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

My Monday lesson this week was very good reflecting back on it. We started the lesson by cleaning up the song So Many Plans by Beirut.

We ended up stopping about 3/4 of the way through as I wasn’t making any errors. My instructor then said that my strumming has gotten very good and that it looks very natural. I did not expect a compliment as this was the first one I’d heard. It also isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about or focused on while practicing. It was really great to hear and boosted my motivation even more to continue down this path. He then decided a good song to approach next is Don’t Know Why by Norah Jones (very nice jazz song!)

This was the first time I had heard this song. There were a few new chords to learn and the tempo is pretty quick. I was able to work out all of the chords but I’ll need to work on the tempo. I’ve noticed I do better with songs I’m already familiar with versus new to me songs. This weeks lesson was very good for me mentally as hearing a simple compliment really boosted my spirits and desire to keep improving.

On a side note I booted up my external hard drive from my college years as I’m trying to update my library of music. Basically downloading all of my CDs, vinyl, and digital songs and trying to put them into my iTunes library. While scrolling through the many songs on the hard drive I was happy to see I had downloaded Gently Weeps by Jake in 2007. I wonder where I would be with my skills if I had picked up the uke then and started playing instead of waiting 15 years. One can wonder.
Sorry for my lapse in posts! Life things happened since my last post but I’ve been keeping at it with my weekly ukulele lessons! There is no way I would be able to summarize all of the lessons I have missed but I can provide information on where I am now and a simple realization I had! I’m currently primarily playing chord melody now. I have learned to play the new (weird to say) Beatles song in chord melody along with Vivaldi’s Winter 2nd Movement, Spanish Romance, Greensleeves, and several other classical songs. As for the realization, being consistent with your playing/practicing is really the best way to improve! Sorry this is brief but I’ll try to come back and post a more lengthy update when possible!

Also check out Uke Heads releasing on 2/16! I played on the album along with James Hill and 165 other Uke Heads! I think you will like it!
Plenty to catch up on here. I’m going to break this up into sections so it’s easier to read. First the ukulele related things.

My trip to New Mexico back in October of last year far exceeded my expectations and will truly be a highlight of my life. It was the first ukulele event I’ve ever attended so I wasn’t really sure what to expect although it is different than the standard ukulele event. All of the other Uke Heads in attendance were fantastic people and told me this set a new bar for event experiences. This is due to all of the people involved. Chris Parsons (a co creator of Uke Heads) wife is an event planner and did a magnificent job. Our hosts, Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg, were such fantastic people even though we were making a mess of their house. Everyone else involved behind the scenes with cooking, making us swag, setting up the days events, and making sure everything ran smoothly was fantastic.

The days consisted of practice, jams, amazing meals, a live podcast (I made the final cut!) and various activities around New Mexico.

Getting to meet James Hill and seeing how genuine of a person he is was certainly a personal highlight. Just a fantastic human with an unbelievable amount of patience and humility. He really is focused on the music and how to advance it instead of being laser focused on the ukulele compared to some of his contemporaries if that makes any sense. I was able to have a couple of great conversations with him which is more than I would have ever expected.

The big moment was when we played 5 songs live at a restaurant in downtown New Mexico. People started to funnel into the room as we progressed in our playing. The crowd really got into it and was dancing around (we even had a women who was really cheering us on!). At the time I didn’t realize it but James was on point when he told us that we made our first fans. People in attendance bought the cd! The feeling was fantastic and it was great sharing it with my fellow Uke Heads! I met and made some fantastic friends on this trip that I will reflect on fondly.

Luckily James made Ukuloudly as an offshoot of Uke Heads so the magic keeps rolling and others can join free of charge! Check it out you won’t regret it I promise!
Next up the ukulele progress:

I’m not going to lie. My progress has been treading water for a while now (but that’s changed and I’ll touch on it next). The reason being is my focus shifted heavily to my own health and my children.

I completed a work wellness evaluation and well I wasn’t very happy with the results. My blood pressure was starting to get elevated and it started to freak me out. I was the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life and the blood tests indicated a potential serious health concern. Thankfully a second blood test with my primary care provider indicated a false positive. However, this got me focused on my health and 2 daughters. So that was where my primary attention has been since November. I’m happy that I’ve managed to drop 17 lbs and that my time is spent enjoying being with my daughters while they are awake during the day. I plan to continue this routine.

