My Uke Journey and Impact of in Person Lessons from an Absolute Beginner on String Instruments

Olmeck

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This will be a mash up of @ailevin and @ripock threads about ukulele lessons and progress on the ukulele. @ploverwing suggested I do this quite some time ago but I’ve been hesitant as I wanted to make sure I stuck with the lessons and was making noticeable progress. First up some background as it's important to understand we are all different and to set some expectations.

I started playing clarinet in 2nd grade ~age 7. This was because I wanted to play alto saxophone but was told my hands were too small. I played clarinet for 2 years and then made the switch to sax and stuck with it until high school graduation ~age 18. I then ordered an Aklot concert ukulele from Amazon on June 27th 2022 after deciding I needed a hobby in my life, listening to a song that featured a ukulele, having a desire to learn ukulele after a trip to Hawaii after my high school graduation (and watching Jake Shimabukuro play My Guitar Gently Weeps), and watching many YouTube videos expressing how easy it is to play ukulele (which is a half truth).

I still have the Aklot and I’m grateful it confirmed my desire to learn and play ukulele it is definitely a now regretted impulse buy. I plan to give this to either of my daughters if they express interest in the future but I don’t think I’ll ever pick it up again. While my background in music is certainly helpful it is equal to learning a foreign language and then not utilizing it again for 16 years. I still am able to harness the foundational skills; keeping rhythm, understanding bpm, recognizing note lengths, recognizing markups (staccatos, crescendos, etc.), I can’t actually recognize the notes on the staff and what they would be called or how that translates to where I would play them on the fretboard.

I started with the beginner tutorials from this fine gentleman:

After this I discovered Cynthia Lin and began playing her beginner lessons/strum alongs. Around this time I upgraded to a KoAloha KoAlana tenor from Aloha City Ukes and realized how important it was to have a quality instrument set up and that the tenor size was a better fit and feel for me.

By the end of July I was beginning to feel like I wasn’t making as much progress as I’d like by simply playing beginner level strum alongs being confined to a handful of chords in 1st position so I began exploring alternate learning methods. It was at this time I found RockClass101 and Uketropolis. At the time I got the impression that RockClass101 was more focused on fingerstyle and Uketropolis offered a variety with some beginner focused courses. I felt that working through Uketropolis suited my goals and previous musical experience structure better so I bought the Ready, Steady, Ukulele course on August 9th.

I quickly progressed through Ready, Steady, Ukulele and moved on to Booster Uke. While working through Booster Uke I started to play Peace Like a Ukulele and by the end of the month had decided to start on The Ukulele Way. It was also at this time that I “won” a tenor Cocobolo raffle and decided it was an upgrade so I sold my KoAlana.

Progress through The Ukulele Way was slower for me both because of the drastic difference of play style and life things getting in the way. I also had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t totally invested because I was simply learning tabs and it felt like I was handicapping myself. I also felt the need for feedback if I was doing things correctly because it’s up to the player when they move on to the next arrangement. Never the less I trudged through the first 3 stages of The Ukulele Way. At some point in the fall I had significant obstacles and fell off the path for a while. Then I’m the winter I went back to The Ukulele Way from the start and once again worked through Stage 3 and part of Stage 4.

In February two significant trajectory altering events occurred. I bought a Uke Head to participate in James Hill’s collaborative album and I “won” a beautiful baritone Cocobolo. More on the baritone later. While I was nervous that my playing chops wouldn’t be ready for something like Uke Heads my fears dissipated significantly after I dived in and began experiencing the project. The “band” was mostly playing the rhythm while James was the lead. In addition to this he would provide us 3-4 weeks to practice our parts and get it recorded. So from mid February through the end of May I pretty much dedicated all of my practicing and playing to the Uke Heads album. It was such a fulfilling experience I decided I was going to go all in on the ukulele and cut out plenty of other hobbies/distractions from my life. At the same time I finally took out my “new” (sitting in a case for 3 months) baritone and I immediately fell in love with the instrument. While some of the skills I had developed with the tenor translated it was like starting from square one again. With the change to baritone I made the decision to seek out one on one instruction.

