Learning to play the ukulele is tons of fun, but it comes with its own special challenges too. Music teacher Jonathan D. shares three difficulties beginners often face, plus the best ways to overcome them…
For the enthusiastic beginner on the ukulele, a healthy dose of “try harder” in combination with a shiny new instrument may seem like a great start, but you may soon find you need to dig a bit deeper to conquer some of the stubborn difficulties of the instrument.
There are multiple categories of pitfalls the ukulele can present. First, there are general musicianship concerns such as reading notation and developing rhythmic coordination. Then there are the difficulties inherent to the ukulele. Last, there are the mental minefields you must navigate before mastering the ukulele. Let’s look at all three!
1. Keeping the Beat
Common to all instruments is need to recognize and master rhythmic structures. Beginning ukulele students face this problem immediately. At first it doesn’t seem like a big deal to play quarter notes, half notes, and whole notes. Most method books teach students to count quarter notes as one beat, half notes as two beats, and whole notes as four beats. Most teachers teach students to develop a system of counting beats. Unfortunately, many students promptly forget the importance of the beat. Fingering, reading notation, strumming, and many more concerns can cloud your mind as you learn how to play the ukulele and cause “rhythmic amnesia”.
The importance of keeping time cannot be overestimated. So how can you learn to stay on beat? There are several solutions that can be used alone or in combination. Using a metronome is at the top of the list. These days there’s no need to shell out $20 for a mechanical ticker at the local music store as a number of apps and online resources are available to the modern music maker.
Another solution to the enduring problem of rhythm is to isolate the rhythmic elements in a song and repeat them in your body until you habitually “feel” the rhythm of music. For example, if the introduction of eighth notes is causing you mental anguish, stand up and rock back and forth in time, coming down on alternate heels with each quarter note, and chant or clap twice for every beat. If you’re interested in exploring this method, TaKaDiMi is a superb option.
Perhaps the best approach to playing rhythmically is to find songs that are rhythmically enjoyable. After all, the real problem is usually a lack of motivation to find and maintain a beat. I’m always perplexed at musicians who leave out the best part of music making – the beat! Find songs that make people want to dance. Then enjoy playing them (along with metronome and TaKaDiMi work of course).
2. Getting to Know Your Uke
There are difficulties inherent in every instrument. When it comes to the ukulele, most of these are related to the connection between human and instrument – the fingers and the hand. At times the strings won’t vibrate well because of the amount of finger pressure. Fixing this problem could be helped by keeping your fingernails filed. Beyond grooming, keeping your thumb on the back side of the fretboard will help give your fingers a better angle of contact with the strings resulting in better control of the pressure they can, well, press with.
Another common frustration beginning ukulele students find is transitioning between chords quickly on the fretboard. Apart from finding efficient finger motions, one of the most effective solutions is practicing scales slowly, evenly, and daily. Scales provide the framework for chords, and after your fingers are comfortable navigating the scales, you are much more equipped to navigating the chords built on them.
3. Mental Mastery
Many ukulele students look for magical fixes for their technique when most of the answers can be found in your own mind already. The creative process is the key ingredient to learning technique, but the creative mind is often inhibited by fear.
For example, fear of hitting the wrong note makes you look down from the notation and onto the strings. The problem with this is that the information flow from the printed notes is interrupted, the mental learning process slows, and a mental “hiccup” occurs. Over time, you learn to pause and break focus. This habit is among the most inefficient mental habits in beginning students and creates mental murkiness. By maintaining your focus either on the printed music or on the fretboard, mental clarity is developed. Eye control leads to clarity, and clarity leads to better technical habits as you learn how to play the ukulele.
Remember that above all else, enjoying the learning process by taking a positive, problem-solving approach will guide students at any level to conquer problems. There are always solutions for any difficulty encountered in learning how to play the ukulele.
For more help learning to play the ukulele, sign up for lessons with a private ukulele instructor. Ukulele instructors are available to help you in-person or online via Skype. Find your ukulele teacher today!
Jonathan D. is a singing instructor in Greenville, SC. He’s earned a BA and MM in vocal performance and has been teaching privately and in schools for more than 15 years. Learn more about Jonathan here!
Photo by aaron gilson