I still was attending lessons during this time but my progress sort of stagnated. Due to a lack of focus and consistency with practice and goals. Next up is where that puts me now!
I ended up purchasing an auditorium size guitar on April 17th. I realized I really enjoy listening to guitar focused songs so I asked my instructor if I could play guitar in the previous two lessons. He started me in a dreadnaught. I hated the size but loved the sound. The next lesson I tried the smaller body auditorium and knew that was the right fit for me.

My practice has also shifted dramatically over the past 2.5 weeks. I’ve started a 100 day challenge to practice every day over the next 100 days (so far on 15 days straight). I dedicate an hour minimum to my practice at night after the children have gone to bed, typically breaking this up into 15 minute focused areas (I.e. technique, fretboard memorization, scales, songs, ear training, theory, exercises, learning notes, sight reading, arpeggios, improv, spider walk, chords, Justin Guitar lessons). I also was foolishly primarily relying on my lessons for direction and progress. I have since realized how important it is to supplement my lessons with other materials (like the free Justin Guitar courses). That being said I have reaffirmed my belief in the importance of in person lessons due to a book I’m now reading and would highly recommend to anyone just starting out on an instrument. The reason in person instruction is so vital to the improvement of a beginner is because, as a beginner, there is not a way to recognize if you are doing something incorrectly. This could lead to some bad habits and techniques developing (but they can be changed!). With an experienced instructor they can immediately provide feedback to get you on the right path. The book I feel everyone should read is called “The Practice of Practice” by Jonathan Harnum. I’m halfway through but here are some of my takeaways (excuse the grammar as it’s shorthand copied from my notes app):
  • Practice slowly with active listening
  • While practicing: Active listening/listen for errors, address the errors, slowly ramp up tempo
  • Set goals: immediate, short term, long term, ultimate goal, continuous updates
  • Continue to blog about progress on Ukulele Underground
  • Make changes to practice routine if it gets boring (change tuning, change environment, change instrument, etc.)
  • Attended live music/watch people playing and try to emulate
  • Challenge yourself (with difficult music/techniques/situations/performances etc.)
  • You need to practice something for 40 minutes to show improvement
  • 4 phases of music competency: unconscious incompetence (not knowing your bad and having fun), conscious incompetence (knowing your bad), conscious competence (knowing you are good), unconscious competence (not thinking about if you are good but you are)
  • No one is born musically gifted. Talent is practice in disguise!
  • Progress is slow. Do not expect instant results. Be kind to yourself and have fun.
  • Focus on being “musical”
  • The brain is elastic until death (meaning you can learn at any age)
As you may have noticed I recently learned the need for 40 minutes for noticeable improvement. Therefore I revamped my routine from 15 minutes of focused areas to 40 minute focused areas, which means an hour twenty minutes of practice.

With all that being said I’m not being hyperbolic when I say I’ve noticed the impact this has had on helping me improve over my two and a half weeks. Consistency is vital along with following some of the above guidelines.

I’m now working on Blackbird from the Beatles. This meant learning a new technique (Travis picking) along with a new song. I’m glad to say I have been making significant progress following my new methods. I spend time strictly on learning Travis picking and then break up Blackbird into a few sections working on those repeatedly.

So I’ve shifted focus to guitar. Which means this is probably in the wrong spot. However, I plan to keep my updates strictly focused on practice techniques and improvements that I think can be applied to the ukulele or any instrument. I’m a firm believer now that even beginners can rise to the playing magic they perceive from longtime players (a la Jake Shimabukuro) if they consistently practice or focus on improving. I’m not sure how often I’ll post but I’ll do my best to be consistent.

