Lessons From Learning Ukulele

I’ve been playing the ukulele for a while now1, but decided recently that it was time for some proper lessons. It’s the first time in a while that I’ve participated in any kind of formal face to face learning and it’s been useful not just as a budding ukelelist but also because of what I’ve learned (or been reminded) about what makes a great learning activity.
Each of the seven points below can be applied to learning and mastering anything.

Choose the right mode and method

I’m something of an introvert and my preference is generally to learn on my own – from books, videos or online content. Joining a group of local learners was not a natural choice for me, but it’s turned out to be exactly the right decision. Video lessons can be great, but with something as practical as learning a musical instrument it’s hard to beat the experience of in person teaching from an experienced musician.

Social context matters

We were expected to play (and sing!) from the start and doing that as part of a group feels much easier than it would be solo. You’re much less exposed when the occasional duff notes and poor singing are covered by the rest of the group.
The group is a mix of beginners and improvers and within those two categories I think it would be fair to say that we’re a mixed ability group. Everyone is supportive of everyone else and we each have things to learn from the others (even if sometimes it’s how not to do something).

Make loud mistakes

I think it was natural that some of us were quite hesitant when we first started playing, but the advice we were given was simple – it’s better to make loud mistakes than to be timidly perfect. If you want to get good at anything you’ve got to have a go, and that means making mistakes. Approaching it with energy and enthusiasm might make those mistakes louder, but it will also make them more obvious to you and the sooner you recognise them the sooner you’ll overcome them.

You need solid foundations

I wasn’t the only one who had previously tried learning from self study materials and a few of us shared stories of getting demotivated because we were trying to do things that we simply didn’t have the skill to do. These early lessons have focused on the basics and understanding and mastering those builds confidence. This would have been much harder to do without the direction of an experienced teacher, which brings me nicely to…

Honest feedback is necessary

Right up front we were told that we would get blunt feedback; and that really matters. The benefit of making mistakes early on is to be able to learn from and rectify them – there’s no point practicing doing something the wrong way.

Practice, practice, practice

The lessons take place once a week and are a mixture of learning new things and then practicing them. We probably spend 5% of the time being told how to do something, 5% having a go at something (a new chord or strum) and then 80% actually playing songs that include those chords and strums. Of course, it would be ridiculous to think that we could learn to play just by coming to the weekly lessons. You have to commit the time between lessons to practice. And then practice some more.

You’re a musician now

One thing that really struck me was when the teacher said:

You’re a musician now. You’re not trying to be a musician. The moment you picked up the ukulele and started playing you became a musician. Think like one.

This is so true of learning anything. If you want to be a singer, think like a singer. If you want to be a leader, think like a leader. If you want to be a coder, think like a coder. By taking action you start to become what it is you want to be.2
Ukuele image: creative commons licensed (BY) flickr photo by kevin1024

  1. By which I mean I would occasionally strum tunelessly along to tutorial videos on YouTube. 
  2. In case anyone reading this wants to be a surgeon or an airline pilot, keep in mind that taking action can be starting the learning process. It doesn’t mean grabbing a scalpel and practicing on your friends and family, or asking if you can have a go at flying the plane next time you head off on holiday…