Impressions of One on One Lessons

You might like this article about Jeff Peterson https://ukulelemagazine.com/stories/slack-key-virtuoso-jeff-peterson

He’s got a dozen or so albums of Hawaiian music, which I can happily listen to for hours (and hours and hours…). Good stuff!
Thank for the link, it provided all sorts of background information on Jeff and his history. I only knew him from watching some of his videos, and I also met a guitarist who studied with him and had very good things to say.
 
At our lesson last Thursday, Aug 10, we played Ashokan Farewell and Edelweiss spending most of our time on Edelweiss. We had a fair amount of discussion about chord substitutions and where to use a 7 chord or a 5 chord for the tonic (as it happens C for both arrangements). Jordan again pointed out the differences between how to voice chords and strum/pcik for chord/melody vs. playing with a singer vs. playing rhythm in a group. I find all the arranging stuff fascinating, my wife, Chris, not so much, but she is patient with those discussions. Jordan also gave me pointers on minor and major line cliches. I really enjoyed that because it helped me make sense of patterns that I hadn't recognized before in several songs that we have played. Music theory is most satisfying when it explains something that was already appealling musically, but where I didn't understand exactly what was going on.

My practice routine has been fairly steady, though our joint practice had been a little less consistent. I have been paying attention to my left hand position trying to maintain better contact between the neck and my index finger right above the finger joint with my palm. I call this the James Hill method of holding the ukulele because it comes from his video "How Not to Hold a Ukulele." I have a tendency to play more with my thumb behind the neck and my fingers in more of a classical guitar or violinistic position. I'm not quite sure where I will end up, but I think I get more consistent placement of closed chords and has a better sense of the frets with the James Hill method. Of course barre chords and certain other chord/melody left hand gyrations require the thumb behind the neck.

While it depends whether I want to play high-G or low-G and what sort of voicing/tone I want, I generally prefer the string tension, scale, and balance across the strings on the Concert Wow--it feels like the most playable instrument right now. So it remains my main instrument. I love the sweet voice of my soprano, and the lush sound of my tenor, but the concert is the one I reach for most often these days.

This week I did a technology upgrade. I bought foreScord for my iPad and got a Donner foot pedal page turner. So far I am very impressed with foreScore; it's easy to import pdfs or import from pictures of sheet music, and the functionality is just right. I like how I can set up different practice routines as set lists. I really like not having to shuffle though sheets and books as I am practicing. The pedal just arrived today, so I haven't played with it much yet.
 
We had a lesson this morning after missing last week due to Jordan travelling for gigs and a festival. They will also be travelling next week, so we are temporarily on an every other week lesson schedule. We were well practiced, having kept up over the two week period and all of our pieces and studies went smoothly. Jordan helped me with some alternate fingering for the chord melody in a couple passages in Edelweiss and Ashokan Farewell. They gave Chris some alternate chords for the few she found difficult in Edelweiss. She is primarily playing chords or melody and singing rather than doing chord/melody. When we play together I have to pull back from playing chord/melody and just do chords or melody so I don't step on her line or clash with her chord choices.

We are moving more quickly through the Arpeggion Meditations. Jordan commented that our right hand position and facility with the exercise looked very good. They said that many students never get past the first Meditation. Chris is less fond of this book than I am, but it is clear that our right hand technique as really improved and that is why the Meditations are moving along more quickly. New picking patterns are not nearly as hard as just getting well oriented to proper right hand position and basic technique. Speaking of right hand, I have added some of Jeff Peterson's practice routine scale picking techniques to my daily warmup. It is basically walking up and down the strings with index and middle finger.

The songs we are going to learn next are Tonight You Belong To Me, as a duet, and The Nearness of You.
 
