Drifting Back

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When you listen to an instrument, or play one for yourself, where does it take you? Maybe you let the voice of the music guide you to a new setting somewhere around the globe (given the sound and origins of the ukulele, for instance, it’s really difficult not to think about lounging in Hawaii). If you’re an experienced player, perhaps you let the music take you on an improvisational journey, letting your sound and your mind define a path without a clear destination and playing just to see where you might end up.

In its own small way, the ukulele has opened a gateway back to my own childhood.

It was my first time trying to move away from simple chord charts by reading music from a ukulele tab, which shows both which numbered frets to play and the rhythm in which it should be played, not unlike piano sheet music. These tabs are used to notate melodies, a musical component I’d never tried replicating on a uke before.

And keeping to my tendency to listen to music much older than I am, I was trying to play the riff from that popular 80s relic, A-ha’s Take On Me (bonus points for you if you were alive when the music video premiered on MTV).

Plucking out melodies on the uke is tricky, and as someone who’s only used to strumming chords, trying to do so really put me in my place. Chords are the blueprints of a song in most cases, planning the progression in key for the melody to follow. As such, individual chords tend to be repeated over the period of a melodic phrase, meaning less finger movement. Tackling a melody that spans a number of frets over all four strings requires a level of dexterity I just don’t have yet. The right hand must pick each individual string as the left hand moves over the desired fret, and it’s easy to muddle your sound by simply brushing the wrong string with either hand.

It’s tough, but I found it to be a lot of fun to try. For the first time in years, the feeling of practising was reminiscent of my younger days in the Suzuki Music Program studying piano. My teacher would often pull out simple melodies for me to sight-read, allowing me to build dexterity and muscle memory in much the same way as I’m teaching myself to do on the uke.

And for a brief moment, I was reacquainted with my childhood devotion to the discipline, with a sense of gratitude that I was now gifted enough to attempt to reteach myself what others had taught me all those years ago. Suddenly, practising was fun again.

You’d be surprised how gratifying it can be to finally take your hands off the instrument and say with confidence, “Man, that sounded awful. Let’s try it again!”

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Teaching Fingers to Dance Again

When I first picked up the ukulele, the beauty of its portability was almost immediately offset by just how awkward it felt to hold. The ergonomics of the instrument wasn’t difficult to wrap my head around, but it was a whole different story as soon as fingertips touched the fret board. While my right hand was free to strum at leisure with a carefree flick of the wrist, my left hand fought its own battle closer to the tuning knobs, strings digging into skin and nail as my hand slid and contorted in a feeble attempt to produce the proper sound.

Months later, this feeling hasn’t changed all that much, but I am getting better. I’ve learned some chords and some progressions they can build, and I’ve also learned a few new knots that my fingers can get tied into.

There’s probably something to be said about how disillusioning it can feel to have to reteach yourself the basics of fingering for a new instrument after spending so many years developing muscle memory specific to another. Looking back at the musical journey I’ve taken to get to this point, however, I’m amazed that I was able to discipline myself to develop such muscle memory at all. I suppose if you spend over a decade practicing a skill, it’s going to become more and more comfortable through rote repetition, but how does one begin? As a kid, practicing the piano was never a terribly glamourous idea in my mind—and I’d often deviate from my regiment to diddle on the keys, to the dismay of parental enforcers—but I’d always admired what results could be achieved.

Fingering is a delicate balance between what comes naturally and what works best for the progression of a musical phrase (or what a didactic scale book tells you is right and wrong fingering). It’s easy to make mistakes, and if you slack in practice, just like exercising, your muscle memory will atrophy. I still tend to favour, say, my middle finger where my ring finger needs strengthening. Having my right arm in a cast for two years forced me to use my left hand more, but years later the reemergence of my right hand has had me lose some of that left hand virtuosity.

Picking up the ukulele, I’ve had to cast any preconceived notions of fingering aside and start again from square one.

 

But this instrument presents a new regiment opportunity that the piano never did. I can take this instrument anywhere, and as Ukulele Mike suggests in the video here, you can develop muscle memory in much the same way dentists suggest you can spend time flossing.

Go watch TV, or enjoy a nice view. This will allow you to practice shifting deftly from chord to chord without having to look at the fret board, and eventually get a new feel for the instrument.

And really, who doesn’t like another excuse to watch TV?

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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The Music Trinity

I’m not about to claim that I’m a musical expert. I might have experience reflected in my years of piano-related studies, but I have always seen myself as a student of music and nothing more. I don’t think it would matter how many more years go by. As long as there is something new for me to learn, that view isn’t likely to change.

Even now, I’m still learning.

