My plan to learn to play the Ukulele

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When I was around 8 years old I started taking piano lessons. (Mostly because my older sister, Linda, was taking them and I didn’t want to be left out.)  I lasted around 5 years before the boredom of practicing scales got to me.  I asked if I could stop and my mom reluctantly agreed. Then in high school after being involved in choir and vocal jazz ensemble I got the bug to learn piano again.  I took lessons for another 2 or 3 years until I graduated.

So, for around 10 years I was playing piano on and off.  While I had some decent potential I never really excelled or took it to a very high level.  Why?  Well, itʻs pretty obvious now, but at the time I wondered why I still had problems sight-reading music or improvising.  But now, after training and coaching Chinese martial arts (wushu) for the last 20+ years, I understand that you only get out of a skill what you put into it.

Getting instruction in a skill is not the same thing as learning the skill. Proficiency requires active participation.

In other words, no one can practice for you. The improvement you receive is a reciprocal of the effort you put in.

In my 20’s I started picking up the guitar. Again, I never really put a ton of effort into it so I only became a proficient “strummer,” and never really a “guitarist.”  I enjoy playing, but it isnʻt something I feel excellent at.

When I was considering a cultural art to study in Hawai’i I considered a lot of options.  Hula dance, chanting, making reed mats or one of the other countless cultural arts that exist here.  But in the end, I decided to pursue a study of ‘Ukulele.

Todayʻs post is about sharing my specific plan to study the ‘Ukulele.  It is also an attempt to circumvent my natural tendencies to not put in a consistent effort with musical pursuits.

Of course, this is also an attempt to prove my hypothesis that studying the ‘Ukulele will enhance my understanding of the Hawaiian language and the local culture. I’m pretty sure it will, but it will be nice to have empirical evidence.

Why I’m doing a self-study of the ‘Ukulele

If you read my plan to study the Hawaiian language, you may have noticed that my original plan was to take a ‘Ukulele class at Kapi’olani Community College. However, I decided instead to take a Hawaiian language class and will be self-teaching myself the “‘Uke”.

Why?  Well, as I mentioned here, Hawaiian has some challenges in finding resources to study the language.  Unlike Hawaiian, it is much easier to find resources to learn ‘Ukulele online. There are courses and books and tons of materials. There are also a lot more people teaching ‘Ukulele – both in and outside of Hawai’i – than there are who teach Hawaiian.

The other reason is that I actually have some experience with the guitar, so I’m not totally starting from scratch. Almost scratch, yes. But I’m not a complete beginner like I am with Hawaiian. I actually already know four chords, so I can practically play every popular song in the world. ;-).

I also like the portability of the ‘Ukulele. My ¾ scale travel guitar can still be a little unwieldy on a plane. A ‘Ukulele can actually fit inside travel luggage.  That means more opportunities to take it with me when I explore the other islands or head off to other lands and countries.

So, with all those reasons in mind, here is my specific (initial) plan to study the ‘Ukulele…

My plan to study the ‘Ukulele

My initial plan covers the first 6 months while Iʻm building up fundamentals.  It includes 4 paths to develop my skills with the ‘Ukulele. They are:

  1. Online courses
  2. Hawaiian music study
  3. Daily Practice
  4. Regular Performance

Let’s look at each one in turn:

1. Online Courses to learn the ‘Ukulele

I’ve been able to locate a couple of good courses on the ‘Ukulele on Udemy, which is an online learning platform. They had a sale a month or so ago (they’re actually running sales all the time) so I picked up four courses on different areas of ‘Ukulele:

  1. Fundamentals:  The “Complete Ukulele Beginnerʻs Course” is meant to teach the fundamentals.  This includes strumming patterns, some fingerpicking, chords, and that sort of good foundational knowledge.
  2. Fingerpicking: I picked (pun!) two courses on fingerpicking: “Fingerstyle Basics” and “Fingerpicking Basics“.  I know from playing the guitar that this is a skill I wish I had developed. It is one thing to strum a chord, but being able to play arpeggios or pick out a melody takes your playing to a whole new level.
  3. Flamenco: This “Flamenco Ukulele” course looks interesting.  I know that this is not a traditional style of music for ‘Ukulele, but it looks like it provides good advanced techniques.  Plus, the idea of fusing different styles and instruments together is really appealing.

I predict it will take me about 6 months to really go through all of these materials and get them down. After that, I will determine what areas I’m weakest in and try to focus on those, either with other online courses or through in-person instruction.

