When I first picked up the ukulele, the beauty of its portability was almost immediately offset by just how awkward it felt to hold. The ergonomics of the instrument wasn’t difficult to wrap my head around, but it was a whole different story as soon as fingertips touched the fret board. While my right hand was free to strum at leisure with a carefree flick of the wrist, my left hand fought its own battle closer to the tuning knobs, strings digging into skin and nail as my hand slid and contorted in a feeble attempt to produce the proper sound.
Months later, this feeling hasn’t changed all that much, but I am getting better. I’ve learned some chords and some progressions they can build, and I’ve also learned a few new knots that my fingers can get tied into.
There’s probably something to be said about how disillusioning it can feel to have to reteach yourself the basics of fingering for a new instrument after spending so many years developing muscle memory specific to another. Looking back at the musical journey I’ve taken to get to this point, however, I’m amazed that I was able to discipline myself to develop such muscle memory at all. I suppose if you spend over a decade practicing a skill, it’s going to become more and more comfortable through rote repetition, but how does one begin? As a kid, practicing the piano was never a terribly glamourous idea in my mind—and I’d often deviate from my regiment to diddle on the keys, to the dismay of parental enforcers—but I’d always admired what results could be achieved.
Fingering is a delicate balance between what comes naturally and what works best for the progression of a musical phrase (or what a didactic scale book tells you is right and wrong fingering). It’s easy to make mistakes, and if you slack in practice, just like exercising, your muscle memory will atrophy. I still tend to favour, say, my middle finger where my ring finger needs strengthening. Having my right arm in a cast for two years forced me to use my left hand more, but years later the reemergence of my right hand has had me lose some of that left hand virtuosity.
Picking up the ukulele, I’ve had to cast any preconceived notions of fingering aside and start again from square one.
But this instrument presents a new regiment opportunity that the piano never did. I can take this instrument anywhere, and as Ukulele Mike suggests in the video here, you can develop muscle memory in much the same way dentists suggest you can spend time flossing.
Go watch TV, or enjoy a nice view. This will allow you to practice shifting deftly from chord to chord without having to look at the fret board, and eventually get a new feel for the instrument.
And really, who doesn’t like another excuse to watch TV?
Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!
Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration