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The Ukulele Life

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I want to reassure you that I am still trying to learn how to play the ukulele, and I have callouses on the index and middle finger of my left hand to prove it. I don’t have the patience to practice for more than fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, or the pain tolerance, but I’ve managed to learn a dozen or so chords, and I’ve gotten better at avoiding the buzzes and mutes, and can sort of switch from chord to chord in time, if I pretend there’s an extra rest between each measure.

 

My favorite lessons have been in fingerpicking (which sounds like a hygiene problem, but thankfully is not), where you play each note of the chord separately. I’m not saying that I’m good at it, but I like the way it sounds, even when I make mistakes. I’m also learning a lot of strumming patterns, though I’m still not sure how you’re supposed to decide which ones to use on different songs. And I’ve overcome my fear that strumming the strings will break the ukulele, so now I’m playing loud enough that I can actually hear it.

I’ve discovered that I don’t have to re-tune the ukulele as often anymore, now that the strings have worn in, and the ukulele has its own cozy case to sleep in. Though when I don’t hear recognizable music coming off the strings I try to tell myself that it’s because the instrument must be out of tune, and it’s not me at all.

grumpy cricket

“No, Mommy. It’s you.”

 

I still find it impossible to sing and play at the same time, though, because the melody line and the rhythm are so different. I have a similar brain freeze in choir practice when I can hear the tenors next to me but I still have to sing the alto part. I don’t know how I missed learning this two-brains-at-once skill growing up, but it makes my head hurt.

 

I still can’t articulate what I’m hoping to get from this effort to learn to play the ukulele, though. In part, I’d like to feel like I could make the music I want to listen to if the need arises, in case my smart phone, TV, computer, and stereo all die at the same time. But it’s more than that. I used to write songs as a kid, to try and capture the sounds of how I felt, because the words were never enough. I wanted to be able to express more of everything. I wanted that from my dance classes as a kid, too, in tap and ballet and jazz and modern, but I couldn’t get past the basic proscribed vocabularies and find the movements that would speak for me. And I can’t draw for shit, so that avenue is closed to me. But music is still an option, and I feel like I need to keep trying, in case something begins to resonate. But, I fall too easily into thinking that I have to do what other people tell me is worth doing, and I need to master things in order, as they are written in the book. I get too easily stuck in that lane, and lose track of creating my own path forward. Because creating my own path is hard, and feels a lot like wandering around in the dark.

So, I haven’t uncovered all of the secrets of the universe, yet, but I can play some simple blues songs and keep myself entertained for minutes at a time. That seems like a good place to start. And the dogs don’t seem to mind. One or both of them will take a nap on my bed during my practice sessions, and I haven’t seen even one raised eyebrow. Though I’ve made a point of not watching their faces very carefully while I’m playing, just in case.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Amazon page and consider ordering the Kindle or Paperback version (or both!) of Yeshiva Girl. And if you feel called to write a review of the book on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish girl on Long Island named Izzy (short for Isabel). Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes that it’s true. Izzy’s father decides to send her to an Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, as if she’s the one who needs to be fixed. Izzy, in pain, smart, funny, and looking for people she can trust, finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment.

 

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

98 responses »

  1. Props and respect for persevering and keeping up the practise with what will be another few impressive strings to your bow (pun intended)

    My dogs have had to endure a house of sheer nonsense and noise from the many instruments here it’s more like a recording studio than family home. They don’t mind anything other than the didgeridoo and violin.. REALLY don’t like them but a nice mellow strum on the twelve string or soft melody at the piano sends them both flat out and fast asleep within a matter of minutes. Have yet to meet a dog or horse that didn’t like music.

    I wanna hear you playing said Ukulele before too long. Still not heard you sing either 😉

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  2. haha! Cricket–the voice of authority. She is such a riot.

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  3. Our CEOs grown son has also been learning the uke and he said he could understand all the same things you are going through 🙂

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  4. You go girl! You may have to sweat at it for a while, but if you persevere you’ll suddenly find that you’re able to jam along with other people playing or singing or whatever – or just plink away on your own. Either way, you’re building a ladder that you can use to climb up to a place where the view is completely different from what you see now. Doesn’t matter if the ladder is a little rickety, so don’t fall into the perfection trap – just keep working at it and, one step at a time, it’ll take you up there.

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  5. Good for you. I attempted to learn a few chords. I don’t have the patience.

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  6. I’m taking ukulele lessons right now and the thing I’m working on is singing and playing at the same time. Turns out that I was changing chords before I needed to. Now that I know exactly where to change cords it’s made a huge difference. My teacher is also trying to teach me how to read and play tab music. Tricky.

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  7. As Mama Cass Elliott used to sing, Make your own kind of music, Sing your own special song…even if nobody else sings along.
    Mostly, have fun.

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  8. I admire your perseverance! Keep it up and enjoy the music.

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  9. Keep at it! Practice makes perfect, they say. And you have a head start if the dogs aren’t howling! 🤪🎶👍🏽

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  10. Funny, you don’t look Hawaiian.

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  11. Good job Rachel. Practice makes the master 🙂

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  12. Enjoy your music! It just is difficult to do everything at the same time. I teach guitar and the problems are very similar.
    I tell my students it feels like an octopus trying to rollerskate. When the movements go into your motor memory, it becomes easier. Your motor memory is what you use when tying shoelaces or something similar. You have done it so often it is automatic. With enough accurate practice chord changing and strumming also become automatic. Also don’t be afraid to slow down to get it right. Speed takes time.
    Making music is magic!