2. Studying Hawaiian music to learn the ‘Ukulele

Because the ‘Ukulele is a Hawaiian music, I’m going to focus a good amount of effort on learning actual Hawaiian songs. This will help me in a few key areas:

  • It will reinforce my ability to play — obviously the more you play and practice, the better you get, right?
  • It will reinforce my study of the Hawaiian language. Learning to sing songs in Hawaiian and trying to know what they are saying will build up that skill.
  • It will help me better understand Hawaiian culture. A lot of things about Hawaii, such as the places, the history, and the social structure, are exemplified in their music. This is a great way to get to know it better.

Plus, I also like the idea of being able to play local music as a way to connect with local folks.

I have a songbook of traditional Hawaiian songs that I’m going to use as my initial study. My intention is to try to learn at least one song a month, if not two. But along with all my other studies and projects, I think one/month is a good goal.

I don’t plan to learn the songs until I’ve finished the fundamentals course on Udemy. I think going through that course will lay a good foundation so that it will be easier to learn the songs.  It covers 34 lectures for a total of around 90 minutes of video instruction.  But counting time for practicing what I learn, Iʻm predicting it will take a month to complete it.

I am also going to be looking online (YouTube, etc.) for examples of traditional Hawaiian music that I might be able to learn and/or pick up. Jake Shimabukuro is, of course, super amazing and inspirational.  (I mean, seriously. Watch this and tell me youʻre not impressedI dare you.) But there are a lot of other amazing musicians out there and I’d love to become more familiar with who is doing what and how I might be able to learn from them.

3. Daily Practice of the ‘Ukulele

I probably don’t need to say it, but I plan to commit myself to a daily study of the ‘Ukulele. I’m carving out at least 30 minutes every morning to practice with full intention. 30 minutes of real focus is better than 3 hours of random strumming. I want to be sure to set aside the time and be consistent. Consistency is usually my weak point so I want to really build this habit.

Of course, if I can do more than 30 minutes, that’s great. But I also recognize that it is more important to do a little bit every day than overload on one day and then do nothing for several more. Slow and steady wins the race, right?

4. Performing the ‘Ukulele to Improve Skills

The last piece of my study plan is to seek out opportunities to perform the ‘Ukulele. Now, I’m not going to start gigging at bars or busking in Waikiki.  But I do have some chances during my normal week or month where I could contribute some music.

Part of this is writing some songs. Since I’m fairly active in the Baha’i Community, there are always chances to recite or sing prayers, quotes, etc. I’m going to tackle a few of the prayers I wrote for the guitar and bring them over to the ‘Ukulele. I’m also going to try to write new and original material, not just Bahaʻi-related.

Writing music for me is a very organic process.  I often don’t know when inspiration will strike me. Yes, this isn’t the best writing system, but since writing is a supplemental effort and not my main method for learning I’m okay with that.

I also noticed that when you perform in public is supercharges your song memory. Something about forgetting a song in public is really good motivation for keeping songs in your brain.

So, those are my specific study methods for the ‘Ukulele. But that isn’t all I’m going to do for the whole 2.5 years of my Hawai’i Walkabout. Here is a general timeline of what is ahead for me with the ‘Ukulele.

The timeline for my ‘Ukulele study plan

As I mentioned, this is really my plan for just the first 6 months or so. But that means I’ll have another 24 months after that to keep going.

Until Iʻm active with this practice and study, it is hard to say exactly what I’ll need to do 6 months from now, or what opportunities will present themselves.

But I do have a few ideas of potential options that I might pursue, such as …

  • Find a group class, like the one at Kapi’olani Community College or at one of the ‘Ukulele shops around town.
  • Get private instruction in a specific style or genre of music for the ‘Ukulele. There are lots of masters in Hawai’i so I’m guessing I might be able to find a good teacher.
  • Join a performance group. Assuming I get good enough I might be able to work with a group and get some regular chances to play. A little ensemble or band would be a fun way to build skills and improve.

And I’m sure other things will pop up too. But for now, I’m just focused on the immediate step of those four areas and the next 6 months.

How to follow along with my progress on the ‘Ukulele

Of course, if you’d like to see how I improve, then you’re in luck. I will be posting up regular progress videos on my YouTube channel. I will also send out a newsletter whenever a new video or update is released so make sure to sign up for that using the form down below.

And if you’re a social sort of person, then be sure to subscribe to my Instagram feed where I’ll be posting up snippets, pictures, and updates from my walkabouts and essential challenges, including my study of ‘Ukulele.

Oh! And before I forget, I’m releasing a bi-monthly podcast too! I’ll be sure to include updates and audio from my ‘Ukulele and Hawaiian language studies. Just click on the “Podcast” link in the navigation.

So, there you have it. My plan to study ‘Ukulele. If you have any suggestions or ideas on how you would approach a project like this, please comment below. I’d love to read your thoughts!

Until next time … See you around the!

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