How I Learned to Play the Ukulele, Part 1

April 6, 2020

Culture and Society

Most people know me as a pianist. I have been playing piano for most of my life, and it will always be my primary instrument. However, a few years ago, I started to have a hankering for something new. Back in 2012, I added two new instruments to my repertoire. I purchased both a cello and a ukulele within the same year. Not long after, I started to take formal lessons with a cello teacher, but my journey to learn how to play ukulele would take a more circuitous route.

First of all, I was drawn to the uke because I grew up on a tropical island. Its sound harkens back to my joyous days as a young island boy. From there, I decided early on that I would teach myself to play the instrument. I figured between countless tutorials on Youtube and various instructional books, I could handle this on my own. I was also not a total novice at playing music. The years I had already logged in as a performing pianist had developed my ear enough to be attuned to various pitches and other auditory layers.

Well, all of that was well and good, but the biggest hurdle I faced was actually a simple one. I could not consistently make the time to learn how to play. Because of my initially limited knowledge base and the two other instruments that were taking up a substantial amount of my practice sessions, my lovely little ukulele took a backseat for a long time.

It became more of a once-in-a-while venture until just a couple of years ago. One day, I was playing a song of mine on my piano that I intended to transition to my cello, but then I had the idea to try it on my ukulele. The chords for it were fairly simple and standard, and I thought what the heck? I might sound ok.

After clumsily working it out, the song actually sounded quite beautiful on the uke. I’ve played it at several social gatherings ever since, and it has been the catalyst for me to fully take my uke playing more seriously. That song was the anchor I needed to give me the confidence and inspiration to plow forward. I hope to film a little video of myself performing that song, and I plan to have it in the next installment of this uke series of my blog.

Until then, here is a list of essential needs that I have compiled for anyone who is thinking of learning how to play this quirky little instrument. Non-violent bullet points please . . .

  • Get a ukulele for you to play

    This sounds straightforward enough, but the process is actually more complicated than it seems because there are actually four kinds of ukuleles to choose from. The options are the soprano, the concert, the tenor, and the baritone. They all are different sizes and vary in the ways that they produce higher and lower (bass) sounding notes. It’s important to consider the sizes of your hands/fingers as well as the types of sounds you prefer.

    Another important consideration is the shape of your ukulele. The vast majority of ukes have the traditional shape of all stringed instruments like guitars and violins with inward curves on both sides fanning out into a bell shape.

    Being the contrarian that I often am, I opted for the unusual pineapple-shaped ukulele made by a company called Luna. It is a soprano size and looks exactly like that description suggests. I have to admit that the shape makes it harder to hold when playing, but the addition of a strap removed that challenge. With the strap, I can easily play it when I am standing up or sitting down.

  • Find some means of instruction

    Personally, I like to read books, and I decided to purchase this book to help me along, Ukulele for Dummies by Alistair Wood:

    The writing actually has less of a stuffy academic vibe and more of a geeky/nerdy and easygoing flow to it, which I prefer. The author has a gentle but affable personality that shines through. It’s given me enough of a foundation of the basics that I need. If a book is not for you, then Youtube is a treasure trove of uke-playing knowledge. I haven’t taken the time to find a teacher on this service yet, but I’ll share what I’ve found in a later post on this series. Don’t let me stop you though, go ahead and dig around by all means.

  • Find a song that you will LOVE playing.

    As I mentioned earlier, the song I wrote and adapted to my uke made all of the difference for me. It gave me that little burst of confidence I needed telling me that “Hey, I can do this!! (and also not sound terrible) .” Whether its an original piece or a sweet cover like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, it’s worth the time and effort to find a song (or several songs) that you LOVE. This makes all the difference toward staying motivated to keep learning. It makes this whole process so much more fun.

  • Make the time to play EVERY DAY

    Seriously, the more you play, the better you get, and making a plan that gets you to play consistently every day will get you very far. You don’t even have to play that much when you do. Whether it’s ten minutes or an hour, the more important component is to consistently make the time to practice and learn. The pace of the learning is not as important as the time and effort put into it. Make the time every day and just do it.

I am a long way from being the seasoned uke player I hope to be someday, but this is a new goal for me. The biggest reason I chose to play it was that I can play it anywhere I go without needing electricity or amplification. My piano simply cannot be moved. My keyboard needs a power source and a stand, and my cello is far too delicate to bring along to most places.

