Some thoughts on learning to play the uke from the internet by Phil Doleman

First of all, I’ll come clean; people pay me for ukulele lessons, and they buy my book. I have a vested interest in persuading people that it is best to seek out tuition! Of course it is perfectly possible to learn how to play the uke for nothing, using nothing but the internet to guide you, but it is a minefield. Here are a few thoughts I’ve had when browsing the internet recently.

 If you choose to learn from the internet, you need to be very discerning. YouTube, Facebook, etc. has no quality control. There are indeed wonderful free lessons available, but I frequently watch or read ‘lessons’ which are disseminating bad advice or which are completely incorrect. Of course, if you are a beginner, how can you tell what is good and what is bad? The easiest way is to do your research, ask around of ukulele forums, seek out players that you know have a reputation. Another way, which is a lot more long-winded, is to compare lessons. Don’t just take the first search result as gospel, see what others have to say on the subject. The third way is to get a teacher and ask them!

 In the last week, I’ve seen people ask for advice on Facebook groups and be told completely the wrong answer, and have that poor information backed up by people saying things like, “do it your own way, there’s no wrong or right! It’s the ukulele, just play!”. Now I don’t mind how people play the ukulele or what they want out of it, but as far as music is concerned (and the music made on a uke follows the same rules as music made on any instrument) there is absolutely right and wrong! I’ve watched people told to miss out a hard chord, or substitute it with one that is in no way a suitable substitute. I’ve looked at sheets downloaded from the internet to find that they are completely wrong. The problem is not only when people take this at face value, it becomes and even bigger problem when, as the internet and social media encourages, that misinformation is then shared. The odd thing is that this doesn’t seem to be the case with other instruments as it is with the ukulele. As a player of the banjo, I rarely see banjo players telling other would-be banjo players to skip the hard bits, in fact it’s more often the opposite; practise and you’ll get it!

 There’s something else at work here, too, though. Let’s take a little trip back in time to when I was a teenager learning to play guitar. If I wanted to play a song I had on record (vinyl!) I could either work it out myself, by ear, or go to the music shop and buy the score. The score was usually in the ‘piano/vocal/guitar’ style, which meant is was essentially a piano arrangement of the song with chord boxes over it. At best this served as a rough guide, as it didn’t show the guitarist how the guitar player on the record actually played the song, so even with the score (if indeed there was one available), there was still a certain amount of working out by ear, lifting the needle of the record over and over again to try and catch that tricky bit. It took time, it was laborious, and there was no way to check what you were doing as there was no internet. We frequently got it wrong, but then would play it in front of another player and they might correct us, or we might see the performer play it on video and see their hand go to a different place to us on the neck. This sounds awful compared to the world of instant gratification we see daily online, but it wasn’t. This was learning; this process was invaluable. As we worked out songs, we trained our ears, we learned new fingerboard patterns, and, yes, we learned theory as we started to see that certain chord patterns occurred over and over again. We were even training ourselves for the time when we would get up and play with others by playing along to the record. Recently, someone asked about coming to an intermediate workshop of mine. They told me that they were worried it would be too easy as they had been playing for a month. A month! People are constantly told that the uke is easy, and of course physically it is much, much easier to get a pleasing tone out of a uke on day one that a violin, trumpet, or flute, but once you get playing, well music is music! Yes, a three chord song on a uke is easy enough to learn, but so is a 3 chord song on the piano! What isn’t so easy is to understand what you are playing and why, to go beyond reading the little pictures of chords, to jam with others, to compose songs, to really play music.

 So what can a teacher offer that the internet can’t? Firstly, a teacher will find out where you are and where you want to be and plan a route to get you there. In doing this, they’ll also know what kind of things you need to know that you don’t know you need to know (I’m starting to sound like Donald Rumsfeld)! They can repeat, rephrase and re-explain anything as many times as you want, and can present you with learning materials that are suitable for you and correct (unlike so much of the material available for free online). On top of a that, a teacher offers a two-way learning environment, meaning that while you play, the teacher will listen and observe, and be able to correct poor technique or spot those tiny mistakes you didn’t notice. A teacher will stop you cherry picking the easy stuff, but will introduce the tougher aspects gradually at an achievable rate and will be able to adjust that difficulty to reflect how easy or hard the student finds it. Your teacher will also be there to answer any questions between lessons. Finally, having regular lessons gives you a deadline (the next lesson), and having a deadline is a great motivator for practice. Yes, you also have to be discerning when finding a teacher. Look for recommendations, look for reputation, and yes look online for free content that the teacher provides as well. Remember that anyone can call themselves a teacher (I witnessed someone go from non-player wanting lessons, to a ‘teacher’ with a professional-looking website in a matter of weeks).

