BY SARAH MAISEL WITH CRAIG CHEE | FROM THE WINTER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
With so much information out there, it is easy to become overwhelmed when you are trying to make the leap from beginner to intermediate player. There are many distractions along your journey, but as long as you can stay focused and keep your goals in mind, making the jump is possible! In this three-part series of lessons, Craig and I will give you insight into how we help our students make the leap—first, discussing goals and notation in this issue; in subsequent issues we’ll move on to scales and warm-up exercises, and end with chord transitions and positions.
Let’s Talk About Goals
I cannot stress this enough. Take the time to really think about what you’d like out of your musical journey and where you would like to be in one month, three months, six months, etc. If you can give yourself just one goal, you have something to work toward. It can be easy to plateau as you find yourself playing the same old things, so taking the time to re-evaluate yourself and your goals is a great way to ensure that
plateau isn’t longer than necessary. Remember, setting a goal doesn’t need to be some large, lofty idea such as “I want to learn all music theory.” It can be simple: “I want to have cleaner hammer-ons and pull-offs,” or, “I want to learn X song by the end of the month.” Giving yourself a goal to look forward to can help you choose what to practice, or what to request from your instructor.
Here are a few examples of goals, and how to work toward them. The hope is to give you inspiration for your goals and a few suggestions of how you might achieve them.
Play with a Cleaner Tone
If your instrument can be amplified, use an amp while wearing headphones. You will hear all the nuances of your playing, including the muffled/bad notes. This really forces you to hear everything.
Spend time focusing on how you pick and strum. You can try using different fingers to see what tone you prefer, or even shaping your nails slightly. Is it best to use the flesh of your finger instead of nail, or a mix? These are different thoughts to consider as you intently listen to your own playing.
As you focus on the picking and/or strumming, also look at your hand position. Is it relaxed enough? Do you need to brace?
Also look at your hand position while fretting. Are you as being as accurate as possible on the strings? Are you accidentally bending notes by pressing too hard?
Learn to Memorize Scale Patterns
Memorize each string on its own and spend time focusing on each. Perhaps even say the names of the notes (or fret numbers) out loud throughout the day.
Work on the full scale, forward and backward, making sure each note is as smooth as possible. What fingers can you leave down while other notes are being played to allow them to ring for as long and as smoothly as possible?
Work with a metronome once you feel confident with your scale pattern. Metronomes are wonderful tools that should not be fought. If you really hate the metronome, try using a drum machine. There are free apps for your phone or you can purchase one.
Memorize a Song
Take some time to look at the chords within the song. Memorize the progression of each section. Notice how it may have an A section (verse) and B section (bridge or chorus), etc.
If you know some theory, you can analyze the song to help you with your memorization. If you aren’t there yet with theory, just spend time writing out the progressions for each section. Writing things down is always helpful.
Practice playing each section separately. Don’t try to sing along yet, just work on the chord progressions.
Start working on the strum pattern you wish to use; do this with just one chord at first. Then, if you feel confident with the chord progression, try to do the strum pattern for one section. The key is not having to think about the chords you are playing. Those should come to you (mostly) automatically, as you add in the strumming pattern.
Record yourself playing the full song with a metronome, but make sure you do not sing along. Once you’ve done this, listen to that recording and sing along. This will train your ear to hear when the changes should happen, and allow you time to memorize the lyrics separately. Use the recording to practice in the car as you run errands.
Put everything together. Because you worked on each part (fretting hand, strumming hand, and singing) separately, putting them together will be much easier than if you just forged ahead and tried to do them all at once.
Some of these steps may seem like a lot, but these ideas are laid out to give you the steps to reach that memorization goal.
Memorize Certain Chord Shapes
I used to practice chord melody-style scales going up and down the neck to learn a variety of chord shapes. We will go into greater depth about this goal in a later issue. In the meantime, however . . .
Write out chord patterns daily. Again, writing out chord diagrams is a great way of memorizing the shapes. With writing them out, make sure to play them as well. Playing songs you know and love in different positions on your instrument is a great way to attain this goal. If you do this, work one chord per week into the song until you can play the whole song in another place.
Nail Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
Scales are a wonderful way of practicing these; hammer-ons going up the scale, and pull-offs for coming down. You can also use chords, but this can be trickier in the beginning.
Really focus on your fretting hand position and watch that you are truly on the center of the string, and not slightly to the side. This will affect your tone (see earlier goal example).
Using your chording fingers and without plucking strings, try to hammer-on your scale and pull-off backward. This is a great way to test your goal. Remember, it will not be as loud as when you pluck, but you should still hear the scale.
here are so many more goals that could be listed, but hopefully some of these will inspire you to think about what you want to achieve. Remember: your goals will continually change and evolve. Having two or three goals in mind is always a good idea, as it gives you a small variety to choose from, so you won’t get sick of practicing the same thing all the time. Make sure to write your goals down, so you can refer to them, just as you would write down notes for yourself in class (more on this in a moment). You’ll be referencing these regularly.
Some Thoughts on Notation
One of the first stumbling blocks that some players encounter is how to notate what they are learning. Not everyone knows how to read music (indeed many top players don’t read music), and in order to become an intermediate player you don’t have to learn, but it does help. Here are some notation ideas that I used in the beginning, even though I knew how to read music.
I hear many players talking about strumming patterns and calling them names like, “the down-down-up-up-down” or “Island strum”, and it is always so hard to keep those names straight. For me, writing down those names meant nothing if I couldn’t quantify when the actual strumming happened within a given beat. During a workshop, an instructor saying phrases like “down-down-up-up-down” while strumming is useful, but you won’t have that when you get home to practice. Example 1 depicts how I started writing out patterns once the class was over.
You’ll see that I have written up and down arrows, with the down arrows above the numbers, and the up arrows above the ampersands. Not always, but 90 percent of the time, your down strums will be on the beat (numbers). Writing it out this way, we are actually breaking down a four-beat measure into eighth notes. You could actually break it down further into 16th notes, as shown in Example 2, but that isn’t as common.
Try the two examples shown in Example 3.
For practice, say the numbers and the “ands” out loud as you strum. Keep your strumming hand consistently going up and down, ensuring you only strum the strings on the highlighted areas. Even if you accidentally strum on a different beat, because of your consistency, the extra strum won’t be as noticeable. As with the goals listed above, I recommend taking it one hand at a time: work on just one chord, get the pattern down, and then you can add more chords later.
Strumming patterns will not be the only notation you have to create for yourself. You may find that you wish to write out scale patterns. I’ve seen several methods of writing this without notation, and for myself, I found this, Example 4, to be the best way:
Doing this tells me the order of the notes (the numbers), and gives me a clear view of how it will all look on my fretboard. Sometimes I will also write out which finger is assigned to which fret (as can be seen on the right side of the example). This helps to remind me how I plan on playing this so I stay consistent with my fretting hand.
If you are interested in chord melody, it’s helpful to write things out to help you remember. Perhaps the teacher just showed you something without any written material, or you aren’t well versed at writing tablature, or you just want a quicker way to glance and remember.
When I first started writing out chord melody, I actually did zero music notation. Instead, I found writing chord diagrams above lyrics to be the most helpful for my memory. This also forced me to really see the patterns that my fingers were creating on the fretboard as well. Let’s use a section of the song “Twinkle Twinkle” (Example 5) for our example. I chose the key of A, as the melody sits on the A string very nicely, allowing the use of full chords per melody note. You’ll see the use of some chord substitutions as well.
Looking at this, I can clearly see what chord patterns are being played, and writing them out over and over again also reinforces the shapes. I found that with each arrangement I created in this fashion, I was memorizing my chord shapes faster. I can also use this arrangement for practicing chord transitions, which we will discuss in our third lesson of this series.
This method does have its downsides. For one, if you are unfamiliar with the song, you can’t really follow along, as there are no rhythmic notations. The other issue is that it does tend to take up many more pages than standard music notation or tablature. However, it is a great visual reference if you know the song and just need to see something to jog your memory for how you arranged it.
Reflect on your musical journey and where you would like to be as a musician. Start by giving yourself a one-month goal and sticking with it for the full month. Start a practice notebook to keep you organized and focused. Be sure to write out some of your favorite strumming patterns, or even diagrams for a chord melody. This will help you prepare for our next lesson: the importance (and use) of scales and warm-up exercises.
Ukulele Basics – Learning and Practicing includes lessons from some of the top names of the uke-teaching world including Jim Beloff, Heidi Swedberg, Sarah Maisel, Craig Chee, Jim D’Ville and Cathy Fink. These top teachers share important tips on everything from optimal practice habits to tuning with your ears and reading music.