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  13. I also lack that ‘two brains’ coordination, Rachel. I use that as my excuse to not be able to do any DIY jobs around the house. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  14. Do you have a George Formby society where you live? You may well be asking, who?

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  15. Hi Rachel!
    my son played ukulele for 7 years! He was 8 when he started!

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  16. It seems that a healthy dose of self-compassion might be helpful. You excel at writing and learning languages, so if you want to compare yourself, start with those and you will be far ahead in the game.

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  17. You are doing so much better than I am! It has been months! The class I was taking on line was ok but as it turned out did not teach me enough to start. Once that was over I just never picked a guitar back up. I can’t find a class that I like. Congrats!

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  18. 🎼 hang n thee with the Uke. The more you play with he easier and more enjoyable it will be.

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  19. I read this aloud to my husband, who is a professional guitarist, and who also plays the uke. He has a t-shirt with a guitar and a uke on it, and the guitar is saying, “Yes, Uke, I am your father.” (I hope you’re a Star Wars fan.) Getting the basics down can be the most boring part. George always encourages people to learn those basics—very important if you ever want to play jazz (jazz uke? Hmmm…) but he also encourages people to learn to play by ear. That widens your options considerably. Most important: have fun!

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  20. Sounds like you’re getting the hang of it Rachel. Have fun and the music will come!
    I always wanted to play a guitar, but my fingers just wouldn’t co-operate. My sister had one but the novelty wore off after about three lessons. I’d have a go when she was out, and if I put it on my lap and strummed it like an Hawaiian guitar, I got a good tune out of it. No-one ever knew of course, and the piano is my instrument of choice. 🙂

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  21. Pingback: Who’s George Formby? | The Diary of a Country Bumpkin

  22. Good for you. However, I’m curious. What made you want to learn to play the Ukulele??

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  23. I’ve heard that modern dance is very much back in style now, and that is more about expressing your inner self. I am at the end of our Xena’s and my) first class in Freestyle and getting ready to do a presentation to the Obedience Club. you have made me think about stepping outside the lines and letting my little schnauzer help us both do some different things in our Freestyle dancing. I’m going to try harder to let go and open up to that. Also, I suggested Yeshiva Girl to my boss the Rabbi for the monthly book club, and she thought it would be a good choice. I will let you know if they do it.

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  24. I am sure you are doing great.. but for inspiration check out this little girl Claire.


    But above all have fun…

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  25. About 6 years ago, I came into possession of a church organ. It’s a beautiful piece of furniture – on which I can manage to pick out a few songs. I love this organ, even though my playing is pitiful – it gives me great joy that I know which keys to press to make something resembling a song. I will never play Carnegie Hall, no matter how much I practice, but it gives me joy – and hopefully your ukulele is bringing you joy as well. Max would lay on the sofa and listen till I started hitting the wrong notes, then give me the look and leave the room. Maverick walks across the pedals – and then looks at me like, “Why does this sound so strange, Mommah?” He doesn’t seem to believe it’s him and not me. He’s probably right. 🙂

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  26. I am glad to hear of one other person who can’t hold her note when the person next to her has a different one. I think I would need a chorus of five hundred with me in the middle of my section to be able to keep to my part. Even then if I didn’t have the melody I might be in trouble!

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  27. Fingerpicking sounding like a hygiene problem made me chuckle! It sounds like you’re learning a lot and doing really well, especially playing louder with more confidence and worrying less that you’ll break the strings. I’d be the same though with only playing for 15-20 mins at a time, as I get easily frustrated with pain and I lack patience for a lot of things these days. “But, I fall too easily into thinking that I have to do what other people tell me is worth doing” – the fact that you realise this is a lot further than many people get, so don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re already creating your own path. Embrace the uncertainty and go with it, enjoy it! 🙂
    Caz xx

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  28. My life changed when I taught myself to play ukulele! I am so impressed you can finger pick. I just strum but i make up my own patterns and sometimes my own chords! Hang in there!

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  29. Happy to hear you haven’t given up! Two of my girls attempted to learn the ukulele…neither made it very far, so kudos to you! I laughed at one point while reading because it reminded me of my younger self. Feeding the animals after school every afternoon would have me singing along to myself, made up songs about my day or little girl life. Ah, the days when I didn’t care how I sounded… 😉 anyway, keep at it!!

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  30. The ukulele life. Sounds OK to me. Keep being you. Let everyone else be them.

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  31. Dont give up! Playing a musical instrument is not easy and requires a lot of patience. But I think it you just keep on you will get it.

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  32. I have a friend who took up the ukulele in middle age and she’s oddly comforted by it. There must be something to it!

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  33. Bravo, I’m glad to hear of others embracing the Ukulele, the biggest little instrument in the world. George Harrison was a big fan of this instrument and was said to travel with 2 or 3, play them and then give them away. I especially like his version of Cab Calloway’s, The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Happy Playing.

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  34. Awesome! I am on the path with you! I really, really love my little ukulele group, where I learn more every time and have so much fun just playing together – something I never in a million years saw myself doing. Keep up the good work! 🙂

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  35. Plink and play to your hearts content while your pooch looks on with those adoring eyes. GOOD FOR YOU!

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  36. Great blog Rachel. I can hear the music pouring out of your words. If you play a quarter as well as you write then you’ll soon be a maestro.

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  37. We used to have a student who would stroll the lunch room playing his ukulele. Smiles all around.

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  38. All the best with the ukulele. I have two ukulele YouTube sites (Lstrachey and reyalpeleluku) which have some demos of how to play some old tunes. Might help. I also have a wordpress blog called the backward ukulele player.

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