We had a great lesson last Thursday. It had been two weeks since our last lesson--Jordan was teaching classes at a music camp or festival in Alaska. We had been working on Tonight You Belong to Me from the Yellow Daily book, with a few additions here and there based on watching a couple videos (Aldrine & his wife, also The Beloffs with Lyle Ritz). However, our main focus during the lesson was The Nearness of You. I put together an arrangement based on a Real Book version transposed from F to C, and a lyric sheet with chords from Dr. Uke, and a couple of my own thoughts. It really is a beautiful song, and we were able to play through it pretty decently. Jordan helped with a few technical difficulties and explained what was going on harmonically in a few places. They also helped us work up a better intro and outro.

The real magic happened after Jordan commented that the way I was accompanying Chris's singing really wasn't doing anything for the rhythm of the song and was just too laid back. After trying a couple different things, Jordan suggested I use a fingerpicking style based on one of the exercises in Arpeggio Meditations, and put a little swing into it. We were both amazed by a couple things. The first thing was how the song came to life, and a couple of the harmonies sounded so much better spread out over the measure like that. And the other thing was that we were both able to play the chords in this arpeggiated style almost immediately. I guess all of those months of working on Arpeggio Meditations and the duets from Melody Meditations really has paid off. We haven't been playing any fingerstyle songs, just those pima studies. When I play chord/melody, now and then I'll pick notes, but it has predominantly been playing and strumming with thumb and index finger. We were both shocked that during the lesson, we were able to make that switch in real time, and by the second run through we were beaming. It was like, "we didn't know we could do that!"

I have also been working on the Chopin Nocturne, Edelweiss, and Ashokan Farewell, all chord/melody. Edelweiss and Ashokan Farewell are pretty much under my fingers now and I feel like I am making music. The Nocturne still needs more practice, but I think it is coming along well; there are only a few spots that are still rough. Yet it is still far from sounding like the beautiful lyrical waltz that it is.
 
Again we had two weeks between lessons. Jordan wasn't feeling well last Thursday, and it was too hard to reschedule so we just skipped. I don't think it makes a great deal of difference as long as we are practicing regularly, and we are definitelty more capable of working out things on our own compared to even a few months ago. Today we played our exercise from Arpeggio Meditations (it needs a bit more work, but is coming along well), and Tonight You Belong to Me. Just like last time with The Nearness of You, Jordan was able to add to our approach, and helped us understand the song structure and chord progressions. Chris had questions about the chords, and about how to learn the common chords. She has trouble if the fret diagram are not either embedded in the song or at least spelled out in detail at the top. Jordan had a number of suggestions, but what we ended up doing was go to different pieces in the Yellow Daily book that had either the same chord structure or at least similar structures. We did surprisingly well just sight reading the different songs. I was doing melody and Chris was doing chords.

We had practiced The Nearness of You quite a bit, and we didn't get around to playing it for our lesson, but I think that is fine. In fact, it seems like The Nearness of You, Ashokan Farewell, Edelweiss, and Teach Me Tonight have moved into the finished pieces pile. I believe that many, if not all, of the songs and chord/melody pieces that we've studied could be quickly revived with a little dusting off and practice. I actually don't find it too hard to have three or four pieces under my fingers at once now. It's not like we need to keep up a repetoire to perform, we don't play for anyone but ourselves and Jordan.

Speaking of playing with others, we really have done little or no group ukulele playing. However, this weekend is the LA Ukulele Festival right around the corner from us. We are going from relative isolation to playing with perhaps a 1,000 of our new best friends. We have little idea what to expect, but are excited to check out the strum alongs and workshops as well as the concerts. We are planning to meet up with other UUers in the Japanese Garden after the Craig and Sarah set on Saturday morning, probably around 10:15-10:30 depending on schedule and length of their set.
 
The LA Ukulele Festival was fantastic! I did a not so brief report here. I am not going to repeat or paraphrase that report, but there are a few parts of our experience at the festival that are relevant to this thread about taking lessons.