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Learning the ukulele has been a challenge for me. After studying and practising the theory of music as it relates to the piano, picking up this new instrument has encouraged me to look back on how I’ve somehow managed to teach my own hands to speak this universal human language. The fundamental elements of music have a lot in common with how we speak. In speech, we communicate by practising linguistic rhythms and intonations, using words as our building blocks. As I understand it, the components that create music can be similarly broken down into a trinity that music technique controls: pitch (notes, the basic units of sound), time (the beats and rhythms we create with sound), and dynamics (the character we give to sound).

Discipline in music is in exercising balance and control of these three elements.

Time is the most constant element between instruments. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing, say, piano or ukulele; the methods in which beats and rhythms are established and note values notated do not change. The main concepts of dynamics can carry between instruments as well, but some instruments can achieve a range of characteristic effects that others can’t by design. As a result, each instrument has a unique voice. For example, you can control the loudness and softness of a piano or ukulele, but you cannot sustain the notes of a ukulele as long, nor bend the notes of a piano at all. Where instruments differ the most is in how pitch is achieved, and this element, in part, determines how the musician must adapt in technique when switching between instruments.

Both these instruments are meant to be played with both hands, but there’s a key difference between each when it comes to technique. On a piano, control of pitch, time, and dynamics must be managed independently of each hand in many cases, but on a ukulele, each hand has a role. The left hand is completely devoted to pitch, depressing strings on certain frets to achieve a different tone. The right hand controls time and dynamics based on how the strings are strummed and muted.

This simple change in technique makes a world of difference in producing the elements of the musical trinity. It’s like learning a completely different way of speaking a language you already know.

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration

Every Day is a Sunny Day

The road to McDonald’s Corners Community Centre was dusty and dry beneath the sweltering sun of a mid-July morning. From the first of May to Thanksgiving, the big backyard of this retired backwoods schoolhouse would play roost for a congregation of Canadian farmers and farm owners. They would travel from every crossroad in Lanark County to set up shop beneath white country fair tents or rustic wooden kiosks, showcasing another successful year’s harvest and toil.

Buck up, lad! You're holding a ukulele! And please, take that cap off. 

Buck up, lad! You're holding a ukulele! And please, take that cap off. 

My godparents had called our family to the market. They run Red Dog Farm, their out-of-the-way home north of Hopetown that, this year, bore a fine selection of maple syrup and clickity-clacks (boiled wool slippers). Between purveyors of alpaca wool products and woodcarvings, my godmother Beata looked after the stand, sitting in her lawn chair and strumming a ukulele.

This was my introduction.

Her instrument was an unusually tiny aqua-green affair, but it did its best to compete with the folk trio playing next to the wood-fire kiln baking pizza a short distance away. Its sound was at once familiar and unequivocally cheery. It seemed to perfectly embody godfather Ian’s personal motto: “Every day is a sunny day.”

My family reciprocated her enthusiasm for her newfound pastime, and wanted to know more. She told us she was taught by David Newland, who had hosted a workshop in the community centre that stood before us. He was able to teach his class all the basics of the ukulele in a mere four hours, and judging from her playing, it seemed like she was more than well on her way.

My mother loved the idea of learning the ukulele, and Beata agreed to give her a few pointers. My sister and I took up the opportunity to learn a new instrument, and my father, himself an experienced guitarist, joined us. Soon, we were all gathered in the community centre for a workshop of our own.

The ukulele was passed between my mother, my sister, and me, and we’d take turns placing fingers on different frets trying to plunk out chords. Whenever it came to me, I always had trouble holding it comfortably. There I was, a guy who’d spent 13 years playing piano, cradling this innocent, seemingly proto-guitar in his arms.

I ended up learning four chords: C, F, G, and C7; the root, fourth, and fifth chords in the key of C, plus the dominant seventh in the key of F.

If you've got your own ukulele, feel free to follow along. Black dots show finger positions, starting from the top of the fretboard (to help you read, try turning your head 90 degrees to the right if you strum with your right hand, the opposite if you strum with your left). Don't be concerned about fingering; just try what's most comfortable for you. 

If you've got your own ukulele, feel free to follow along. Black dots show finger positions, starting from the top of the fretboard (to help you read, try turning your head 90 degrees to the right if you strum with your right hand, the opposite if you strum with your left). Don't be concerned about fingering; just try what's most comfortable for you. 

It might seem scant, but you’d be surprised how versatile these four chords are. This is like the traditional folk tune essence; chances are if you know any old folk song, you can play it in the key of C with these four chords.

It might not be everything, but this doesn’t take four hours.

The week after our market visit, my mother received a ukulele for her birthday. This happened four months ago, and given her responsibilities, she hasn’t really touched it since.

Maybe now’s as good a time as any to dust it off and pick it up again. It might make the days a little bit sunnier.

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Stuart Harris

Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!

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Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration