BY SARAH MAISEL | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Craig (that’s my husband, ukulele player Craig Chee) and I are commonly asked, “How do I get better on ukulele?” The traditional answer is practice, of course, but there is much more to it than that. Since so many players forget that they aren’t just playing the ukulele—they are playing music—we are going to delve into the many attributes that help you to become, not just a better ukulele player, but a better musician.
Of course, practice is one of the most crucial parts to bettering yourself, but it also may be the most daunting. What you practice, how you practice, and why you practice are all very good questions that we are going to dive into. To answer these questions for myself, I break my practice down into four main categories: warm-up, skill-building, ear training, and repertoire.
I always start my sessions with some type of stretches or finger exercises to warm up my hands. Playing an instrument can be a very physical activity, and it’s always good to prep yourself before you get going. Think of yourself as a runner, stretching before you begin.
I also consider going through familiar scales as part of my warm-up session. I may take two simple major and minor moveable scales and play them from the 1st to the 7th fret. This doesn’t take long and it allows my fingers a chance to become more limber. I also sing along to the scales as I go through them. It’s a great vocal warm-up, and for those of you that are also singers, you are practicing two skills for the price of one!
The meat of my practice is skill-building, and in this part I will work on something that I think is pretty difficult. The idea here is to challenge yourself—that is the only way you will ever grow as a musician. Here are a few ideas for practice.
WORK ON DIFFICULT TRANSITIONS. Let’s say you have been working on an arrangement and there are a few measures that you can’t seem to play in time. Forget about the rest of the song for the time being and work only on those troublesome measures for a few minutes. You’ll be surprised at how long those few minutes will feel when you’re doing something difficult. Do this focused practice for a few days before you try to put it together with the rest of the song. Once you put the pieces together, you can then begin to speed up your song. Be sure not to speed up too early, however. You want to be able to practice the song only as quickly as you can make the hardest transition.
Something else that goes into this category is playing in other positions on the instrument. How else will you learn your fretboard if you don’t spend time on it? Working through different positions of your C major chord, for example, is practice time well spent. Even if you just spend two solid minutes going through all four main positions each day, you will discover that the two minutes daily is immensely helpful.
WORK ON ARRANGING. You’ve got this great song that you’ve been wanting to do as a chord melody. This is your time to sit and work on it. You might only work on one verse, or you might blaze through the whole song; either way, sitting and arranging songs on your instrument is great practice that draws on many skills.
Arranging doesn’t have to be just chord melody. It could also be creating introductions or endings to a song you strum. Taking the time to work on a piece of music counts as practice. If you have never tried to arrange a song before, spend some time listening to recordings of some of your favorite tunes. See if there are intros and outros you enjoy and try to re-create them. The time you spend listening and problem-solving with the instrument is just as helpful as working out a full arrangement.
TRANSPOSING SONGS. Do you want to be able to play in multiple keys? The first step is making yourself do it. Take songs that you know and love and put them in keys you’ve never tried—like Eb or A. We often get locked into playing tunes in familiar keys because, well, they’re familiar and we don’t like being pushed. You might find that a song sounds better in another key, or that it’s easier to sing in that key. Transposing allows you to be a more well-rounded musician and will also give you the tools to jump into a jam a bit easier.
I like to take a tune that I know well and transpose it into at least three keys. You can start off with using a popular progression, like a I–V–vi–IV. It’s one of the first progressions people are taught on the uke, and in the key of C, it’s C–G–Am–F. Take that progression and try transposing it to the key of G, or Eb or A. Doing this will get you out of the “C Comfort Zone.”
WORK ON A NEW TECHNIQUE. Whether you are working with an instructor or not, taking time out of your practice session to expand your playing techniques is crucial to making yourself a more versatile musician. Techniques can be as simple as learning hammer-ons and pull-offs, or as difficult as learning clawhammer. I’m not saying you need to learn all of the techniques, but take the time to reflect on how you’d like to sound, and see what techniques will get you there. The key to learning a new technique is consistency. Spending five minutes each day working on a skill is way more beneficial than cramming all that practice into a one-day session.
While each of these examples is a way I might spend the skill-building portion of my session, I may not do all of these on one session. If I’m working on an arrangement, for example, that might take up the entire time I’ve set aside. Or, it may be that I spend the bulk of my time working on difficult transitions, and then go to a new technique. Use this time how you see fit, but the biggest takeaway is you should use this time to push yourself.
3. EAR TRAINING
One very simple way to practice ear-training is to listen to your favorite songs and try to play along. As you do this, try to figure out the key by testing out some chords to see if you can follow along. If it turns out you didn’t establish the key, try again! If you have sorted out the key, try to emulate a solo section, or simply play along with the recording, focusing on listening and enhancing the song. You don’t want to overpower the recording, as it is your “jamming” band.
Practicing with backing tracks is extremely valuable. Before YouTube, I had (and still have) a whole collection of the Jamey Aebersold Backing Tracks. Working with pre-recorded tracks is much more fulfilling than working with a metronome. Not only does doing this help you with your timing (since the band was playing to a click track, they are in time), you can work on learning the melody of the song, try specific soloing techniques, or just noodle! You can find tons of free backing tracks, in a variety of keys, on YouTube. This means you have no excuse to try it out! You’ll be surprised how much fun you’ll have during your practice.
I always end my practice session with repertoire. This does two things: It makes me practice what I already know—to ensure I don’t forget it—and it’s fun!
Ending your session with something fun is important. It will help you remember your practice session fondly, and that will make you want to practice. Part of why we play music is because it is fun—and you never want to forget that.
Finding ways to utilize your practice to be as efficient as possible is what will set you apart from others. Honing-in on specific techniques and goals is very important for good practice. To help myself with reaching my goals, I would write them down on an index card and read them to myself each night (or before a practice session). Doing this made me always remember why I was practicing. Eventually, when I would reach the goals on the card, it would give me a sense of accomplishment, and I’d make a new index card. Learning is not easy, but you can still have fun.
Sarah Maisel is an in-demand ukulele teacher and performer.
Ukulele Basics: Chords and Harmony is a collection of six easy-to-follow but in-depth lessons on the basics of chords and harmony. Instructors and Ukulele magazine contributors Jim D’Ville and Fred Sokolow, as well as the great composer/player Daniel Ho, will guide you through easy chord variations, harnessing the power of certain chords, demystifying the famous Circle of 5ths, and understanding moveable chord shapes.