I am fortunate enough that I had three options for instructors locally. After looking over the resumes of each I ultimately decided on the instructor that seemed most intimidating (degree in music theory and composition). I had my first lesson on May 29th. It was very awkward, however I suspect that is unavoidable. He was trying to get a gauge for my playing abilities (they were very poor because of the stress and switching to baritone) and I was trying to see if I was going to get value from his instruction. It hit home for me that this was the right choice when we discussed how I had learned and what I had been playing previously. When I brought up TABs he said that “they are a great tool to be able to pick up and play immediately but you are limiting yourself and what the instrument is capable of.” That rung true for me and I was sold on the path forward. He said we would gradually work towards relearning how to read the notes on the staff along with having fun as well. Below are his notes from our first lesson to provide an idea of where I was starting at.

  • Start learning natural note names in the 1st position of your baritone ukulele
    • E string: E (open), F (1st fret), G (3rd fret)
    • B string: B (open), C (1st fret), D (3rd fret)
    • G string: G (open), A (2nd fret)
    • D string: D (open), E (2nd fret), F (3rd fret)

  • Read through some melodies to develop familiarity with the fretboard
    • Ode to Joy
    • Clementine
    • Aura Lea / Love Me Tender

To help with learning the note names and moving away from relying on TABs he has a modified version of TABs he creates until I can fully shift towards notes on a staff. I have provided a picture example.

Over the course of 1 month he has me working on various chord melodies, strum along songs, and learning how to play chords from the 5th-12th fret. I wasn’t sure if my playing was improving but I pulled out my tenor last night to see if things were translating and I noticed a dramatic improvement in my playing. So far I believe the most important lesson I learned was just last week. I finally went to the lesson with some thoughtful questions: how long do you think practice should be at a minimum and what even is considered practice? He said that he would rather I not set any sort of time limits and he would hope that at some point I’m just itching to play. He also said he considers practicing when you take a section of music that is difficult for you and you repeat that over and over to improve what ever is giving you a hard time and then playing is just running through an entire piece of music. So for one week now I’ve switched my old style of practice “playing a piece fully over and over” to this new method and it does seem to have helped significantly.

That is my story so far. I don’t expect to update with the frequency and thoroughness of @ailevin and @ripock but I am going to use this as my accountability thread/lessons learned. I have also toyed with the idea of occasionally recording videos and uploading to have a representation of my improvement in some sort of format. Thanks for reading!

Edit: Adding the links to the other mentioned threads.

my ukulele progress | Ukulele Underground Forum

Impressions of One on One Lessons | Ukulele Underground Forum
 

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Thanks for sharing @Olmeck. One of the things I like about UU is generally open and supportive atmosphere. There is an appreciation that while we are on similar journeys, each person has a different entry point and destination and there are mutiple paths along the way. However, rather than following a detailed map, it seems like a combination of trailblazing and looking for the well worn paths of those who have been there before.

I particularly liked your tour of the online resources. You had much more discipline thanI did. I kept switching from one online method to another. I found it helpful, but since I was just starting out, I became thoroughly confused too. Finding an external expert point of view was very helpful. I know that even professional musicians will get this sort of input or coaching. At the begiinning to intermediate level it is more often regular lessons, but I expect for many folks, even one or two sessions might be valuable to assess issues and help forge the way forward.

I encourage you to post regularly both for yourself and the rest of us. I know I would not have kept a diary with such detail, and I have found it very useful to go back and see what I was thinking several months back.
 
Thanks for sharing @Olmeck. One of the things I like about UU is generally open and supportive atmosphere. There is an appreciation that while we are on similar journeys, each person has a different entry point and destination and there are mutiple paths along the way. However, rather than following a detailed map, it seems like a combination of trailblazing and looking for the well worn paths of those who have been there before.

I particularly liked your tour of the online resources. You had much more discipline thanI did. I kept switching from one online method to another. I found it helpful, but since I was just starting out, I became thoroughly confused too. Finding an external expert point of view was very helpful. I know that even professional musicians will get this sort of input or coaching. At the begiinning to intermediate level it is more often regular lessons, but I expect for many folks, even one or two sessions might be valuable to assess issues and help forge the way forward.