I emphasized workshops during the festival, and I was able to experience some truly excellent teachers. There are many aspects and different styles of teaching, just as there are very different sorts of performers. The two workshops that impressed me the most, in terms of having the right materials, engaging the audience, and clearly reaching the goal that the instructor intended were Vocal Arranging with Peter Luongo and Intro to Jazz with Sarah Maisel. The most illuminating for me, was Abe Lagrimas's Jazz Improv Workshop. He demystifyed how determine which notes (more like modes than traditional scales) to use when improvising based on the diatonic and non-diatonic chord structure of the piece. I guess more talented people just "hear it," but his analysis helped me a great deal. While I don't think he is quite is the same league in terms of teaching as Sarah and Peter yet, Mika Kane did a very good job with Intro to Music Theory and he is clearly a gifted teacher as well.

At the beginning of this thread, I was working hard to avoid putting focus on a particular teacher, but now that we have been studying very regularly with the same teacher for almost ten month, it seems kind of silly. I am also tired of wrestling fake neutral names and pronouns. Our teacher aka "Jordan" is Victoria Vox. My wife teases me because I call Victoria Jordan about half the time when we talk about an upcoming lesson. Luckily I don't believe I have made that mistake in a lesson. Victoria is a very fine professional singer, song writer, and ukulele player. She is also an excellent teacher. We both feel very lucky to have her as our teacher.

Victoria was at the Festival raising awareness for the Orange County Ukuele Festival in March of next year. It was nice to see her in person and also see her interacting with all the headliners at the festival. I like the way that the comaraderie of the ukulele world extends to the professionals as well. Victoria works festivals all ove the world and has been part of the LA Festival in the past both performing and doing workshops, though not this year.
 
At our lesson last Thursday, we spent a while talking about the LA Ukulele Festival and the upcoming Orange Country Ukulele Festival in March of next year. Victoria is one of the creators/sponsors, and she will be performing as well as doing workshops.

After playing some preliminary studies and pieces we were practicing, the lesson took an interesting turn when we asked about teaching us to sing. After all, she is a profession singer and song writer. This was inspired by our experience playing and singing at the ukulele festival, and in particular a workshop by Peter Luongo. She talked about phrasing and breath control, and breathing/singing from the diaphram vs. the throat. We also learned some singing practice techniques, like speaking the words in rythym whenever we have the chance to both learn the lyrics, but also to get lips muscle memory. She recommended singing la la la while playing the melody to work on pitch matching. And like everything else, take it in small sections until you have it down, and then expand to a wider portion of the song. There are a surprising number of moving parts trying to sing a song while accompanying yourself on ukulele.

Chris is shy about her singing, but she can actually sing and control her voice well enough to sing harmony to Beatles songs. This is going to be a real challenge for me, since I have no singing experience at all. It is back to square one, and I need to integrate singing into my practice. I really have not been very good about that yet, even though it is the thing that needs the most work.
 
She talked about phrasing and breath control, and breathing/singing from the diaphram vs. the throat. We also learned some singing practice techniques, like speaking the words in rythym whenever we have the chance to both learn the lyrics, but also to get lips muscle memory. She recommended singing la la la while playing the melody to work on pitch matching. And like everything else, take it in small sections until you have it down, and then expand to a wider portion of the song.
These right here are some great tips. Excellent!
 
I am quite behind in documenting our lessons. We are not having another lesson until October 26, but we did have a lesson last Thursday Oct 5. We worked on a number of things, but the most interesting parts were The Nearness of You and the Chopin Nocturne. I had practiced singing Nearness in various ways, including reciting the lyrics in rhythm, and singing while playing the melody. The lips muscle memory things really works. We started just switching back and forth playing chords or melody. Then I sang while playing melody with Chris playing the chords. Finally, I sang it without playing the ukulele at all, accompanied by my wife playing chords. I felt kind of naked singing without playing. It went fairly well, that is, it was decently in tune while singing the lyrics, otherwise it was rather horrible. I have no vocal range, so it was both too low and too high in the key of C. Victoria was both supportive and very generous in her review: "Your voice is charming--a cross between Kermit the Frog and Jim Levy." She suggested trying it in D. She also suggested singing the lyrics more like I would speak them, which I found interesting, but I think I get it. I sang the lyrics word by word. Lyrics need to be lyrical, which is to say phrased more naturally, and that seems to be in addition to what I think of as musical phrasing. I've put the piece into my music software, so I can easily transpose to experiment with different keys.

