Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Three Months of Ukulele: A Retrospective

“Tomorrow, I’m going to play my ukulele.”

My dear friend, Robbie, sent me an Amazon gift card for my birthday. Around this time, I was reading The Art of Asking and listening to Amanda Palmer's Ukulele Anthem on a daily basis. These events collided into one of my best decisions ever: to take up ukulele-playing.

After three months of regular playing, I'm going to use some lyrics from “Ukulele Anthem” to share my experiences learning this instrument.

1. You can play the ukulele too; it is painfully simple. Truth. Have you seen a ukulele? They only have four strings and twelve frets (of which you pretty much use four). The impetus to learn any new skill is the satisfaction of getting something right. So use your left hand to press on some strings, and then you graze your right hand right there along where the body meets the neck. And suddenly you’re overcome with joy.

For me, ukulele has been all up and up. There’s no impossible parts to get stuck on (except the horrific E-chord). I think it’s pretty simple. If you take AFP's advice to limit yourself to three chords, it's even simpler.

2. It takes about an hour to teach someone to play the ukulele. In my first hour, I think I learned standard tuning, three chords (C, F, G), and a strumming pattern (down down up up down up). That's pretty much "taught." I think it was another ten hours before I could switch between the chords quickly, strum while switching between chords, or sing while playing. I'm sure it's much faster for anyone familiar with string instruments.

I'd say it took 18 hours total to master my first song. It was the F.U.N. Song from SpongeBob SquarePants. But quite a few of those hours were spent playing it over and over to myself to bask in my accomplishment. (Sorry, neighbors.) (I mean, you're welcome.) It should also be noted that I taught myself using YouTube videos and the process might be faster with an in-person teacher. But less fun, because you'll probably have to learn Three Blind Mice.

3. You can play the ukulele, too, in London and down under. A soprano ukulele weighs 8-12 ounces. Ounces. That's the measurement pet foster parents use to measure newborn kittens. So, yeah, it's pretty portable. You read “portable” as “adorable” for a second, didn't you? I bring it to meetups and family dinners. Yes, I’ve performed in front of other humans and lived to tell the tales!

4. They're only $19.95. Yeah, especially the ones made for tourists in Hawaii or children. Mine was $29. [Edit: It's since gone up to $39.28.] The quality isn't 100% at the low end, but that doesn't matter if you're using it to sing and scream, right? It's just for fun and expression, so the less perfect, the better. “Flaws” include strings that rattle and a less rich tone.

5. Your fingers suffer. But it hurts so good. The other day it hurt all the muscles and joints of my left index finger to squeeze a spray bottle. I was like, "Sweet, I'm a real musician now." I experienced a similar pride when I developed calluses. They don't hurt, they just feel like when you dip your fingers in Elmer's glue and let it dry. I also have a scar on my right forearm from where the strings attach to the body of the ukulele. They're kinda pokey. I suspect that scar is a badge you don't get to wear if you play a higher end instrument.

6. You'll minimize some stranger's sadness with a piece of wood and plastic. The biggest surprise of this experience has been people's reactions to just the statement, "I play the ukulele." Their eyes widen, they lean forward a little. Apparently, "I play the ukulele" is welcome news. I also noticed that it's less awkward to share than singing. If you just sing to someone without an instrument in hand, they're like, "ew, weird, intimate." Put some chords behind your voice and they're all smiles.

7. Holy fuck, it's so fantastic, playing ukulele. Yes, yes yes yes! The joy I experience from ukulele ranges from a sense of accomplishment when I learn a new song, to a sense of connection when I share with others, and even, on a depressed day, to the meditative comfort of having one earphone in listening to Skeleton by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs while I fingerpicked along to it. And that's all I did that day, all day. And it felt whole, like not a second of that day was wasted.

Now, if you're familiar with the Ukulele Anthem, you might be thinking, "Hey Sarah, aren't you taking this a little too literally?" To which I reply, "Yes. And it's working."

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