Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Practice Habit

At this week's Scarborough Uke Jam, Bill W. inspired everyone with his playing of Bach's Prelude for the first Cello Suite.

Wow! I would love to be able to play something similar. Maybe in a few more years.

Since I've picked up the ukulele I've often thought about how much similarity there is to yoga. Posture, awareness, discipline, and practice!

I've been strumming for a little over two years now, and in the first year I was very motivated to practice every day. Although I would've liked to learn faster, progress was a lot more noticeable and measurable. Now I have the basics down, and there is still lots of room for improvement. Progress is so incremental.

Going to the Jam every two weeks is good exposure to new techniques and songs - and it's just fun to sing and play along with experienced musicians who don't dismiss basic players. I am truly thankful to Paul, Jay, Matt, Lisa for leading the sessions, prepping the charts, and making it all look so effortless. However, if it's been a week or so since I picked up the uke, any callouses I developed have faded and I end the evening with sore fingertips. When I've been "out of practice" I notice I have to think a bit more than I should to find the chords and fingering.

So, why don't I practice uke every day? No shortage of excuses! Too tired. Have to make dinner. Out for the evening, etc. etc. Yet when I do take the time I find it a great way to unwind. And really, even 15 minutes a day can make a difference.

I signed up for online lessons awhile ago, they are nicely put together, and a great approach to thoroughly learning a song. The instructor sent out some useful practice tips via email that are very timely.

Thanks for the advice, Brett!


Brett McQueen

Your Reason – Why You Play Ukulele

You must have a reason for why you practice. 

What motivates you to play the ukulele?

For me, it's to experience the joy of making music with others. It gives me energy and fuel. I'm happier when I'm making music.

For you, your motivation to play ukulele might be to win the heart of your crush. Others of you might want to be able to make music with your grandkids. Some of you have a lifelong dream of playing an instrument. Maybe it reminds you of that time you went to Hawaii. Perhaps you want to be a world-class performer.

These are great motivations to practice.

Think about and identify your motivation.

While some of us don't have to think too hard about this, when you find yourself in a rut and discouraged, it's important to remember why you play the ukulele.

Your Place – When & Where You Practice

While you have to start here, motivation isn't enough.

Motivation can quickly wane when we face obstacles, like when you can't switch chords in that one song without stopping. Discouragement can creep in when your fingers aren't as agile as you want them to be to fingerpick that scale or solo.

When we don't feel motivated, we can fallback on our practice ritual or habit.

A practice habit starts with two main things:
  1. When you practice
  2. Where you practice
The number one reason students tell me for not practicing ukulele is time.

We all have the same amount of time in a day, so if you're saying learning ukulele is important to you, let's get creative with it. Remember, it's better to practice for just 15 minutes per day than having a marathon practice sessions for a couple hours every few days.

You might:
  • Bring your ukulele to work to play on a break
  • Set out your ukulele on a stand in the family room, so you're more likely to pick it up
  • Buy a ukulele case and take it with you when you're traveling on the road
  • Carry your ukulele in your backpack on campus
  • Put your ukulele on a stand right by your bed so you see it first thing in the morning

I know for myself if my ukulele is in its case put up in my closet I'm way less likely to take it out and play. This is why I keep a ukulele on a stand in my office within arms reach, so I'm frequently reminded to pick it up and play. This is a powerful environmental trigger to make it easy for me to play ukulele.

It's even better though if you can schedule your practice and have a dedicated space, such as a your back porch or a quiet room in your house without distractions. For me, my home office is the quietest and free from distractions.

Find your time and place to practice ukulele to create your practice habit.

Think about your time creatively and use the power of your environment to get into a creative mindset.

Your Focus – What You Practice

Have you ever had it where you pick up the ukulele and feel like you're playing the same old things over and over again?

Maybe you're a beginner and you feel completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of ukulele lessons and information out there. Where do you even start? Maybe you've been playing for awhile and you've hit a plateau and don't know how to get better. What do you do to break through?

It's normal to feel in a rut as a musician or like you don't know what to practice next.

You can have your motivation, time and place, but if you aren't focused on a goal, you'll start to feel like you're peddling without a bike chain.

So, what makes a great ukulele practice goal?