I have been working on the Chopin Nocturne for a couple weeks in a chord melody arrangement from Ukulele Time. Victoria went through it with us individually. She suggested that Chris just go through it learning the chords as if she were playing along with someone singing it. With me, she suggested some changes to the arrangement, different fingering, and she explained some of the harmonic transitions. I put it into my music software, so I can tweark the arrangement based partly on the guitar arrangement by Tarrega. I think this is a brilliant performance:


I have no delusions about transcribing that arrangement in any detail; my version will be much closer to Ukulele Time's beginner version. However, I am using that performance for some clues on interpretation and ideas on how to differentiate the sections of the piece a bit better. I also want to finish my arrangement like this.

Lots of work ahead!
 
As a follow up to my brief mention of the LA Ukulele Festival. I have been playing ukulele more with others. I attended a meeting of a local group, The South Bay Strummers, and I attended a couple Zoom open mic meetings with some Seasonistas. Chris steered clear of both events, although she may come to check out The Strummers in the future. These are big steps and new experiences for me inspired by the festival. The Strummers were suggested by @mitchchang, and @Ila invited me to the Zoom open mic.

The Strummers meeting at a local park senior's center took me back to childhood a bit: it reminded me of an orchestra rehearsal. The group has songbooks which it works through and they perform regularly in the community. I had no idea how many to expect, but there were 50+ people there, some traveling a distance to participate. Also, I was the only new comer, and I got the impression that this was normal attendance with mostly regulars. Their music format was large fretboard symbols with small lyrics above and no music or chord names. There were songs that I didn't know at all, but I had little trouble keeping up with the chords. The group was friendly and welcoming, but it was clearly led by the leader who acted acted as conductor and there were aspects of rehearsal as well as just strumming.

My first Zoom session was truly non-local. I'm not sure how many continents were represented but we spanned many time zones. Here, there were more like a dozen people and it was very conversational between performances. I had intended to just watch, but as everyone else performed, I decided to suck it up and I played Ashokan Farewell--my first solo performance for an audience of any size anywhere. It was not my best, but it was a good experience. I played it without repeats and had numerous flubs, unfortuantely including the ending, so it was short if not sweet. In addition to nerves, I think the bigger issue was my indecision about whether or not to use music. Anyway, the folks were very kind and complemented my tone and interpretation.

All of this happened on one Saturday, the Strummers in the morning and the Zoom in the afternoon. I hate to sound like a curmudgeon, but I am not sure how much of my ukulele time I want to spend rehearsing or performing vs. time practicing and playing at home. I am going to feel my way along and see how I feel after a couple weeks.
 
We had our first lesson in almost a month last Thursday. It went surprisingly smoothly after such a long break. Chris and I have been primarily playing the Chopin Nocturne Op 9 #2 in the past week or two when we practice together. She is playing chords and I am playing a chord melody arrangement that I have modified based on ukuleletime's excellent arrangement. We did our lesson via FaceTime as usual, and we had a thorough warm up and a couple run throughs of the Chopin before the lesson. We were able to play it surprisingly well, which is to say as good as we had practiced it at our best sessions during the previous week. Victoria made several suggestions about different ways to play the chords accompaniment. It is sort of a slow waltz meter, and the arrangement has a 3/4 time signature though the original piece is in 12/8. Using the arpeggio waltz strums really helped with the flow of the piece.

I have it sufficiently under my fingers technically, that I can now work much more on phrasing and dynamics. I always strive to play with a good tone, but varying where and how I use my right hand really makes a difference as I try to get beyond the notes to the music. Victoria commented that my "violin chops" were really coming through in my rendition of the piece, and I took that as a compliment. She suggested that we play it at open mic at the Orange County Ukulele Festival. Again, we were flattered, but I really don't know about it, and Chris is very hesitant about performing for anyone, let alone in front of a crowd. I am much less crowd shy as I spent many years lecturing and presenting, however, I do not feel nearly as comfortable playing ukulele as I do speaking on a topic I know something about.