But my ukelele can tag along for any ride to anywhere.

My journey as a ukulele player and enthusiast continues, and I’ll be sharing more about this along my way.

What are you taking the time to learn?


Here are some recent posts to check out:

Staying Home Update #2

March 30, 2020

Culture and Society

The days lumber on as I shelter in place. Most of the time, I fight the urge to check the news. This involves a swift and anxious perusal of several news websites including CNN, NPR, The Guardian, USA Today, and a Nashvile TV news station. I am getting a better handle on this obsession. Nonetheless, I harbor a deep concern for the wellbeing of the world. The coronavirus pandemic is on its way to being a catastrophic world event with aftershocks that we will experience for an unforeseeable future. I fear for the vulnerable populations all over the world and for the poor countries (such as those in Africa) that do not have the resources and infrastructure that the developed world has. If wealthy countries like Italy, Spain, and the US cannot even contain the spread of the virus and its devastating mortality rate, then how much harder will it be for the poverty-stricken of the world? I can’t even.

This is all overwhelming, and I am simply trying to stay calm.

To that end, there are some daily practices I have cobbled together and try to do as consistently as I can. I maintain a list of friends and family members with whom I check in whenever I can without becoming a nuisance about it. This involves messaging on social media, texting, email, Zoom chats, and phone calls. At a time in which we need to be physically distant from one another, I see this moment in history as an opportunity to support and comfort each other as much as possible.

Another daily activity I have is walking. Being out in the country, I am fortunate to have a private driveway that is half of a mile long from our doorstep to our mailbox. It runs right along our creek and makes for a truly idyllic and calming stroll surrounded by thousands of trees and abundant nature. Our wifi does not extend beyond the house, and I do not get a cell phone signal on our property at all. This means that I am completely cut off from the world when I take these walks., and this is quite refreshing. There are no news websites to obsess over and no people to avoid. I get to be alone with my thoughts and with the natural world, as well as get the easy and low-impact kind of exercise that I generally prefer.

Here are some photos I took a couple of days ago along my way.

Our creek runs right along the driveway.
This is a peaceful and picturesque path.

For about an hour or two if it is not raining (and it rains A LOT in my neck of the woods), I have been working on what has been a lengthy home-maintenance project. I am pressure washing our deck . This has been time-consuming for a couple of reasons. Our house is over 20 years old, and I do not know if the deck has ever been pressure washed before. The layers of mold and normal wear have taken their toll. I have to go over many sections several times just to get a lot of it off. The other reason why this is taking a while is that the deck wraps around the house. It’s A LOT of deck. So, I do a little at a time on most days, and I should be done in about month at my current glacial pace. The before and after photos are quite shocking. Our deck post-wash looks almost brand new! I love it!! This process has been surprisingly rewarding.

In this photo, the darker section is the “before.” Seriously, what a difference huh?

Grime and mold disappearing after a thorough pressure wash.

Like I mentioned last time, I am also doing a lot of reading, knitting, and music playing on my piano and ukulele (less so on cello lately, but that will change soon).

I do all of this in the interest of trying to live calmly as we all weather the growing storm of this virus.

I hope you find meaningful or at least enjoyable activities to fill your days as we try to stay healthy and less stressed out.

Be safe and be kind to yourselves. (Also, wash your hands when you get a chance.)

There will be more updates to come.


Staying Home Update #1

March 23, 2020

Culture and Society

I am currently one among millions of people around the world staying home right now to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This week and at various intervals over the next couple of months, I want to share my experiences while the world waits for this pandemic to pass.

For the record, I have always been an introvert at my core. I see this time as an opportunity to return to my inward-facing roots, despite having been a performing musician and college student. The timing of this call to shelter at home is actually quite fitting at this stage of my life. Last December (a mere three months ago or so), I graduated from college. I earned a degree in Video and Film Production from Middle Tennessee State University. This means that I’ve been repeatedly asking myself the question “Okay, what now?” ever since and wondering if my degree will basically be useless as we sift through the carnage of this unprecedented pandemic.

