STORY BY HOLLY RUDIN-BRASCHI | PHOTOS BY SCOTT HILLMAN | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
According to George Kahumoku, Jr., learning to play ukulele Hawaiian-style introduces you to skills and a mindset that can improve your all-around musicianship in any genre of music. Playing Hawaiian-style means more than just technical knowledge; it also embraces such concepts as teamwork, ego-free sharing of skills, love, respect, and fun for all. With that in mind, 24 years ago Kahumoku held his first Slack Key Workshop on Maui with a handful of students and a couple of instructors. Today, over 100 students from around the world participate at the annual workshop held at the Napili Kai Beach Resort on Maui.
Designed as a week of musical and cultural immersion, Kahumoku and his wife, Nancy, offer 28 classes per day, organized in levels from beginning to advanced, in ukulele, guitar, and lap steel, with the best-of-the-best Hawaii-based musicians. Ukulele class topics cover everything from chord shapes to theory to the fretboard to jazz, and much more. Every evening after dinner is a fun-for-all kanikapila (jam session) where students and teachers play together, practicing skills taught that day.
The workshop’s goal to create a joyful environment where everyone can learn is reflected in its approachable and encouraging instructors, who all come from different musical backgrounds and offer students a wide range of knowledge and techniques. At the June 2022 Workshop, we took advantage of having so many master musicians and teachers in one place by asking on behalf of Ukulele readers for some basic tips on improving your ukulele skills, some general and some specific.
Here’s a quick guide to playing Hawaiian-style ukulele:
- Feel the Music
- Know Your Learning Style
- The Art of Listening
- Read the Room
- Ditch the Sheet Music
- Look and Learn
- Improve Your Practice
- Build Soloing Skills
- Accompanying Tools
- Take Musical Risks
- Practice Humility
Feel the Music
“You have to genuinely love music,” says Na Hoku Hanohano Award–winning recording artist, composer, producer, and ukulele book author Herb Ohta Jr. “You can be the most talented musician, but you must have a feel for the genre of music you are playing, whether it’s blues, Hawaiian, or reggae. You aren’t playing the music unless you are in it.”
A perfect example of this is Ledward Kaapana, Grammy-nominated and winner of the Hoku Instrumental Album of the Year for several albums. He opens each workshop day at around 5:30 a.m. for an impromptu kanikapila in the Aloha Pavilion before breakfast is served. Instructors join in, and students are encouraged to come and observe. During the day, when he isn’t teaching private lessons, “Uncle Led” sits on the lanai outside of his room and plays with a constant smile on his face. “I always have music in my head, and I never get tired of it!” he says. “Hawaiians play with their feelings. Every day you play, you feel differently, so the music speaks what’s in your heart. If you want to learn, you must feel the music.”
Know Your Learning Style
“Everyone learns differently,” advises Peter deAquino, Kamehameha Schools Maui music educator and Hoku nominee. “Some learn visually, some by ear, some with musical notation.” To grow, deAquino suggests learning within your strengths, but also welcoming methods that are new to you.
The Art of Listening
“Your playing will improve when your listening skills improve,” offers Bryan Tolentino, Hoku- and Grammy-nominated performer, entertainer, educator, producer, and creator of Ukulele Friends Hawaii on Facebook Live. “Practice ear training. Listen to your favorite recording of the piece. Don’t be afraid to noodle around to figure out how to play the following three elements in this order: First try to match the melody notes. Next match the chord progression which is based on the melody. Lastly, listen to the musician’s interpretation. Notes are simply notes, and chords are chords. But they come alive with interpretation.
“Listen how your favorite musicians play, then try to incorporate their style.”
Read the Room
“Listen carefully to the other musicians in the group and make your instrument blend in rather than stand out,” says Tolentino. “Are they playing a specific rhythmic pattern? Are they strumming or fingerpicking? What’s their dynamic level? Try and match whatever you hear. Enhance it with something that complements but doesn’t overpower. And never play louder than the solo instrument or singer.”
Ditch the Sheet Music
Brad Bordessa, creator of liveukulele.com and author of three ukulele books with accompanying video lessons, finds that “sheet music seduces players into only listening to themselves.” It doesn’t matter if you know the song or are hearing it for the first time. “Without sheet music,” explained Bordessa, “you must use one ear for yourself and one ear for the band or group. This enables you to hear what’s happening around you and respond accordingly to complement the music.”
Look and Learn
Practice the powers of observation. “When learning from another player or in a kanikapila group, sit and watch if you don’t know the song,” Kaapana says. “Watch their timing, how they approach the fretboard, what they are doing with their strumming hand, and listen to how they sing their song. I guarantee you will be playing along.” In his classes, he urges his students to take videos of him so they can review what they’ve learned at home.
Improve Your Practice
Jeff Peterson, Grammy- and Hoku Award-winning recording artist, composer, author, performer, and creator of ukulelecorner.com, shares his tips for progressing faster: “Practice at least 30 minutes a day if possible and record your progress in a daily practice log. Give structure to your learning by studying with a teacher or an online method. Learn to play both by ‘eye’ (reading tab and basic notation) and by ‘ear’ (listening and playing what you hear). Practice technique as well as repertoire. Learn songs within your playing level with lots of repetitions of short phrases. Work on clear and consistent right- and left-hand fingerings. Aim to get off the page to improve your interpretation.”
