Posts Tagged ‘uke’

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.

Learning is like glitter…

April 16, 2021

Have you ever been present when there’s glitter thrown around or opened a card containing the some of the shiny stuff? It gets everywhere. Some of it lands on you where you can see it; some of it lands on the floor; and some of it, despite your best efforts to sweep it all up and throw away, is found later hidden in some pocket or crease in your clothing.

What if we imagined that learning is similar to having glitter tossed about us?

When we try to learn something it often seems that too much information has been thrown about, and that much of it lands on the floor and is wasted. We might have picked up a couple of bits of information, like the glitter that lands on us visibly, but after we process that information (cleaned up and vacuumed the floor) we might think that we learned all that we could at the time.

But like glitter, some of that information gets lodged in some cranny of our brains without our knowing it, and is likely to resurface at some time in the future.

Be on the lookout for those random glittery bits of information. And be confident that more will surface in time.

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.”