Well, for the next few weeks of self-isolation, I have more time to think about my future and how I can apply what I learned in college toward work that earns an income but also feels creatively fulfilling. That’s been on my mind a lot. I’ve been journaling a bit, staring out at the forest that beckons beyond the wrap-around deck of my woodland home, and mostly dreaming. I take a bunch of photos on my DSLR camera as well as edit a couple of film projects I’ve been working on. I am thankful that I now have the time to ruminate.

I also had to cancel a couple of out-to-town trips I had been planning for a while—one to celebrate a dear friend’s birthday and another to film a music video. I’m hoping to carry on with both prospects eventually.

Otherwise, I’ve been neglecting my Netflix feed in favor of books. So far this year, I have read twelve books. I wonder if that makes me a bad filmmaker if I’d rather read a book than watch a movie. So be it, I suppose.

Since I am not able to actually go to a library at the moment, I’ve been using my active free memberships to three different library systems. Here in Middle Tennessee, that would be Davidson County/Nashville, Rutherford County/Murfreesboro, and Cannon County/Woodbury. Their digital collections can be accessed both online and through an app on my phone. I hunt for books that I want to read on all three systems, and I am able to get what I want pretty easily. Did I mention that all of this is free? (Eat your heart out, Netflix monthly fee!! MINERVA!!)

Over the last few days, I’ve also been trying to engage in activities that reduce anxiety AF. The looming threat of contracting a lethal virus that has already killed THOUSANDS of people is kind of wigging me out. So, what does that look like? Pacifist bullet points please . . .

  • Cat cuddling. Yup, you read that right. No, I am not part of the furry community, and I marginally don’t believe that cats are supremely superior over all other species. I simply just LOVE TO CUDDLE WITH THEM SO MUCH!!!!!!!!!!! So. Damn. Much. UUUGGHH . . . Now, it doesn’t help that my cat Steinway is extremely affectionate and likes to plop on my face when I sleep at night. It also doesn’t help that we have 4 cats who live with us. Ugh. UUUGGGHHH!!!
  • I play solitaire. Left-handed (of course!) and with an actual deck of cards AF. There is something strangely calming about this game even though I legit lose 99.99999999% of the time. Okay, so I’m pretty terrible at it (obvs), but it’s one of the most zen-like and calming activities I’ve ever come across. The physical act of laying the cards down and slowly contemplating each option and move is strangely relaxing. Who knew?
  • I play music. Specifically, on the piano, cello, and ukulele. I play piano the most, but I practice on the other two as often as I can. Playing music is my emotional-release valve. I can sit at my piano, sing my heart out, and let my feelings wash all over me. It’s important to have an outlet like this, and this is mine. I mostly sing as I play and run through the catalog of original songs that I have written. This heals my spirit in times like these.
  • Staying in touch with friends and family. (AKA Making sure my people are ok). This involves lots of text messaging and phone calls, but I’m about to use Zoom a whole heck of a lot AF! In lieu of actually seeing friends and loved ones in person, this is the next best thing.

There are other activities like knitting, self-care, exercise, and secretly devouring a whole tub of peanut butter AF, but the four bulleted ones are among the most prominent.

Incidentally AF, what am I trying NOT to do while I am self-imprisoning? Again, non-violent bullet points please . . .

  • Endlessly scrolling through my Facebook and Instagram feeds. I already have a love/hate relationship with social media. I see them as our modern-day Big Brother. They are so darn addictive, and that bothers me. So yeah, trying (and sometimes failing) to NOT do that.
  • Become consumed over my anxiety about the coronavirus. This is a tough one. Not only do I want to avoid dying a painful death all alone in a hospital, but I also fear for my elderly loved-ones and friends. I’m trying to stay calm, but this is difficult.
  • Become obsessed with productivity. Prior to graduating, I worked my smooth Asian ass off!! I attended every class and aced virtually everything. (Not to brag of course, but I earned every damn A that I got.) Ultimately though, I payed a heavy price for this. My social life and valuable connections with friends tanked, and I became overly preoccupied with being productive ALL OF THE TIME AF. This isn’t healthy because there is immense value in chillaxing and doing nothing whenever possible. I missed out on a lot of chillaxing and fun in college, and now, I make it an intention every day to have time to take naps, stare at my foot, or literally do absolutely nothing at all. Yup.