Whether practicing alone or with a group, Jason Jerome, author of Jason’s ’Ukulele Book, reminds players of an obvious element that many forget: “Always tune twice. All your effort is subverted if you’re not in tune.” For practicing alone, Jerome suggests recording yourself, then immediately listening back. “It’s brutal, but brutally honest, because it shows where you need work.” He also advises practicing with a metronome to internalize playing at a steady pace. Before playing a song with a group, Jerome advises recording a backing track on your smartphone and practicing along with the recording to master smooth playing.
“If you have reached your learning plateau,” advises deAquino, “get out of your comfort level.” To learn faster and avoid frustration, he suggests tackling anything that gives you trouble at the start of your practice session, when your hands and mind are fresh… a chord or progression, a musical passage, etc.
When it gets too hard, move on to something familiar to reset your mind. “It is a balance of being comfortable on the instrument and not getting so discouraged that you don’t want to play.”
Bordessa adds, “When practicing, I always recommend slowing the tempo until it feels awkward. Playing slowly is more demanding, and helps you improve by playing songs in different and more challenging ways. When you have nailed the music at a ‘boring’ tempo, playing it fast becomes a piece of cake.”
Build Soloing Skills
“Knowing your fretboard is key to soloing,” says Herb Ohta Jr. “This basic skill makes it easy to find melody notes as well as identify chords and progressions. Start by memorizing the notes of the scales on individual strings, starting with the open string then going up the fretboard until you reach the octave. Next, practice scales on all four strings in a 4–5 fret range. Start in the first fret with the most played major scales: C G D A and F. Then move up the fretboard to the fifth fret to practice the same scales. Keep moving up the fretboard. Say the names of the notes as you play to internalize each note’s location.”
“Improvising can be approached many ways,” notes Bordessa. “But to me, musical ‘ideas’ and comfort on the fretboard are cornerstones.” Once you have learned your fretboard, Bordessa suggests finding your inner music. “Start by humming or singing something random. Pretend you’re playing a different instrument, like a saxophone. Sing what you think would be an awesome solo on that instrument. Then match the notes on the ukulele.”
“Learn chord shapes and voicings all across your fretboard to prevent musical boredom both for the player and the listener,” deAquino suggests.
More ways to play the same chord gives your ukulele a new voice with a range of soloing and accompanying choices, adding interest and fun to your playing. “Using voicings also helps link together solo runs,” says deAquino. “Instead of ending a run on a single note, you can end on a chord because you will know the chord or harmony that supports it.”
To learn, he suggests finding second position of all the chords you use the most in the first position (C D F G A). Then practice moving between positions. Always memorize the second position for each new chord you add to your repertoire.
Peterson outlines a comprehensive curriculum for solo playing: “Learn musical phrases by ear for each song. Develop your knowledge of the relationships between chords, intervals, and scales. Target chord tones when chords change. Write out ideas and practice with play-along accompaniment to improvise in real time.
If learning Hawaiian music, memorize traditional Hawaiian vamps in many keys. Learn to use moving 6th intervals. Drill hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. Listen to great Hawaiian artists improvise and learn all you can by ear while knowing the chord progressions of each song.”
Whether accompanying vocal or instrumental soloists, Peterson advises, “Build technique to play many types of accompaniments, from arpeggiation to strumming. Learn different musical ‘feels’ including swing, a backbeat, the Hawaiian double-strum, pop rhythms, eighth note ballad feel, rubato playing…” I work closely with students to develop these skills and know they can be challenging to learn, but essential. Finally, understand the chord progression and song form of any song you play.”
Take Musical Risks
“If you continually push yourself out of your musical comfort zone, you’ll improve,” Ohta Jr. says. “Whether you are studying ukulele at a workshop, privately, or on YouTube, be open to different approaches. This enables you to grasp different playing styles and techniques while enriching your skills. If I am teaching an intermediate class and a beginner sits in, I appreciate it because their zeal for learning is making them inquisitive yet unafraid to take chances to see if something new fits.”
Performance and Hawaiian language instructor Max Angel agrees. “Don’t worry about making mistakes. Keep playing with others as much as possible. This is how you will sharpen your skills. It’s hard, it’s a challenge, but the only way to get through it is to go straight through the middle.”
Jerome recalls an epiphany he had in 2012 at the workshop’s instructor’s concert/kanikapila, which takes place the first night. It has no set playlist. Performers take turns being the leader, calling out a favorite song and playing and singing a couple of verses. Then, each performer on stage takes turns playing a short, improvised instrumental solo (pa’ani) based on the melody.
As the instructors assembled on stage, Jerome found himself sitting between Kaapana and Ohta Jr. “I thought I was going to die!” he laughs. “I had to play a solo between two master musicians for the entire two-hour performance. It turned out to be the best night of growth I ever had!”
“We all learn from each other,” explains Tolentino. “Even the professionals. Jake [Shimabukuro] learned from everyone and asked a lot of questions. Jake asks us still. The successful ones have no egos. Whatever I do, I am happy for everyone else’s successes. Ukulele players from Hawaii have an upbringing that gives us a no-show-off attitude. Most everyone is just the average Joe. There are very few prima donnas.”
Go to kahumoku.com/workshops to learn more and to register for the 25th annual Maui Slack Key Guitar & Ukulele Workshop (May 31–June 7, 2023).
In this highly useful intermediate lesson book, Ukulele Explorations – Chords and Harmony, Fred Sokolow writes about how to better understand chord progressions and jazzing up your uke; Alec Poletsky explains moveable major and minor chords; Jim Beloff illustrates the step-up key change through one of his own tunes; and Jim D’Ville uses Beatles songs as a gateway to learning extended chords.