure they don’t wither and die. Practice those old chords often, even if you have to look at the chart again and again.

Plant more seeds.
Begin to learn more. Pat attention to your new seeds, but continue to visit and tend to the ones you previously planed. They need attention, even if they haven’t yet sprouted. Keep trying to play those challenging chords and rhythms while trying some new chords and rhythms.

Pay attention…
One day, while carefully planting some of those new seeds you got, you will notice that some of those earlier planted seeds will have begun to poke their little heads out of the ground. You may have even forgot you planted them.

You will be trying out a new chord, perhaps; reading a chart for a song you like, and without realizing it, you will have played several chords instinctually, without thinking about them, in perfect rhythm,as you were so focused on the upcoming, difficult chord.

You have successfully reaped your first harvest of musical skills. Don’t stop there – plant some more.


You might think this is wishful thinking on my part, and that you will “never get it“, but I urge you to first; believe you can do it, and then, try it.

I have observed so many students learn things while claiming that they haven’t, and it was only after I pointed out their achievements that they became aware of them.

Oh, and, by the way…

Me gustaría leer sus comentarios sobre este artículo.

(I would like to read your comments on this article.)

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.”

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?