BY HEIDI SWEDBERG | FROM THE SUMMER 2016 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Workshops at festivals and retreats offer ukulele enthusiasts great opportunities: exposure to new styles and techniques, an intimate shared experience with like-minded people, inspiration, and challenge. But with great teachers from around the world teaching compelling classes at the same time, the question becomes, “How to choose?”
First, know yourself. Start by assessing your skills. Think about what level of player you might be (Not sure? See below to assess your level). Classes geared to beginners will focus on accommodating the novice and make sure no one gets left behind, whereas classes for advanced players strive to keep the most skilled players challenged. Intermediate classes teach to the middle of the class and try to keep the less skilled in the loop without loosing the interest of the more advanced. Then, take a look at the summer workshops available and consider what kind of an experience you want to have.
A list of classes is a lot like a restaurant menu. Try to order a balanced meal, choosing your main course and some side dishes. Do you want to conquer a new style? Choose a class focused on a specific technique as your main course, and make the rest of your selections from there. A class teaching a song in your favorite style would be a good second course. Look for a third to compliment your pairing—perhaps a class focused on left-hand technique or relieving stress? For dessert, try hula or yoga, or go healthy and take your vitamins (aka theory)!
If learning a bunch of new songs is what you want, take every repertoire class offered, regardless of the skill level. Want to learn how to teach? Sign up for beginner classes and observe how different teachers approach new players. Love the way one particular staff member plays? Take all their classes regardless of level or focus and sit where you can really get a view of their hands.
The most common complaint voiced at festivals is “too-much too-quickly.” Although it can be hard to pass up on all the tasty choices, sometimes a richer experience can be garnered when you take fewer classes and give yourself time to absorb. If you learn something of particular interest, squirrel yourself away and take the time to practice before you forget the lesson.
Remember that a workshop is designed to introduce you to something new—a song, a technique, a skill. Mastery takes time, and the 60 to 90 minutes you share with the instructor and 10-100 other participants will not immediately change your playing. However, it will ignite your passion and give you something to work on at home. Commonly instructors will offer handouts, either in class or online. Many instructors will allow you to record the lesson, or will reserve a time at the end of a workshop for videos. Ask permission to post to the internet!
WHAT’S YOUR LEVEL?
LEVEL 1: Beginner
Welcome! You are in this most exciting phase of the learning curve until you can move between chord changes and keep a beat. Get fluent with (at least) your C, F, and G7 and then head to the next level.
LEVEL 2: Early Intermediate
Now you’re a player, but chord diagrams over the words are still a must. Your job here is to master B-flat, get some strums under your belt and grow into your instrument—this is when you truly learn how to practice.
LEVEL 3: Experienced Intermediate
Look at you, singing and strumming at the same time! You know a bunch of chords and are ready to use them. Time to dig in and learn some exciting techniques, and maybe venture further up the neck. Be proud of yourself, this is a fine plateau to reach.
LEVEL 4: Advanced
You can hear changes, you know some barre and closed chords, and have toured the real estate above the fifth fret. You are unafraid of the tricky stuff, ready to sit with the big kids. When things go over your head, watch and listen closely, then take your new ideas home to practice.
COMMON TYPES OF WORKSHOPS
- Technique focuses on left- or right-hand skills.
- Repertoire workshops teach you new songs or fresh arrangements.
- Theory is to music as grammar is to language.
- Styles like flamenco, clawhammer, or chord melody increase your versatility.
- Musicianship is what makes you sound better or grow as a musician.
- TUNE FIRST. Be as close as you can to A440 before the workshop starts.
- QUESTIONS LATER. Too many questions can derail an instructor and bog down a class.
- NO NOODLING! One of the hardest things about playing the ukulele is not playing the ukulele! Refrain from plucking and strumming while your teacher is giving instruction.
WORDS OF WISDOM
“Always go into a workshop with an open mind. No matter your skill level, there is always something to learn. There have been times that, even as a teacher, I have learned cool tricks from beginners.”
—Sarah Maisel, instructor
“You should not feel discouraged if you don’t master all the material by the end of the workshop. The goal is to understand the concept, understand the technique, and master it at home.”
—Gerald Ross, instructor and festival organizer
“I want students to be as relaxed as possible, yet focused. Being relaxed allows more information to filter into their brains.”
—Kevin Carroll, instructor
“By giving out the worksheet after class (or following up the workshop with a quick YouTube video going over the big elements of the workshop), I can keep people focused on the task at hand.”
—Craig Chee, instructor
“If you aren’t fairly accomplished with both hands in several different styles of music and you still want to attend [an advanced level class], please sit in the rear and do not ask questions.”
—Douglas Reynolds, founder of the Reno and Palm Strings Ukulele Festivals
“I like to give time at the end of class for video. Many things musical can only be felt and seen by watching someone break it down and play the material slowly.”
—Daniel Ward, instructor