Also this does not mean I’m done with ukulele! Far from it considering I’m part of both Uke Heads and Ukuloudly. If anything I’m even more confident that what I’m focusing on now (becoming more musical) will translate well to playing the ukulele!
Thanks for the very detailed update! I'm glad your health isn't in as scary a place as you originally were led to believe, but it sounds like the outcome of that has been very positive nonetheless (I bet your girls are delighted your spending more time with them, too). And wow, your NM experience really sounds amazing. That's very cool about also picking up and getting into guitar, good for you. Thanks for all of your tips and what you've discovered are working for you, those are good practice ideas.
I'm glad you are back posting. Please keep posting. I am most interested in how you shifted your practice routine. My own experience is that becoming more conscious of how I practice, that is having a more disciplined practice routine, is just as important how regularly I practice. Maintaining that discipline is another thing. However, when I find myself drifting and/or plateauing, the first thing I think about is how I am practicing.
I'm glad you are back posting. Please keep posting. I am most interested in how you shifted your practice routine. My own experience is that becoming more conscious of how I practice, that is having a more disciplined practice routine, is just as important how regularly I practice. Maintaining that discipline is another thing. However, when I find myself drifting and/or plateauing, the first thing I think about is how I am practicing.
Thanks! I’m planning to maintain both my practice and posting so hopefully it’s illuminating. If you haven’t already, I’d suggest checking out the book The Practice of Practice. Very informative and thought provoking.
My lesson last night went very well. I discussed with my instructor my renewed focus on practicing and my 100 day challenge. He was pleased to hear that I have been able to differentiate between practice and playing. He was in agreement that practice needs to be a focused session with a clear objective. He likes my plan and methods (using a metronome, identifying something that is giving me a difficult time, and focusing on that slowly at first). He suggested I also keep a practice log of one or two sentences of what I focused on and accomplished. I plan to do that moving forward. Additionally he recommended I read Zen Guitar, which was actually what I planned to read after finishing The Practice of Practice.

Then we got into the music. I started by clarifying the fingering I was using for the section in Blackbird that was giving me trouble. I had changed it about halfway through my Sunday practice session and it did make the passage easier. He confirmed it was the same way he plays. It felt good knowing I made the correction on my own. He then had me take it from the top. He was pleased to see my progress on the song and Travis picking considering I had only just started both for a little over a week. I told him I plan to continue working on it so I can get it up to speed. He then gave me Dust in The Wind by Kansas to practice as well. The lesson left me feeling good that my renewed focus is showing results that will take me towards my longer term goals and a much more experienced musician thinks it’s a good path to follow.

I’ve also realized that I have a preference for Travis Picking and Fingerpicking over strumming chords. I do know learning chords and being able to play them is important and forms many of the fingerpicking “shapes” but I just like the music made from fingerpicking varieties more.
I started keeping a practice log on the notes app on my phone this week! Hopefully I can just copy and paste it in here. Success!

  • 4/30 fretboard memorization. Getting faster!
  • 5/1 some pentatonic improv, Spider up to 160 bpm, 1st page of blackbird up to 70 bpm and much cleaner, starting to memorize song?!?! From book: make it about the music not impressing others, practice other instruments (which means I should and will start to work through James Hills duets for one)
  • 5/2 Justin Guitar Stage 1 Module 2: hard to pay attention as I wouldn’t consider myself a beginner. Got to 3 chord song section and started to get intrigued. Started learning I walk the line with bass note and boom chicka strum. May start learning with pick on this song
  • 5/3 make it about the music not trying to impress anyone. You can and should do more improv. There is no need to know all of the scales and notes or be a master guitar player. Same for composing. Need to look into a good quality microphone to begin recording myself. Played Blackbird up to 96 bpm once. Otherwise gradually worked my way up to 80 and recorded myself. Could very clearly hear the areas I still need to work on. I will work to get it perfected at 70 bpm. Learning this song is moving me towards a goal I have: memorize one song.
  • 5/4 MIL broke her hip Friday night and required a hip replacement surgery on Saturday. This meant I was alone with my kids Friday night through Sunday morning. So I didn’t have time to practice as I had to catch up on things around the house after put them to bed. Was too tired by the time I called it.
  • 5/5 trying to get Blackbird up to speed. Still having trouble on a few transitions but doing much better
  • 5/6 finished reading the practice of practice very good book that everyone should read. Started reading Guitar Zen. I like the idea of finding your own internal sound and “putting on your white belt” reminding yourself that no one really ever earns a “black belt”. I ordered a hachimaki with the peace kanji to really embrace the idea of always being a white belt while playing. Not sure if the author intended for people to take it literally but it really resonated with me. I played through the entire first page of Blackbird and my instructor said he really likes what he’s seeing. That felt good. We then worked out some questions I had about another segment of the song. We then started on “Dust in the Wind” and “Landslide” since I enjoy Travis picking and those are both great songs.
I also started to record myself on my voice memo app. Let’s see if I can attach that. You’ll be able to hear I have quite a ways to go on getting this song down.

