This week I’ve been inspired by a post by my colleague Brett McQueen, of Ukulele Tricks. (He looks incredibly young, but he’s been teaching online for many years.)
Brett writes that many students want to know how to do things “correctly” on the ukulele. How to practice properly, what’s the right finger position technique, etc.
He tells his students to try things out, and not to worry too much about breaking rules or getting into bad habits. The ukulele is “an instrument for rule breakers”, he says.
I’m right with you there, Brett!
Three ways to do everything
On the ukulele, there’s no one single way to do anything. It’s one of the things I love most about this amazing little instrument.
Fingering chord shapes, holding the ukulele, strumming technique, the key you play in, how to practice. There are always at least three valid, popular, successful alternative ways for everything.
When you are a beginner, this can be very confusing. What’s correct? What’s wrong? Who should I listen to?
It’s not just the technique that’s diverse, with the ukulele. There are many styles of ukulele playing. The ukulele was invented and popularised in Hawaii, but each of the Pacific nations now also has its own ukulele style. I’ve seen musicians playing 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 styles, and indie-pop. There are also virtuoso ukulele players like Jake Shimabukoro, and teachers like James Hill.
Some ukulele players enjoy learning to read music. Others want to be able to play without sheet music. And others like to follow chord charts.
Some ukulele players always use barre chord shapes, while others prefer the jangling sound of open ukulele strings.
Some people 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.
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. 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 one of those instruments 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.
You can’t learn strumming from a book, however. (Even though some books suggest otherwise.) You learn strumming from a teacher, 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. Classical music has a big emphasis on correct technique. 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.
Never too late
A couple of the rules of classical music education are that you have to practice for years to get anywhere, and 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
The main thing about the ukulele, I think, 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.
As Brett McQueen says, “Find your voice on the ukulele.”
Here’s a link to Brett McQueen’s original post: https://www.ukuleletricks.com/bad-habits/
Hi, I’m Alice
I’ve been in love with the ukulele since my mother, Sue, taught me three chords when I was six.
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.
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