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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.

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“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.

 

 

My Ukulele

 

The one present I specifically asked for this year for my birthday was a ukulele, and my aunt, a musician, did the careful shopping for me. I was thinking of getting one of the 1-2-3 sets from Amazon, where the ukulele probably falls apart on the third use, but she made sure to get me a real one. I’ve had it on my wish list for years, but I couldn’t convince myself that it wasn’t frivolous and silly, especially because I have a guitar that I never use, but when Mom asked me what I wanted it was the first thing I could think of, well, second, behind a pony. I’ve always wanted a pony.

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“There will be no ponies in my house.”

The ukulele is very light and small and has a beautiful tone, so I’m hoping I’ll have some luck sticking to a practice schedule. The danger of feeling like a ne’er-do-well is still very high, but as long as I don’t watch videos of ukulele masters I can try to hold onto the idea that it’s a toy to play with, instead of a serious musical instrument that I have to master or give up immediately.

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Platypus is guarding my ukulele

I found a few YouTube videos for beginners, and I’m learning the chord charts and trying not to be too impatient with my clumsy fingers. I took piano lessons as a kid, so the transition to stringed instruments has been a little bit confusing for me. I had an electric keyboard for a while, trying to revisit my pianos lessons, but when it died I didn’t replace it, because it kept reminding me that I was not a musical genius, and that hurt my feelings.

I just want music to be fun, and a ukulele looks like fun to me. I also thought about a bongo drum for some reason, or maybe a harmonica. But not a tambourine. I hate tambourines. I’d love a Melodica, like the one Jon Batiste has on the Late Show with Steven Colbert. My grandmother had two when I was little, these tiny keyboards that you could pick up and blow into, and pretend you were making real music. But she kept telling me that I was playing it wrong, so maybe that’s a bad example.

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This is a Melodica, and not my picture

I’m not sure if the dogs will be interested in the ukulele or not. Cricket tried to play my guitar years back, but it scared the crap out of her when she strummed the strings with her paw. Wikipedia says that the word Ukulele roughly translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, so hopefully that will keep the dogs away from it.

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“It has fleas?!!!”

I’m still hearing some muted and buzzing strings while I learn how to place my fingers for the chords, but it’s getting better. It’s not music yet, but it’s a step or two closer. I use a keyboard app on my phone to tune the strings at the beginning of each session, because I’ve been warned that the nylon strings of the ukulele go out of tune pretty quickly. I’ll need to buy an instrument case eventually, because I keep returning the ukulele to its original box, and that seems insensitive.

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my phone/tiny keyboard

I don’t have plans to join a ukulele band, if such a thing exists, but I wouldn’t mind playing it around the apartment and having the dogs follow me, like the pied piper. In which case I should probably have just re-learned how to play the recorder, much simpler and less painful for the fingers.

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.

yeshiva girl with dogs.jpeg

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.