On the ukulele, there’s no one single correct way to do anything. It’s one of the things I love about this amazing little instrument.
There are always at least three valid, popular, successful options for everything.
Whether it’s fingering chord shapes, holding the ukulele, strumming technique, the key you play in, how to practice.
Which size of ukulele to choose – soprano, concert or tenor. And there’s more!
When I started teaching ukulele, I looked far and wide for the perfect answer to all of these questions.
And I was surprised (and also, delighted) to find that it didn’t exist!
However, when you are a beginner, this can be very confusing. What’s correct? What’s wrong? Who can tell me what’s right?
As a teacher, I start with what seems to work for most of my students. If that doesn’t sit comfortably, I introduce some of the alternatives.
But you can always go online and find two or three other teachers insisting on something different.
So, is any of this wrong?
I don’t think most of what’s out there in online ukulele-land is wrong. It’s just different ways of doing things.
What I will say is that a lot of tutorials are actually teaching stuff that’s way too hard for a beginner. Or even for adult learners in general. And they don’t make this clear enough.
So you can end up spending hours trying to follow the instructions, and then you get discouraged because you can’t.
It might be too hard for your stage of playing. Or it might be really tricky, full stop.
It’s not just the technique that’s diverse, with the ukulele. There are many styles of ukulele playing.
The ukulele was named and popularised in Hawaii, but each of the Pacific nations now also has its own ukulele style.
I’ve seen musicians playing elegant classical music on ukulele.
A myriad of popular music styles of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries work really well on ukulele, including blues, Americana, country, English music-hall and indie-pop.
There are ukulele virtuoso players like Jake Shimabukoro.
Some ukulele players enjoy learning to read music. Others like to follow chord charts. Others want to be able to play without sheet music.
Some people always play with barre chord shapes. While others prefer playing chords with as few fingers as possible, and the jangling sound of open ukulele strings.
Some love playing solo. Others want to have fun making music with friends.
Australian community musicians Mark Jackson and Jane Jelbart have developed a wonderful group music genre called “Ukestra” in which large numbers of ukulele players play together in parts. Here’s a post I wrote about Mark and Jane’s work.
All sorts of teachers
Ukulele teachers are also very diverse. Some teachers emphasise learning to read music formally while also learning ukulele. James Hill’s ukulele pedagogy is a great example of this.
Others teach ukulele as an informal instrument that’s mainly played socially. I’m at that end of the spectrum.
Some teachers teach students to play chord shapes before they focus on strumming. However, I’ve found that it’s most effective to teach both chords and strums from the beginning.
I encourage students to master simple strums and basic chords before they try their hand at syncopated strumming.
I also take into account different learning styles. Some people learn more effectively by watching and listening; others prefer written material.
Find a ukulele teacher whose approach you like.
The right method is the one that works for you.
The ukulele is an instrument that you can teach yourself. Those of us who learned music in the classical education system had it drummed into us that we need teachers. But lots of pop musicians are mainly self-taught.
Learning to play from a book is difficult, even if you already have some musical skills.
In particular, I don’t think you can learn strumming from a book. (Even though some books suggest otherwise.)
It’s much better to learn strumming from a teacher, and/or from watching other players, and/or from Youtube videos. (See my Alice Bulmer Music Youtube channel strum series for more on this.)
The rules of music
Classical music teaching emphasises following rules. You learn to do what the teacher says.
When I was a kid we moved around a lot, so my mother had to keep finding me new violin teachers.
Every time I got a new teacher they would start me off from scratch with their way of doing things. It was incredibly boring.
It can be useful and interesting to know what the rules are. But with music, rules can also be problematic.
Creativity comes out of breaking rules, making mistakes, doing something unexpected and different and new.
It’s very difficult to be creative when you are trying to follow rules.
I’d argue that the ukulele can be a very creative instrument, because of this rule fluidity!
Never too late
A couple of the rules of classical music education are 1. You have to practice for years to get anywhere, and 2. If you didn’t start when you were a kid you’re never going to get there.
These rules definitely don’t apply to ukulele. I’ve seen people of all ages become enthusiastic musicians in a matter of months.
One of my friends discovered in her forties that she has a gift for music. She’d never had the chance to activate it because her family invested in sports rather than music when she was a child.
Find your voice
When you start playing ukulele, the main thing is to master some basic chords and strums as quickly as possible.
And then start finding the music that you love to play.
Whether it’s songs by Elvis, or Leonard Cohen, or Johnny Cash, or Taylor Swift.
Because that’s what’s most rewarding about making music.
Want to get playing?
You have this dream to play ukulele, but you’re not sure how to get started.
Check out my free Ukulele Toolbox ebook, which answers lots of questions that people ask before they sign up for ukulele lessons.
Plus you’ll go on my email list to get ukulele tips and resources.
I teach ukulele to adult learners all over the world via Zoom and Skype. If you happen to live in Hamilton, New Zealand, I also teach in-person classes.
Click this link to book online ukulele lessons with me. $US160 for six half-hour lessons.