View attachment Blackbird 3.m4a
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MIL broke her hip Friday night and required a hip replacement surgery on Saturday.
Oh no! I hope her recovery is smooth.

I took the initiative to embed your attachment for you too. That's a pretty impressive start! Wow!!

make it about the music not trying to impress anyone.
Have you read The Music Lesson? Lots to be absorbed. I borrowed from my teacher and really enjoyed it.
Oh no! I hope her recovery is smooth.

I took the initiative to embed your attachment for you too. That's a pretty impressive start! Wow!!

Have you read The Music Lesson? Lots to be absorbed. I borrowed from my teacher and really enjoyed it.
She is doing well considering how quickly everything went and that she has a new hip. Everything went about as well as you could hope in this situation (good report from doctor and surgeon, shorter surgery time than expected, discharged at 3 days).

Thanks for embedding! I was going to try and figure out how to make it work but I did this right before bed. Any advice and what I can do next time? Also thanks for the kind words. I’m glad I started recording so I can really hear how I’m doing/progessing. Trying to be kind to myself and remind myself I only started playing guitar on the 17th. Along with that I started Travis Picking and learning this song on the 22nd. There are no shortcuts.

I have not read The Music Lesson, but it will be up next once I finish Guitar Zen (which can really be read by anyone playing any instrument).
Any advice and what I can do next time?
Absolutely! Once you've attached your file, there's one extra step: click the "insert" message on the attachment, and the forum will move it to an embedded item.
Trying to be kind to myself and remind myself I only started playing guitar on the 17th.
Well heck, if that's how short a time it's been, you're doing a great job! Very focused work. There is a lot to learn and develop when learning an instrument, it feels so much like you have to frontload everything in order to consider yourself to be progressing. It's hard to remember that actually, you are allowed to be a beginner, and part of that is making mistakes, and figuring out what the techniques are before even being able to figure out how to achieve those techniques. Slowing down and focusing on one very small part is ok, because that's how we build our skills. So hard to do when you just wanna play it right!!!
Copy and pasting from the notes app is definitely the way to go for me. No recording to share this week but I’m making it a point to record myself sometime during this upcoming week of practice to check my progress.