I encourage you to post regularly both for yourself and the rest of us. I know I would not have kept a diary with such detail, and I have found it very useful to go back and see what I was thinking several months back.
Thanks! As I had mentioned in your thread you inspired me to search out and start lessons so thank you for that even if it wasn’t something you had expected. I have another lesson tonight and will dump my thoughts afterwards!
 
Today was my sixth lesson. Wow…this was definitely the right choice (taking lessons) and the right instructor. I can see a pattern emerging for how the lessons will take shape moving forward.

We started the lesson by acknowledging the holiday tomorrow. My instructor prepared two chord melody versions of America the Beautiful in the same modified TABs version I had posted in my initial comment. The first of which is in the 1st position, however it is harder to hear the melody through the chords in 1st position, so the second version has the melody playing up the fretboard on the first and second strings only. This results in chords being played as high up as the 12th fret. I will have to learn 2-3 new chords in even the first position arrangement so this will take some time before I’m able to play both fluidly. The last time he had an arrangement that had me working up the fretboard I saw great improvements in my overall playing so I am excited instead of dismayed. I know that if I put in the effort it will pay off on my overall abilities and I’ll have some new songs I can play.

Keeping up with the pattern that the lessons seem to be taking shape he also “gave” me a fun song to play. Except gave isn’t actually the proper term as instead we were figuring how to play it together during the lesson. After last weeks lesson I sent him a message about the bands/music I’m currently listening to. He listened to some before our lesson and he felt that I could manage to play some of these songs based on what he was hearing and what I had shown him I could do up to that point. So he asked what song from Lord Huron I liked to see if I could play it. The next thing I know we are working through figuring out a song I’ve been listening to very frequently over the past month or so and it was just such an amazing feeling. He even recognized how quickly I picked up the strumming pattern because of how much I’ve listened to the song. There were definitely plenty of emotions coursing through me as this was happening and I had a great sense of joy as I was leaving and being optimistic about the future.

This is the song we were learning on the fly and that he will write up and send me this week.



Edited for formatting/readability
 
I really like that modified version of tab. I might borrow that idea and make some if my own.

And I love that you had a “great sense of joy” leaving your lesson. I hope that continues for you.
 
I was nervous for today’s lesson because I did not practice this week like I normally do. With the holiday and a few life things that happened meant a few days I wasn’t able to play or practice. I focused primarily on learning the Lord Huron song from last week, which was also different because all I had to go off of was the intro line, two verse lines, and two chorus lines, that we figured out during the last lesson. So not the full transcription with lyrics. I was also trying to figure out the lead and melody by ear which was a first for me as well. I also did a few play throughs of America the Beautiful.

We started the lesson with the full transcription of Love Me Like You Used To. To my amazement I was able to play through the entirety of it on the first attempt with only a few errors. This was the first time I’ve been able to do this. I guess it help’s significantly when you really enjoy the song you are playing and have listened to it many times recently. It was a really cool feeling playing it with someone else while the song was playing.

I told my instructor I was also trying to switch between the melody and chords while playing but wasn’t sure I was doing it correctly. He was impressed because that meant I was really enjoying practicing/playing and trying to figure things out by ear. I hadn’t thought that at the time but he was right that I was enjoying it. He said we can work on figuring out a chord melody version of this song which I am happy about. Instead of working on America the Beautiful he opted to dive into learning a second Lord Huron song. This is the first song I ever heard them and is what got me into the band so it has some sentimental value to me. Instead of figuring out the chords and strumming patterns we jumped straight into chord melody. This song has harder chords to play and the switches between them is faster but I’m eager to start learning the song.

As a side note my instructor told me that his parents are in town and that he was listening to Lord Huron with them while he was trying to finish up the transcription. They actually liked the music and were shocked to hear that it was released only last year! Glad to hear there are some new fans!

 
I am late with my summary from this weeks lesson so this may not be as complete of an entry as it could have been.

This week we focused on the two Lord Huron songs I have been working on. My instructor feels I have mastered the chords and playing along with Love Me Like You Used To so we have begun adding in the lead parts and solos along with playing the chords over them. So I guess it’s just chord melody but it feels more involved to me because I’m playing the rhythm parts in between. I enjoy it very much. He gave me one section to work on and challenged me to figure out the other two sections on my own.

