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My ukulele diary – part 1

The first of a series of posts in which I will document my progress.

My ukulele was delivered a few days before Christmas, a Cascha lefthand concert model from the mahogany series that comes with a padded case from Thomann. It smells amazingly, and is the perfect size for me, a small woman.

As I had already bought a beginners’ book, I started learning to play it right away. With some exception due to circumstances, I practise every day for at least 10 minutes.

Mental somersault

The majority of teaching material is meant for right-handed players. The first obstacle I encountered was to mentally flip the diagrams that show how to form the chords. Writing them down as I should play them helped a lot. Later on, I found the very helpful online chord finder from the Ukulele Society of Great Britain, which has the option of viewing them left-handed.

Swimmingly

Going from plucking the strings to strumming with the thumb, to learning the C and Am chords – and switching between them – went surprisingly smoothly. I took my time with the exercises, which involved playing the traditional songs:

  • Row, Row, Row your Boat
  • A Sailor Went to Sea
  • Drunken Sailor! (plucking the G string)
  • Sail Us Away

At some point, I took the habit of putting dates next to the songs I managed to play, to keep track of the progress. I learnt Sail Us Away on 28 December.

Then came the F chord, with Hot Cross Buns and Frère Jaques (which is a traditional song in Italy as well, known as Fra’ Martino).

All I did the next six days was to learn London Bridge is Falling Down, where there are changes between the F and C chords. I managed to play it correctly on 3 January.

Grrr!

Then came the G chord, and strumming with the index finger. The G chord involves three fingers, and it took a while to get used to. The finger aerobics exercise I went through again and again is changing between the C chord and the G chord. Everything was fine until I encountered the next song: He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.

To play it right, I had to do two things: changing from C to G and back while strumming down and up. At this point, I had barely learnt the chord change, and was having issues strumming up. I just couldn’t do it.

Press pause

I went back to the chord change using the metronome, starting from a very slow 80bpm. I only stopped once I was able to make the change at 200bpm. Then, I played the song only strumming down on 23 January, and strumming down and up the following day.

The next song was Drunken Sailor! again, but replacing the G plucks with G chord strums. Because the song in the book is slower than the original, I found it easier than He’s Got the Whole World in his Hands.

Relax. Don’t do it

I now know four chords, and it’s time to learn songs that use three of them. The finger aerobics exercise is strumming rhythms and changing between the C, F and G chords. That chord sequence is used in three songs:

  • Swing Low
  • When the Saints Go Marching In
  • I’m Gonna Sing

I set up the metronome at 80bpm to be able to play those songs. But once I learnt the rhythms, my brain failed me again. Changing chords at 80bpm is something I already did, and yet, as the left hand follows a strumming pattern, the right hand refuses to move in time.

Two steps back

Strumming down and up doesn’t feel comfortable. I’m very aware of the fact that my fingers get caught in the strings while strumming up, and I get distracted by the sounds I’m producing. They’re not right.

I spent a few days trying to understand which strumming technique is more comfortable for me. Using the thumb? The index finger? Both (down with the thumb, up with the index)? It seems like I settled for the index finger, but don’t disdain using the thumb as well.

Feeling more comfortable, I tried the rhythms again and decided at some point that I could make the chord change easily. I literally said to myself: you are able to it. And I did. Brain, you are weird. That was yesterday, 2 February.

Sources and help

I’m learning on the Ukulele Basics book by Lorraine Bow and Alex Davis from Faber Music. It clearly is a book for children, which is perfect for me, an absolute beginner.

A few days ago, I also started practising with Hal Leonard Ukulele Method Book 1.

I actively look for visual help and tips on YouTube. The channels I visit more frequently are those of Cynthia Lin, Bernadette Teaches Music, Elise Ecklund and One Music School.

Last but not least, my husband Simone – professional bass player and composer – is the reason I keep going without being overwhelmed by setbacks.

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