  • 5/7 practice plan: fretboard memorization, song work. Need to spend more time on fretboard memorization it should be getting easier. Started working on Dust in the Wind and Landslide. Began working on the later parts of Blackbird. Dust I. The Wind sounded good. Will need to work on and list to Landslide more as that was a little rough.
  • 5/8 practice plan: read music theory book at work, listen to dust in the wind and landslide throughout the day. Practice dust in the wind and landslide. Spider exercise. Finish with Blackbird progress. You can’t make long term progress conform to your time table. It has to happen naturally. A flower blooms when it’s ready to bloom: let it be. Move only at a pace that is natural. As long as your spirit is moving forward you are moving fast enough. By the time I was able to practice I was very tired. I just experimented with some chord progressions and changing between chords. Reflecting on this I got to practice late because of “Mommy Salon” where my wife does my daughter’s hair before bedtime because she has wild hair. I think next time I’ll just start to practice during this time and then take a break when they are done.
  • 5/9 practice plan: same as yesterday but follow through this time. Started working on Dust in the wind and landslide, fingers were in pain for some reason. Did a little bit of spider exercise. Stopped due to finger pain. The good: the first day of the music theory book were things I already knew from previously playing woodwind instruments. It was just discussing how notes are made (I.e. their shape and parts), their meaning, and length. This boils down to whole notes, half notes quarter notes, etc. So it was nice that some previous knowledge hasn’t completely been lost. I was noticing some notes were not coming out clearly (either due to finger movements placement in the fret or pressure). Clipped my nails and immediately saw a significant improvement. Neat! I’m not sure if there is a correlation but if I were to rank the songs I’m playing based on my enjoyment of learning/hearing them and complexity it would be Blackbird (most difficult and enjoyable), Dust in the Wind, Landslide. Remember when learning something new that instead of saying it is difficult that it is unfamiliar.
  • 5/10 today will be my 26th straight day of practicing and playing. That means I may have developed a habit. Estimates are that it takes between 18-254 days (66 on average) for a new habit to stick. Hopefully I’ll be on the shorter side of that estimate. My goal is to get in two practice sessions today since I took the day off from work. Well that didn’t work out at all. Best laid plans I suppose. It’s my oldest daughter’s birthday tomorrow. So I realized that meant I had much less time this weekend to get things done around the house including Mother’s Day on Sunday. So I took care of those things when they napped. Then during my usual practice time, after bedtime, I was tasked with assembling an outdoor climber gift. It took 2 hours so I went straight to bed.
  • 5/11 no plan just play. I snuck in a little messing around on the fretboard while plugging into my delay pedal and acoustic amp. Although the amp is tiny it actually gives a very clean and realistic/authentic acoustic sound. I don’t use amps much and have an amateur understanding so maybe this isn’t that surprising? Anyway it was fun to mess around for a short while. I lost track of time while practicing tonight. No idea how long I played. I focused on Blackbird and Dust in the wind. I got Blackbird up to 90 bpm and fairly clean to my ear. I’ll have to record to really get a sense of how it’s going. I only played the first page of dust in the wind and I jumped into a quick tempo. Probably should have scaled back and really focused on trouble sections. I stopped playing when my fingers were just not functioning how I wanted to. The progress was nice. At least I think it’s progress using the ear test. Maybe stepping away from my typical intense practice sessions was a good thing? Anyway I was really enjoying playing tonight. My love of playing music is returning.
  • 5/12 Mother’s Day. I expected to be busy and maybe get in a little bit of playing. I was right that it was busy. I was wrong that I would have time to practice. Oh well not that big of a deal as I’m finally getting into a groove with practice.
  • 5/13 Lesson today. I think I may have performance anxiety? Maybe I need to warm up? Most likely both…Whenever I play what I have been practicing for my instructor, it’s never as good as when I am practicing at home. I’ll make it a point to discuss with my instructor next week. We started with Dust in the Wind and, well I started poorly so I slowed it down, he saw I’ve got the picking pattern and notes down, but it wasn’t even close to how I was practicing. He told me to continue on the intro and start on the bridge before starting on the verse. Blackbird was much better for me. He saw that I’ve basically got the whole song down now with a few errors which felt good. Still not as good as my practice sessions. I plan to continue on with Blackbird because I want to have at least one song perfect and committed to memory. He then wanted to take a look at Stick Season by Noah Kahan, which he mistakenly thought started my Travis Picking journey. I let him know that he actually gave that to me when I was still playing baritone ukulele, so we previously only strummed the chords because the A string is needed for the syncopated picking pattern. That is the unfamiliar part of this song for me, syncopated picking. It’s something I’ll need to work on but it sounds nice and only lasts for the intro and 1st verse. It’s then chord strumming for the remainder of the song. Lastly we started to work on Our Lips Are Sealed by Nouvelle Vague. It’s weird to call this a cover because Terry Hall wrote the original version for The Go Gos. This version is Travis Picked with extracted bar chords up the neck. It is very different compared to the original version. I appreciate getting out of first position as it goes along with my desire to learn the entire fretboard and get out of first position. We talked about how that’s important so you can give other voicings if you are playing with someone that is playing in first position. I also realized I’ve never actually asked him what his favorite type of guitar to play is or what his favorite music to play is. He doesn’t really have a favorite guitar as it mostly depends on his mood and the style he wants to play. To my surprise his favorite music was mostly French music both modern and from the 60s-70s and Gypsy jazz like Django Reinhardt. Overall it was a good lesson even if I didn’t play as well as I would have liked and it went long which I’m grateful for. Plenty to work on!
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