Let's borrow from the SMART goal framework. A great practice goal for ukulele is:
  • Specific. The goal is simply stated and easy to understand. Good, specific goals are: "I want to learn how to switch from a G to D7 chord while strumming a calypso strumming pattern without stopping," or, "I want to memorize the C major scale in first position," or, "I want to learn how to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
  • Measurable. It's clear when you have achieved the goal because a number is attached to it. "I will switch from a G to D7 chord to a count of four at 80 beats per minute on a metronome," or, "I will learn the first eight measures of the intro to Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
  • Achievable. Your goal is within reach and not outside the scope of your current ability. For example, if you've played ukulele less than a month, an unachievable goal and one not worth focusing on would be to play While My Guitar Gently Weeps as performed by Jake Shimabukuro.
  • Relevant. The goal should be within the scope of your interests on ukulele. For example, if you're interested in strumming chords and singing, then, learning the notes of the fretboard might not be relevant to how you want to play the instrument. That's okay!
  • Time-based. Every great goal has a time limit for when you should achieve that goal. I recommend making smaller goals for a two-week period to stay focused, motivated and inspired.
Focus your practice by writing out a ukulele practice goal that is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.

There is an art to creating effective goals on which to focus your practice.

For many ukulele players, it's quite difficult to craft well-articulated goals that factor in your current skill level and where you want to be.

This is why having a teacher or a ukulele group is so important to help define those goals for you. Having a teacher allows you to spend your time focusing on what's important – practicing your instrument. A great teacher will be able to understand where you're at and suggest the right things to practice to help you make the music you want to make.

A Simple 15-Minute Ukulele Practice Method

No one learns how to do anything without dedicating time. This is true for learning to play ukulele.

Fortunately, It doesn't take hours a day to get better at ukulele.

15 minutes per day is all it takes.

Last week I talked about finding your reason, your place, and your focus when it comes to playing ukulele. I also gave some practical tips for finding time in your busy schedule to play ukulele.

If 15 minutes is all you have, then, I recommend making the most of it and breaking it up into three 5-minute parts.

First 5 Minutes – Pick a Familiar Song

Don't start off your practice session by taking on the latest Jake Shimabukuro arrangement!

For the first five minutes, take the first minute to stretch the wrists, hands, and fingers by opening and closing the hands and fingers. While doing this, focus on your breathing.

After that first minute, start with a familiar song you already know how to play and that you love to play. If you're brand new, start with the most basic chord and strumming you can muster.

This gets the fingers and mind ready to go!

Next 5 Minutes – Pick One Exercise

Next, select one new exercise or one you've already been working on perfecting.

Just pick one!

The biggest mistake new ukulele players make is trying to focus on too many different things at once. Don't try to do it all at one time! You will get there.

To be effective at practice in a short amount of time, just focus on one thing.

This could be a scale, strumming pattern, fingerpicking pattern, chord change exercise, metronome exercise, music-reading exercise, rhythm exercise, memorization exercise, etc. 

If you're scratching head wondering how to come up with these exercises, then, I'd recommend having a teacher give you exercises to practice based on your current skill level and interests. There's nothing more frustrating than trying to tackle an exercise that is outside the scope of your own capabilities.

When you learn from me online in Club Ukulele, I present exercises you can use to improve certain techniques and skills on the ukulele based on your skill level and interests.

Where in the last step, you warmed up the fingers and mind, the goal for this part is to challenge and stretch your fingers and your mind.

Last 5 Minutes – Pick a New Song

Lastly, pick a new song to learn.

Ideally, this song should be one that uses the new skill or technique you've been practicing in the last 5 minutes. Again, it's important to learn a new song that is challenging but isn't too far out of reach based on your current skill level. This is where a good ukulele teacher can help you.

With Club Ukulele, courses build gradually, so I provide these songs for you to learn that fit the skills and techniques you're learning.

As you practice this new, more difficult song, you might break up the song into micro-goals, such as: 

"I'm going to learn all the chords positions for this song,"


"I'm going to learn the first four measures of this song."

The goal isn't to be able to play the song perfectly in one practice session but to chip away at in small chunks.

Learning harder songs like this is ultimately what helps you improve your skills as a ukulele player. Plus, playing songs and making music is what it's all about!

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