We then began working on To The Ends of The Earth. He did not have time to transpose this from the last lesson so we started to during this lesson. This is a more challenging song and is also something quite different. The “chord melody” we are going for in the beginning is in line with the lyrics of the song instead of a guitar playing melody which is interesting and also a big finger stretch. I was also able to get the solo guitar part played through once slowly before the lesson ended. Since then I’ve been focusing on that section, since it was the most difficult, and have made good progress. Even my wife has commented that my playing has improved and it’s only been 8 lessons so I am happy to hear that. I’ve also thought I noticed improvements as well as moving around the fretboard seems easier and I seem to be playing things more clearly. This has lead to me using a strap less because I am more comfortable holding the instrument and moving my fretting hand around. A side bonus I didn’t expect!
 
I missed last weeks lesson recap so I will do a very brief overview of that lesson and then a recap of this weeks lesson.

We started the lesson by playing Lord Hurons To The Ends of the Earth. We got about halfway through and he decided that I had mastered that song. We then moved to playing the Billie Eilish song don’t smile at me and I essentially was able to sight read it and played it very well for the first time ever seeing that song. We finished the lesson by beginning to work through Any Wonder by Jack Johnson. As the lesson was ending I asked my instructor if we could work on the songs I would be playing in October for Uke Heads with James Hill. The trick is converting these from GCEA tuning to baritone and he said it shouldn’t be a problem.

This weeks lesson we started with a fully transcribed version of Any Wonder. After playing through the song we started to work at picking through some of the parts and making a chord melody version. After this we started to go through the Uke Head songs. Ultimately I think I’m just going to capo at the fifth fret while I work on polishing up these songs for October.

I am very happy with how much I have improved playing since starting lessons and I’m happy I have learned how to play through so many songs in such a short time. However, I want to get back on track with learning standard notation and playing higher up the fretboard. I ultimately would love it if I could pick up my uke and just be able to play something like the guys at TUS and SUS do. I think I’ll let my instructor know this next week and show him the below SUS video as an example of what my ultimate vision looks like.

 
Todays music lesson was extremely good. It lasted an hour even though they typically only last a half hour, so I think my instructor also enjoyed the lesson. It was extremely beneficial musically and also served as an important life lesson reminder. The life lesson reminder is to not forget about the value and importance of communicating clearly. I know this isn’t anything too profound, but I can definitely benefit from the reminder from time to time. I told my instructor that I planned to work through the 7 Uke Head songs on my own and I’d bring them up at lessons when I needed some guidance and help on any of the songs. I then shared the clip above of Phil from SUS and told him that one of my dream goals is to be able to play like this. Just be able to pick up the instrument, pick a key, and then play something similar to this. I told him I don’t expect this to be anything I can accomplish soon, but also wanted to know if he thought it was possible for me to do. He said absolutely and we dived right in.

He started with explaining that once I find the key I’m playing in the next step is finding the three major chords of that key. These would be the 1st, 4th, and 5th chords. All other chords would be minor chords. We then went over how to play some of these chords in different positions up the neck and how the chord shapes are some that I am familiar with in the first position. He then told me the other part is learning the scales for the key as well. This is how to pluck the melodies over the chords in whatever I may be playing. He said it would be best to start simple with only a couple notes while learning and developing this play style. He said ultimately it is similar to jazz improvisation and to think of it as a call and response while playing or even a conversation with someone. For some reason when he used the analogy of a conversation that really resonated with me on what playing improv should sound like. He told me to work on this throughout the week and maybe we can jam together next week!

While this was a more theory focused lesson it was very valuable to me and made that light at the end of the tunnel a little brighter.

During this lesson we also talked about various historical music figures. This was due to him recommending I keep the melody to just a couple notes because even people like Beethoven repeated two note melodies in their music. This then led to us talking about other musicians such as Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Paganini, and Liszt. It fascinates me that the music created by these people is still relevant and prolific 100s of years later. I wonder if they knew that when they were creating their music. We also talked about how Taylor Swifts tour is a bit of a modern marvel with the record breaking numbers and economic impact.

I am very motivated after this lesson to play this week and move closer towards a personal goal I set for myself.
 
@Olmeck , thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences through this. Maybe someday my life will slow down and give me time for lessons, through yours and others experiences I think I’m learning that it helps to have an idea of what you want to do, and I’m not sure how to answer that right now.
 
@Olmeck , thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences through this. Maybe someday my life will slow down and give me time for lessons, through yours and others experiences I think I’m learning that it helps to have an idea of what you want to do, and I’m not sure how to answer that right now.
Thanks for taking the time to read! I do think it does help to have a vision of what and how you would like to be playing your uke. At the recommendation of @ailevin I set up some goals to achieve in order to move along towards that vision. Some of them are easy and some are longer term goals. The most important thing is to make sure you are having fun!
 
This weeks lesson was not very good. This is completely my fault. I had surgery last Friday and didn’t really start to feel “normal” again until yesterday. This meant I was laying on the couch/bed or sitting Friday-Sunday and just barely managing the workdays up until yesterday. I still made it to my lesson Monday anyway.

I wasn’t really able to work on “improvising/jamming” like I had hoped and my instructor had expected. So instead I fumbled through the G major scale at the 5th fret while he played over my scale playing. We then had some more discussion about what I should focus on for the week ahead and to keep things simple. This means focusing on the G major scale at the first position and playing the G, C, and D7 chords at the first position as well.

To lighten the mood he shared the transposition of the song What Was I Made For? By Billie Eilish from the Barbie movie. I had never heard it but was able to sight read through and play it on my first attempt. I am very pleased how far my progress has come with chord playing, partially playing by ear, picking up strumming patterns, keeping rhythm/beat, and other various foundational skills that I seem to have reawakened from my years of playing alto saxophone. I just needed that extra effort push lessons are providing.

I was finally able to play again at home last night for the first time since the surgery and the improvisation was quite fun! Definitely a work in progress but it was nice not playing someone else’s music. I found it interesting that as I am pursuing this path of improvisation and finding my own melodies/harmonies I listened to James Hills podcast where he discusses this same thing just this week! Very lucky for me 🍀!

 
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Thanks so much for sharing! Your journey is inspiring. I started playing 6 years ago and am mostly self taught. In May I started taking lessons online from Zeno - he's a Christian guitar artist but is kind enough to let this old baritone player partake of his lessons. It's a good dose of music theory with a focus on learning how to arrange music - which is my goal. I think your lessons sound like they are taking you in a good direction. There's so much to learn - and the journey is fun.
 
Thanks so much for sharing! Your journey is inspiring. I started playing 6 years ago and am mostly self taught. In May I started taking lessons online from Zeno - he's a Christian guitar artist but is kind enough to let this old baritone player partake of his lessons. It's a good dose of music theory with a focus on learning how to arrange music - which is my goal. I think your lessons sound like they are taking you in a good direction. There's so much to learn - and the journey is fun.
Thanks @about2! At the very least I hope that I can encourage someone that they can get to the playing level they dream of and that we all have a unique path.
 
Lasts nights lesson was a big recovery from the previous week. We started by playing the song that has become my new obsession, Featherweight by Fleet Foxes. This song is actually much more difficult than I had expected and I wasn’t able to do a sight read through. There is a very brief chord change that is very tricky that I will have to focus on. I think if I slow it down and ramp up the speed that will be my best bet.

I’m not sure what the next plan was that my instructor had but I think I threw him off course because I asked him who he liked to listen to and if there was anyone he thought I might also like. He then pointed me to a beautiful song my Michael Kiwanuka called Home Again. He was right that I would like his music but unfortunately that song is unplayable on the baritone ukulele. So instead we started playing Rest by Michael Kiwanuka instead. This is another fantastic song I’m excited to be working on. We didn’t get to work on jamming but our lessons are now typically running anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour even though I’m only supposed to have a half hour lesson. I would like to think this means I’m a good student and he enjoys instructing me.

As a side bar I just picked up my tenor for the first time in months and I’m glad to see that the skills I’m learning on my baritone are transitioning nicely to the tenor as well. I might be playing in a different key with different chord names but I am much more nimble moving around the fret board. Glad to see I’ll be able to switch between instruments if I want to, even if I need a little extra effort with the translation. It also helped to reinforce that the baritone is still right for me.



