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How I Started Learning the Ukulele

Populele 2 Ukulele
I've wanted to learn to play an instrument for many years. Specifically the guitar but have never really done anything about it beyond buying one book (literally years ago), complete with DVD, teaching the electric guitar, that I've never opened.

In October of 2019 I happened upon the Populele 2 Ukulele through an email promotion from shopping site Gearbest (#notsponsored but links to the Populele 2 and Udemy are my affiliate links).

I can't say I've ever wanted to learn the Ukulele, because it seemed like a dinky little instrument, and not particularly thought of as 'cool'. However, the Populele 2 Ukulele has a fairly unique, eye catching design, in two colors (black or white) that doesn't immediately scream 'UKULELE'.

That aside what really caught my attention is the ability to link the ukulele to a dedicate phone app that teaches you to play using fun games and lights on the ukulele's fretboard showing where to place your fingers as you play. It all looked easy and I felt this could be a great way to start learning an instrument... that's kind of like a guitar, right?



As it turned out, although the phone app is supposed to work on both Android and iPhone, Google Play wouldn't even let me install it on any Android device I own despite all of them having a version of Android higher than the minimum requirement.

I was able to install the app on my partner's iPhone but that's not exactly convenient for me to keep using her phone every time I want to practice.

Fortunately the Populele 2 is actually a proper ukulele. You don't need the app or the lights on the fretboard to play it. Since it's my first ukulele I don't know how it compares to others but the build quality is good and it sounds great once you've tuned the strings. Pretty much as good as any ukulele I've heard while learning it.

I decided I was going to learn to play it anyway. I now know there are a lot of free video tutorials by various music teachers on YouTube but my first idea was to go for something more structured with one of the many ukulele courses on Udemy (a site where you can learn almost anything).

Udemy is constantly running special offers where you can purchase courses for under US$20.00. After a bit of exploring I settled on a course called The Ukulele Academy: Play Music Today!

This course by music teacher, Andrew J. Smith, caught my eye because the first item on the 'What you'll learn list' was...

Learn how to play ANY song without other tutorials.

How could I pass that up!

Andrew's course is very good. His video tutorials are great, he's very positive, encouraging, and interested in teaching you the basics of playing the ukulele. Each lesson section is short with the majority being 20 minutes or less. I committed myself to completing the course by doing one lesson every evening, just before going to bed. It took me about a month to complete all the lessons.

You could conceivably get by with the knowledge Andrew's course teaches. By the end of the course, I had learned a lot but could barely play anything that sounded like a song.

There are two reasons for that:

  1. Learning a musical instrument is like learning to swim. You can read and understand all the steps in theory but the only way to progress is by actually practicing what you've learnt.
     
  2. Andrew's course only teaches two songs that, while being great for beginners, neither are contemporary, or even that fun to play. (They're fun in that way that singing 'Happy Birthday' at your friend's birthday party is fun, nobody really wants to sing but you do anyway).
As I said, his course is great, I'd highly recommend it as a starting point, but it doesn't teach everything about playing the ukulele. I decided to dig around to see what YouTube had to offer.

Fingerpicking

After doing nothing but strumming in Andrew's course, learning how to do basic finger picking was a real change of pace and made me feel like I'd progressed just that little bit more.

Katie Denure, from One Music School, has a short video that teaches basic fingerpicking patterns that you could supposedly use for any song (I don't know enough about music to apply them to any song, so I guess?). It's a great lesson, and easy to pick up.

Katie only uses three strings in her lesson so if you wanted to go a little further Ukulele Go has a really quick lesson here that shows how you might incorporate all four strings into your fingerpick.

Percussive Ukulele

Percussive playing is when you drum on various parts of the ukulele's sound box to create a drumming sound as you strum. I haven't practiced this a whole lot but you can introduce some really interesting sounds into a song with percussion. Bernadette Teaches Music has an excellent Percussive Ukulele video for beginners that covers quite a bit in about ten minutes.

30 Day Ukulele Challenge

It was at this point I discovered Bernadette's 30 Day Ukulele challenge which I'm currently about halfway through (and taking longer than 30 days because I keep repeating large chunks of it just for the practice).

The challenge is for complete beginners who've never picked up a ukulele before, so you could conceivably start your own journey here. Bernadette is a professional music teacher and the challenge is not only free but also includes a comprehensive, printable, reference companion document (that I'm using quite a lot, so well worth downloading).

Possibly the only downside to the challenge is having to learn a few children's songs (the obligatory 'Mary had a Little Lamb' that seems to be a staple of any musical instrument course) but by about the halfway point you'll be learning John Lennon's, Imagine - and you'll be glad for having learnt the children's songs first by that point.

---o ---o--- o---

That's my ukulele journey so far. I'm not learning the ukulele for any reason other than for me. I'm not planning to perform, join a band, or anything like that. My only real goal is to be able to pick up the ukulele and play something that sounds like I know what I'm doing.

Doesn't even have to be a full song. If I can just improvise something that sounds like music I'll be happy.

There are a couple of songs I'd like to learn that I think would be fun to play including; Kermit the Frog's, Rainbow Connection (which I thought would be much easier than it is), and George Michael's, Faith (I just like the sound of the guitar in that song). Yes I know neither song was played on a Ukulele but follow the links to videos and you'll see they sound great on a ukulele.

Currently, after three and a half months, I can play bits of music, (I'm all over fingerpicking Mary had a Little Lamb), and can play a really bad version of Imagine but I'll get there. I'm practicing every second evening at the moment because my left hand fingertips get sore holding down the strings on the fret after a while.

Still, it's fun, and I do enjoy finishing my day by tinkering around on the ukulele.

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