Slowly but Surely with the Ukulele

Quite unexpectedly, the ukulele has become quite an effective form of stress relief. Learning to play an instrument, even something as “simple” and basic as the ukulele, is proving to be a challenge for me. A good challenge! I haven’t at all been frustrated, since that first night. I just keep strumming away, over and over again.

The nights I pick up this tiny and light tool, I start with an hour or so of chord drills. And in those first five minutes, it is always rough. The instructions do not move quickly enough from my brain to my fingers. After ten minutes, I’m getting from D to G and then to F and back again easily enough; it’s starting to feel routine. I always start from the beginning, the easiest chord drills, and strive to tack on and master one more each time.

When I feel good about all of that, usually after an hour or ninety minutes, I begin working on a song. My initial goal for Project Ukulele was to master “Moon River” – the project was basically inspired by that touching scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, after all. My learning-the-ukulele song has been Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, though. We briefly practiced it at the end of the Dabble introductory class, and I know the song so well I don’t need to worry about lyrics and chords, just chords. That level of familiarity makes it easier for me to “feel” the chord changes and strumming patterns, too. I work on that for, easily, another hour or so and then retire for the evening.

When I started this project, I really did think I would pick this up pretty quickly and after three months, I’d be able to pull out a song upon request. It’s a lot more work than that, and I’m surprisingly pleased with this. Being able to sit down and focus on something for two to three hours at a time has brought a lot of little interesting aspects to my life.

First, this time has proven invaluable to my brain. I am obviously using a different part of my brain than I use during the day, and though I am no scientist, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a plethora of research about how letting my brain rest, while still actively using another part of it, makes my entire brain stronger. I feel well rested and sharper during my work day, and calmer and more relaxed in the evening.

I am also becoming an even more patient person. It has not always been a strength of mine, but in the last five years or so has become something I have actively strive for – to be patient with people and with things (i.e. the train). It’s becoming more and more just an initial reaction, to just wait a moment and let things work out or fall into place. This is something I always got from dance and working out, and I’m surprised that something physically inactive brings the same benefit to my day.

That said, the ukulele is indeed a poor replacement for ballet class. And now that I’m mobile again (albeit weak and slow), I need to get back in the gym and the studio. I’m not keen about sacrificing much of my ukulele time for that, though. I really feel like I need both in my life now and finding a new balance will be key to this. So, I’ll do as I always do and come up with a schedule for the next few weeks – to allocate reasonable time to both while still finding time to watch The Daily Show (and the Olympics!)

Preview: I cannot officially start it until I wrap up Summer of Austen – two projects seems to be about the limit right now – but the next project will focus on learning some basic programming. I’m looking at a few different approaches, probably a combination of a few methods. I think this will be a fun one to blog about, too! I am finding that I like it, a lot, for many of the same reasons I like the ukulele and kayaking: stress relief, new skills, and accomplishment.

U-could-lele Class: Review

Last week, I took a super-basic introductory class to the ukulele. It was truly basic; the instructor didn’t even flinch when I asked exactly how I’m supposed to strum (do i use my thumb… okay, she’s using her nail… and now there’s a pick… what is happening?) I was pretty frustrated for maybe the first hour of the class. Even though I went into it with low expectations, my brain just is not accustomed to not being able to do something. 


Slowly but surely though I started to kind of figure out what was going on. And that is 100% because the instructor, Frank, was fantastic. As a former high school music teacher, he was perfectly patient and attentive, able to pick up on everyone’s learning style and offer appropriate feedback all around. He arrived at the space early and tuned everyone’s instrument (remember: super beginners here) and set a very easy, calm atmosphere for the class.

Frank paced the class perfectly – it really felt more like I was hanging out with a friend of a friend, just learning the ukulele on a lark, which is really the best environment for someone who maybe gets a little anxious and worked up about things not going according to plan. (The “plan” being that I’d leave the class able to play the ukulele!) A small class (kind of Dabble’s thing) allowed us to all feel comfortable with each other and to receive personalized attention from the instructor.

There’s no reason someone like me, with no musical experience, should be able to just “pick up” the ukulele, I know. But with the foundation of this introductory class, I can commit to teaching myself. I left the class confident that I can spend the next three months practicing chord drills and tip-toeing into playing an actual song. 

Frank provided packets of useful information – chord drills, chords for popular songs, diagrams for different tuning, and then emailed that information to us all the next day, too.
 So, I am truly prepared to try to teach myself how to play the ukulele! Note: Hallelujah is a great song to use to learn with just four or five chords and it probably being something you’ve heard a hundred times or so.

U-could-lele: An Intro the Uke was offered through Dabble, a wonderful Chicago start-up you should all check out. Other class topics include: knitting, career advancement, stand-up comedy, craft beer, fencing… you name it, you’ll find it! (You can also find Dabble in Milwaukee and Denver.)

Have you learned any new instruments as an adult? Any other new skills you had to really work at in the beginning?

Project Ukulele

Originally, I had assumed I’d only take on a new project after I finished one. And then my doctor sentenced me to six weeks in a walking boot to heal a stress fracture (that I had made significantly worse by “working through the pain” for several months). I’m taking my recovery seriously – better six weeks of no activity (even if it’s the absolute best six weeks of the year to be a Chicagoan) than several more months of pain, or possible injury beyond repair.

As one of my most significant hobbies has been dance and dance-fitness, I now have an overwhelming amount of free time available. I love to read and I have been doing so much reading and writing – but my brain needs a break. From the written word, at least. (I have not given up on Summer of Austen! I’m starting
Sense and Sensibility on my flight to Boston tomorrow night.)

I don’t want to get too carried away with overlapping projects – and I realize not every undertaking in my life is a “project,” but this one is worthy.
Project Ukulele. Tonight, I will take my first ukulele class, really my first music class since compulsory elementary classes. The extent of my musical instrument experience is a four-month stint with the violin at age ten and the permanently etched memory of how to play “Mary had a Little Lamb” (3, 2, 1, 2, 3, 3, 3, 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3…).

I was going to write in this paragraph about how nervous I am. But I’m really not. I watched some YouTube videos last night and practiced the basic chords. I have no doubt that the instructor and other participants will be lovely, welcoming people. (I’m taking the class through
Dabble, a lovely Chicago start-up.) And if it doesn’t go well, if I can’t play the ukulele even after hours and hours of practice? All I’ve lost is somewhere around $60 and some time – worse things have happened.

Project Ukulele has a specific goal: “Moon River.” (You recreate your favorite movie scenes and I’ll recreate mine.)




It’s not an overly ambitious goal, and I might not-so-secretly hope I can master the song in something closer to a month. But it’s so new to me, I have no idea!

I make no promises for the quality of my singing though. Here’s a sneak peek (ha, kidding – she’s fantastic.)