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: