While teaching a three-day residential beginner ukulele course recently I found myself wondering what we might achieve in such a short space of time. I mean, I could show my eleven retirement-age students the basics, but to properly play takes time for brain and body connections to form and settle in… right?
Usually, when I’m asked to teach ukulele, it is to people who are already familiar with the instrument. This can be a simple task compared with a beginner group where the first job is to dispel the false beliefs many have about music. Some are sure they are “tone-deaf” – an affliction I have never truly seen in my life – or that their fingers are the “wrong size”. Some even believe that a teacher can teach them to play! The teacher can do little more than show you stuff and encourage you when the going gets tough, but they can’t make you into a musician.
It’s up to the learner to learn.
My beginner songbook contains twenty-six, two, three and four chord songs to provide plenty of musical variety and repetition. But, before we could begin, I needed to see the objects my students had brought that they believed fulfilled the definition of “a ukulele”. Would there be a plastic toy with jelly strings? Or, a half-coconut shell attached to a stick with fishing line? Or, worse still, a baritone ukulele? Eek! The baritone is a perfectly acceptable type of ukulele but trying to explain why chord shapes look the same but have different names, at such an early stage, is like clarifying quantum physics. Teaching a class of soprano beginners plus one baritone player – well they may as well have brought along a hurdy-gurdy.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen this time. The only imminent instrument issue came at the introductory meeting. One student, Elaine, happily stated that she’d found a ukulele in a storage cupboard at work and had decided to learn. She gleefully added, “I didn’t even take it out of the case yet!” I was told the smile fell from my face at that moment as I imagined what kind of instrument this might turn out to be. And I kicked myself for not having brought a couple of spares.
Sure enough, her lovely looking soprano was all paint and no pluck. The strings, at the nut, were a good half centimetre from the fretboard so, despite being tuned, as soon as you played an F (or any chord for that matter) it suddenly sounded well out of whack. The next day Elaine’s fingertips felt the agony of playing a cheap uke for three hours. But she had a stroke of luck when classmate Joanna lent her a learner uke which she’d just bought in a charity shop for a fiver, thereby saving her painfully dinted fingers.
Another worry with teaching beginners is the range of ability. Someone who says they are new to uke may already be conversant with guitar, banjo and lute and quickly transfer their skills to display a Hendrix-like level of ability while others are still trying to form a C7. As teacher you try your best to help the true beginners, who are feeling inept and discouraged, while Ms Purple Haze over there is yawning at the slow pace of progress, but it’s not easy. This particular group however, were actually a pretty consistent bunch. Those with previous experience were happy to settle into our slow but steady pace.
Class lasted for two-and-a-half hours each morning plus a one hour “jam” before dinner. It was a good schedule. Everyone felt pushed, but not exhausted, with time to practice if they wanted it.
This all took place in hotel-style accommodation owned by a British holiday organisation. Their, mainly retirement-age, clientele enjoy guided walking holidays and special interest breaks as well as good food and socialising. This week the ukers shared breakfast and dining tables with walkers from varied backgrounds. Friendly chit-chat ensued and word trickled out that the ukulele group was going to give a performance during cocktail hour on the final night.
By day three I was delighted with the musical progress of the group. Obviously, no-one was perfect, but, on average, the group sounded, well, decent. I also realised I was spending nearly as much time working on their mental approach as on the music itself.
I wanted them to believe in themselves and to feel that playing music was doable. And to forget about perfection. Music is rarely perfect. If anything, it’s a game of percentages. I joked that even if they’re only getting it right 20% of the time, if they keep practicing for hours every day for weeks on end, eventually, they could be at 23% or maybe even more!
But the biggest realization for me was discovering the importance of being happy. Too many people expect music to be difficult and therefore approach it with furrowed brows, seriousness and even dread. What good is that? How much can you learn with an imaginary guillotine over you waiting to do its awful work? No! I say, nurture the joy of playing, feel the feeling of success at each new chord learned and every new strum strummed. Do your best but don’t aim to be a virtuoso. Take it seriously but yourself lightly. Feel the thrill of giving music your focus and full attention as those around you, your new friends and fellow musicians, do the same.
We set up our socially distanced concert outside the open doors of the conservatory so that we could be heard both within and without. Our selection of familiar favourites went down a treat with everyone who imbibed and sang along. It was a thrill to think these new players had gone from near zero musical ability, to performing before a live audience of smiling faces, in only 3 days. What a feeling, what joy. That’s when we took the class photo.
Of course, now everyone is home again, playing alone, without me and the others to help set the tempo, meter and energy. But at least they know what is possible now. They’ll never forget their first experience of making music with others. And they know now, that as long as they keep doing it, this feeling is there to experience again and again. I’d say, if nothing else, it was worth it just for that.
Keep Strumming and Smiling,