I am also updating the arrangement of the Nocturne to include more of the different sections in the original composition and also to vary some of the repeated passages. In looking at the original piano music, it's clear that many of the runs and arpeggios that are written out were improvised by Chopin and varied not only phrase to phrase, but performance to performance.

Anyway, back at the lesson, after playing the Nocturne, we struggled through Sabor a Mi, my wife's favorite Mariachi song. I had been working on it, Chris not so much. Victoria gave us some pointers and we discussed making some changes to the arrangement. Then finally Victoria worked with me on a transposition of The Nearness of You that I had done. I raised it a whole step from C to D to because I was struggling with low notes while singing it. I did a sort of brute force transalation of the chords to the new key, but it just didn't sound as good. I wasn't sure if I had made some mistake or if I just needed different inversions of the chords or ???. That portion of the lesson was mostly diagnostic and discussion of possibilities. Victoria did find a few clunker chords where I was using an incorrect fretboard diagram for the chord I wanted.
 
We have been taking lessons for almost a year now, and I have enjoyed documenting this adventure. It is a nice record or diary of how we learned ukulele that I have referred to from time to time, and I have appreciated the feedback and encouragement from UUers. However, I think this thread has pretty much run its course and it is time to wrap it up.

Let me start with a sort of logistic summary. Although our lessons are scheduled weekly, we have taken 29 lessons in the first 44 weeks of 2023, so we are averaging about 3 one hour lessons per month. My wife and I have taken all of our lessons together, and we have taken vast majority of our lessons via FaceTime, even though our current teacher is relatively local. (This is Los Angeles so a 45-50 minute drive is still considered local.) We had about five lessons from our first teacher, and then starting at the beginning of 2023 we started taking lessons with Victoria, aka Jordan.

We are both very pleased with our progress, and continue to enjoy both our lessons and playing ukuleles together. At the beginning of our lessons, we were pretty much in the boat trying to learn a few basic chords and strumming patterns. Both of us already had some musical experience and read music, but it did not take long before we realized that I had a significant advantage having played a string instrument before (violin), while my wife primarily played piano. I also studied violin more seriously and for a considerably longer time than my wife studied piano. She stopped taking lessons some time around eighth or ninth grade, and I continued to take lessons and play in ensembles into my thirties. I had no experience with chords or a fretted instrument, but I had more of a sense of where fingers went, and I had more strength, dexterity, and experience isolating motions of the fingers on my left hand.

Our progress has also been different because we have different goals. Chris wanted to learn enough chords and gain enough facility with the instrument so she could play the songs she wanted to play, and her approach has been singing the melody and playing chords. She wanted to be able to play what she wanted to play, rather than sticking to the three and four chord song books. I approached the ukulele rather differently. I too wanted to learn the chords and chord progressions so that we could play and sing together. However, I also wanted to develop ukulele technique, though I had little idea what that meant when I started. I have been learning to play chord melody and classical pieces . I spend considerably more time practicing individually, and I work on different kinds of things in my individual practice.

We are often studying the same pieces though we may play them in different versions, and we are often working on exactly the same thing. We practice together regularly, we enjoy playing together, and the joint lessons continue to work well for us. Victoria is able to identify what we need individually and in order to better play together. While we are on somewhat different paths, ukulele is still a very enjoyable and satisfying joint activity. Chris has a lovely voice and can both sing in tune and sing harmony. I also think she has a better ear for harmony and chord progressions. I tend to be stronger in playing melody and chord/melody and I have a better ear for intonation and fine gradations of pitch. I have more left hand technique and a wider vocabulary of closed and barre chords. Our right hand technique is more similar. I think she has a wonderful instinct for phrasing that comes from her singing ability.

I don't want to over estimate our capabilities, but we don't feel like we are just beginners anymore. To a certain degree and with some effort, we can learn to play what we want to play and make it sound musical. I don't think we could have gotten here without a first rate teacher. I have seen brilliant teaching done in groups and ensembles, so it is not only a matter of one-on-one lessons. However, I do believe that the smaller the group, the more the teacher can focus on the individual needs of the student.
 