Well, that’s my life so far as I am at the beginning stages of my stay-at-home-self-sheltering-try-not-to-die-of-the-plague stupor. I hope you find your own way through these uncertain times. Take a moment to be thankful for your health and for the privilege of having a boring afternoon. Sadly, some of us do not have that luxury any more.

Until the next update, cuddle away!!


Compassion In the Age of the Coronavirus

March 16, 2020

Culture and Society

With the onslaught of the Coronavirus, the realities of daily life all over the world are quickly changing. The traditional ways that we as human beings interact must be adjusted into what feels like an impersonal and counterintuitive model. The life-affirming connections that simple handshakes and hugs foster must stop completely. People have to stay several feet apart out in public while not touching their faces. It seems safer to assume that everyone has it and to let this color how you carry out any interactions with people.

What I find the most troublesome about these necessary precautions is how they might encourage people to harbor a panic-driven fear of the disease and each other. By and large, interactions fueled by fear can open the door to racism, violence, and all sorts of phobias and anxieties that simply do not do anyone any good.

As an alternative, I propose that we proceed into these scary and uncertain times with compassion in our hearts both for ourselves and everyone in our daily lives. This involves a shift in our mindset about the precautions we are all taking to safeguard our wellbeing.

Much talk is circulating about social distancing as a way to combat the exponential viral growth of this disease. Staying indoors and forbidding any interaction with the outside world is a core practice in this ideology. Rather than relegating this behavior to one based upon fear of others who have the contagion, I believe that it is rooted in a far more compassionate framework.

When we practice social distancing, we essentially limit the spread of the virus. This means that our healthcare system, including emergency rooms, respirators, medical staff, and other important resources, can be utilized by people who are truly at a greater risk of dying. The fewer infections there are, the more resources we have to save more lives. In a worst-case scenario, healthcare workers would have to pick and choose who is more deserving of treatment if all the available options become scarce. I cannot imagine having to make those kinds of choices.

Social distancing is an act of compassion because it makes resources more available once Covid-19 hits a critical mass. If I do not get sick, then that frees up medicine and a respirator for someone else (potentially even an elderly loved one) who desperately needs it to save their lives.

This is just one example of how we can understand the compassion behind the preventive measures we are taking to mitigate the rising catastrophe.

Ultimately, we all play a part in saving lives in our own communities with the precautions we take. Let your actions be guided by compassion, and hopefully, even with the inevitable casualties to come, we can prevent the devastation as much as we can humanely, respectfully, and with the dignity we all deserve.


People Are More Eloquent with Their Actions

March 2, 2020

Culture and Society

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I engage with people throughout my life. In addition to close friends and family members, I interact with various acquaintances and creative collaborators. It has often been a tricky thing for me to discern the intentions of others in order to decide whether or not he or she is someone who may offer up more harm than good.

Granted, I give everyone a solid chance first, but a little bit of observation can go a long way toward preventing drama and unnecessary hardship.

Outside of how they articulate their feelings, I pay closer attention to the non-verbal cues of how people communicate.

For example, do they hold open a door for the person behind them? Do they at least attempt to clean up a mess that they have made, such as offering to take their plate to the sink after dinner? Do they adhere to the rules that have been previously stated within a specific context, such as remembering to take off one’s shoes on subsequent visits after this request was first stated?

You can argue that these considerations may be quite minor, if not a bit nit-picky, but in my mind, they speak to the broader qualities that a person may possess. Kindness and a sense of courtesy can be exhibited when opening a door for someone else. Awareness and gratitude can be implicit components of wanting to help clear out and/or clean the dining table after a meal. Respect is conveyed when you honor the traditions of a different household by taking off your shoes upon entering.

These tiny acts can be far more eloquent than anything a person may say. Conversely, negative behavior also speaks volumes. Someone who makes a mess of a place without bothering to clean up betrays a degree of carelessness. Taking an unreasonably long time to return a borrowed object or pay someone back can be a similar statement.

For sure, we are often more attuned to the words we hear and the conversations we have because of the plainly spoken truths they provide. Paying attention to someone’s actions, however more difficult it may be, might be just as enlightening, if not more so.

Give it a try. Pay attention to what people do and see how it varies against what they say. The answers you find might surprise you.