 
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I missed my summary from last weeks lesson because I got busy (potty training is fun!) so I’ll start with a short blurb of it and then summarize this weeks lesson.

8/28 lesson
My practice for the week was below average but not terrible. I mainly focused on figuring out for myself the solo parts in the Rest song posted above. I did mostly good figuring this out but I found out my fingering was mostly wrong. So it was sort of a 1 step forward 2 steps back as I relearned while properly fretting. The rest of the song was really good and my instructor even said that I’ve got it down. So I’ll continue to refine it during my playing as it has become one of my favorites to play.

We then moved onto learning/playing American Girl by Tom Petty. It will likely take a little time to get everything to where I’m ok with how it sounds but not too bad on the first day. Unfortunately my instructor forgot about the Fleet Foxes song so that will be next week.

9/5 lesson
This week I primarily focused on play the Uke Heads songs on my baritone. With the trip being only two months away I need to decide if I’ll be bringing my baritone or tenor. I’m 99% confident I’ll bring my baritone and capo at the 5th fret. While it’s not the most comfortable way to play I can make it work and two of the 7 songs will not require a capo. There was mention of having some jam sessions and I’m much more capable on my baritone than my tenor so I think it would be the best overall experience. Unfortunately this meant that my practice for my lesson was less than ideal for a second week. I also decided I really want to focus in on getting a grip on standard notation.

Fortunately for me we started with playing through the transposed version of Featherweight above instead of going over the previous weeks music. This is the most difficult song I’ve started to learn by a long shot. The fingerpicking parts are going to take some time as I’ve spent very little time fingerpicking. The tempo also makes some of the chord changes very challenging. I’m confident I’ll be able to get it down if I continue my method of practice and attempt to work through things on my own and bring any troubles I had to my next lesson. I forgot to bring up my desire to focus on learning standard notation so I’ll ned to let my instructor know this week instead of ruining his plan for the next lesson when I show up for the lesson.

As a side bar he was happy that I picked a good song and something that was difficult. He said the easier songs are nice but it’s good to challenge yourself. I didn’t know I would be challenging myself when I picked the song because I just liked how it sounded 🤣.
 
It’s been a while since I posted. That is because I forgot to post after my last lesson before going on vacation. I did have a lesson this past Monday though. Prior to the lessons I was primarily practicing the songs I’ll be playing at the end of next month for the live recordings of Uke Heads. I narrowed it down to three songs I’ll be spending most of my time. At the lesson we refined a few songs I had been previously working on and also focused on the three songs I needed some additional guidance on for the recordings. As I was practicing the songs I noticed how much my technique has improved and how I was able to make them “easier” to play. When I did the original recordings I was adding lots of unnecessary hand movement on my fretting hand. I have since realized I could have much more easily just slid up and down the neck keeping the shape and just lifting or pressing down fingers. Having someone I can discuss things with and can provide direct feedback to me during lessons has been invaluable but I’m also realizing that consistency with practicing is where I can really make the improvements in playing.
 
This weeks lesson was a change of pace. I decided over the weekend prior to my lesson that I’d be bringing my low G uke to the Uke Heads event at the end of the month. As I have been practicing the songs I was switching between my baritone with a capo and my low g and decided it’s just much easier to play it as intended instead of cramming my fingers at the lower frets.

I’m quite a bit behind on playing this way, forgot the chord names, and don’t really know many songs. Which is fun but James had said we will jam when not playing songs from the album and I’d like to be able to do that so I’ve got my work cut out for me.

The lesson went well. I had sent my instructor my plans and two songs from Beirut that I’ve been listening to lately. I was able to sight read through both one them by the time the lesson was over. So the big take away was that overall my playing skill has improved dramatically and I can carry over techniques and things I’ve learned from all the time I’ve spent playing baritone. I just might get my wires crossed with chord names and note names. The progress is very exciting and I’m interested to see how I compare to others when I meet them at the end of the month. Then I’ll have a better gauge of my improvements and overall skill level after 15 months of playing (although my biggest leaps have happened during this time I’ve been taking lessons for four months now).

 
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