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I just want to say, thank you for letting us follow your progress, and best of luck to you both as you continue the journey. It’s been educational and enjoyable both. And maybe I’ll find an instructor some day!
 
I agree with Mfurner. Being able to tag along on the journey you and Chris began a year ago has been a delightful, informative, and fascinating experience. You are a talented writer, able to provide great detail without losing the reader’s interest. Thanks for being so open and willing to share the stories of your ukulele adventures with us!
 
There is a line that I like. "Some people leave without saying goodbye, while others say goodbye and then just won't leave." I guess I'm in the latter category. For reasons I can't explain, I decided to read back through this thread to see how it would strike me today. Beyond a good amount of repetitiveness, and the glaring typos, there is not a great deal I would change. This still seems like an accurate description of the first part of our ukulele journey. I enjoyed rereading the helpful and supportive dialog with all of you. Not to get too corny, but this community and the broader ukulele community are very special and contribute a great deal to the joy of playing the ukulele.

We are still taking lessons from Victoria, still playing and practicing together, and we are getting ready to attend the OC Ukulele Festival next month. I am particularly looking forward to workshops with Neal Chin. Chris and I continue to play/practice together and take lessons together. I spend a good deal of time playing and practicing solo, as well as arranging in what Victoria calls it my Mad Music Laboratory. There is a pretty significant gap in technique between Chris and me, but Victoria has still been able to work effectively with us taking joint lessons. Usually, the main portion of the lesson is about the pieces we are practicing together where Chris is often the main focus, and then there is additional stuff that Victoria will work on with me. Depending on the week, the lesson will focus more on one of us or the other.

I've added portions of Jeff Peterson's Practice Routines to my practice sessions, but it is largely relegated to warmup. I have also enjoyed reading through portions of his Graded Repertoire, but I haven't seriously practiced them. I dropped the Ukulele Aerobics shortly after starting with Victoria. The main factors are time/focus and I also feel like there can be too many cooks. There is only so much time to practice and only so much material we can go over in a one hour less. The Jeff Peterson approach and the Ukulele Aerobics approaches seem somewhat different than the way our teacher goes about it. If I was rolling my own it would be different, but as it is, I prefer having Victoria structure what I need to work on technically. As far as pieces go we are about 60/40 between what we suggest and what she suggests.

Daniel Ward's Arpeggio Meditations continues to be our main study or etude book. A year of that has definitely improved our finger picking ability, but my right hand technique is lagging behind my left. When I play chord/melody, I am mostly thumbing with only occasional picking or strumming with other fingers. I have worked a bit on triplet strums and chunking and arpeggiating chords for specific songs, but none of that feels very solid or natural yet. I think it is because most of my individual practice is focused on chord/melody. If I spent more time practicing comping, I expect that would change.

My practice discipline ebbs and flows a bit. It is not so much the total practice/playing time, but more a matter of how focused I am on practicing the most difficult bits in small sections. In fact, when I find my practice sessions getting longer and longer, it is a symptom that I'm spending more time rehearsing phrases or pieces and not enough time ironing out the problem areas. I've never been able to keep up a practice log for any significant period of time.

My playing continues to improve, but my expectations are growing as well. As I gain more understanding of alternative chords/fingerings up the fretboard I have more harmonic and tonal possibilities. I'm now spending more and more effort on tone, dynamics, and phrasing, particularly if I am trying to "work up" a piece. In whatever I play, even if it is just an etude, my goal is to make each note, phrase, and piece sound as beautiful as possible. Unless I cut myself a lot of slack on the "as possible" that turns out to be quite a challenge and it can lead to a good deal of self-criticism. To combat this, I do my best to maintain high standards for tone and phrasing, and treat the flubs as "things happen." Some things are technical issues that need focused practice, and other things just happen. Best of all, I am enjoying the ukulele more than ever. I believe Chris would say the same thing.
 
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