Sunday, May 2, 2010

UE #34 Getting Good

What does it mean to be a 'good' player? Every musician has certain standards they expect of themselves. But how do you get to be 'good'?

I'll admit right now that I'm not about to provide an instant and magical technique to dramatically improve your playing. If there were such a technique, then everyone would be syncopating the minuetto allegretto on their ukuleles just as easily as walking (btw. don't be baffled by jargon; "walking" is just an old English verb. Most now use the word "driving" instead).

I am in the middle of teaching a 3 week Beginners Ukulele class. The class is taught one evening a week in the back room of a coffee house here in Vancouver. The room generally has several students busily staring into laptops and working on their studies; and we usually have to move one or two of them to make room for myself and the 11 ukulele beginners; most of whom have never played a musical instrument in their lives.

It surprises me that many of the laptop gazers actually choose to stick around. My assumption would be that they come to the coffee house to work quietly and not be distracted by a load of wannabe musicians and their tryintabe teacher. Yet they continue studying while my intrepid group goes about the serious business of learning G7.

I enjoy teaching beginners but I also find it a challenge. When I started out (circa 1990) I didn't have a ukulele teacher of my own. There were no other ukulele players around for me to emulate. Nobody to show me what to do; I had to figure it out for myself.

For the first couple of years of playing uke I stuck to songs with simple chord changes. This gave me lots of practice in holding a steady rhythm and keeping everything in time. Eventually, after upgrading to a better instrument I was then ready for trickier chords and faster changes. In other words I learned to play at my own speed and didn't compare myself to anybody else.

How different things are now. Just typing the word "ukulele" into Youtube reveals 1000s of ukulele performances. Such variety too! You can watch incredible players. Some make music on their ukes that you'd swear was physically impossible. You will also view players who apparently have no sense of how awfully inept they truly are. And, most annoyingly of all, there is an amazing 3 year old kid who sings and strums in his home. He seems to have been born with the ability to play ukulele like a fiend. Although with such a premature burgeoning of talent he will likely be a washed up old has-been by the time he's 6. We can only hope.

Frankly I am very glad that Youtube didn't exist when I was learning. Even now I tend to avoid it unless I want to hear a specific song that I'm working on. Don't get me wrong. Youtube is a useful tool and how are we to learn if not from observing others? It's the comparing of ourselves to others that is destructive.

I can think of 3 live musicians that I heard as a young child: Mrs Eleanor played piano for the songs we sang at school assembly; my dad, a teacher, played a repertoire of mostly folk songs on his guitar, and then there was my grandad who just liked to sing. Btw. If you want to hear a wonderful home recording of my grandad and his pal Albert singing My Blue Heaven then get hold of my CD: Table for Two. He's on near the end. It's totally classic.

When I was old enough to attend professional concerts it didn't make Mrs Eleanor seem any less 'good' to me. She was always a perfect singalong pianist. My dad was an ideal performer for his school classroom where his rendition of The Little Fly was second to none. My grandad, you'll agree when you hear the recording, was a living-room crooner par excellence.

If a player only knows a handful of simple 3 chord songs they can still be 'good'. It all depends on context.

In the beginner class one of my students commented that she wasn't going to be playing ukulele in front of other people until she was 'good'. Here's what happened:

I taught the students their very first song. It had 2 chords and we played it all the way through. At the end, to everyone's surprise, there was the sound of clapping. Looking around the room we saw the smiling and impressed faces of the laptop people. They were applauding the very first song of a group of beginning musicians who could already do something, that they, with their fancy laptops, could not. I think that's alright. In fact; I'd go so far as to say they were actually quite 'good'!


1 comment:

  1. Hi Ralph, I have some experience of teaching ukulele to adults but none of teaching children. This was highlighted at the weekend where a 6 year old flower girl was given a pink makala as a present by the Bride and Groom and I was asked to teach her something.

    It was immediately obvious that there were a number of issue to overcome, not least diminutive size of hands! I also realised most of the songs I know are more adult songs.

    In the end we just worked on strumming in time together, which she was surprisingly good at. We found it easiest if the uke lay a little more horizontally on her. Then we played 'happy chord, sad chord' - C and Am, as I thought these would be easy ones to start with and I could give them obvious memorable names! It turned out to be easier for Ellie to finger sad chord with her thumb as she just muted the strings when stretching across them. I realise that some of this is strictly bad technique but didn't know what else I could do.

    Do you have any advice or know of any resources about teaching ukulele to kids?