 I understand that lessons cost money, and that one lesson can cost more than a beginner uke (the disadvantage of ukes being relatively cheap; the same price for cello lessons doesn’t seem like much of an outlay when you’ve spent thousands on a cello!) but it’s worth mentioning that, although we love our instruments, they are just boxes with strings on. The real value in an instrument is being able to play it well, and the real value in being able to play is boundless; a new and rewarding social life, the pleasure of being able to entertain yourself and others, the ability to express yourself in a new way, the ability to play with others, the appreciation of your audience, maybe even paid gigs! I know people with 20 or more ukes who tell me they don’t want to spend money on lessons. That’s like owning a Ferrari but begrudging paying for a driving instructor!

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11 Responses to Some thoughts on learning to play the uke from the internet by Phil Doleman

  1. Alan Parker Thornton 2nd October 2017 at 7:46 am #

    Grand stuff here, Phil!
    I think that learning to play a song by listening to recordings back in those days, was really useful later on when learning to play along with other folks. Like any skill, practice really helps. I’ll bet those banjo instructors would agree.

    Here’s a quick example of a potentially bad instruction video I saw part of just yesterday.
    “If you’ll stick around for the end of this video, I’ll show you a single chord shape that will allow you to play any chord at all just by moving it up and down the neck.”

    The helpful guidance of an instructor who listens to and corrects the student’s playing is really wonderful, too. Imagine taking instruction from someone employing the Socratic method in prerecorded video format!

    Thanks for this excellent, thoughtful article.

    • nick cody 2nd October 2017 at 8:03 am #

      I think this is a useful discussion. The uke can be seen as a gimmick and a lot of what appears online does little to change this perception.

  2. Gerald Griggs 2nd October 2017 at 7:53 am #

    Thanks Phil

    I share a lot of these views, some of which were in my blog too. An interesting observation to make when leading a club night and trying to drop in some technical advice to progress the group are the phrases, “I don’t come to be taught” or “I don’t come to be told how to get better.” Participation is still king in many uke environments and it is proving a hard one to shake. It was one of the main catalysts for forming a band.

    • Phil Doleman 2nd October 2017 at 11:56 am #

      Gerald, I’ve come across that, too, yet when I ask those same people about why they came to the uke in the first place, I get answers like ‘to keep my brain active’! The uke club as a social club us a fine thing, but I cannot comprehend someone who is willing to learn how to do something up to a point and then does not wish to progress further!

      • nick cody 2nd October 2017 at 12:11 pm #

        I find it mystifying as well, but I find it equally mystifying that folks pay to go to festivals and instead of watching seasoned artists they prefer to strum out in a courtyard! (: I guess we all have different ideas, but the uke has so much great potential for creative expression and exploration

  3. nick cody 2nd October 2017 at 8:06 am #

    Although there is talk about ‘the uke community” that of course is respectfully a bit of a daft generalization. There are lots of different views and a huge difference in quality. OUS is about creating new music and good education about the instrument is essential for anyone wanting to develop skills.

  4. Lorraine Bow 2nd October 2017 at 11:02 am #

    I agree!

  5. Harry Parker 2nd October 2017 at 12:05 pm #

    Thanks for this Phil and to back up just one point you make: for all songbooks and tabs and cheat-sheets that are around, the best feeling I got in 2 years learning (so far) was when I spent time and worked out for my self, Mark Knopfler’s ‘Sultan’s Of Swing’ and ‘Juliet’, complete with some of the solos to where I can play along with the track. That process massively improved my strumming, rhythm and understanding of chord progression. Finding a good teacher as well has made a world of difference. The feeling of getting something down that was so hard is like nothing else.

  6. Jon Rissik 2nd October 2017 at 1:25 pm #

    Very interesting Phil, thank you. I learned more from a few hours with your last book than any number of days spent trawling the internet for great instructional videos!

    I really like the line about people spending money collecting uke’s rather than investing in how to play them properly. How true that is. The ukulele certainly has a unique learning curve. There are very few instruments that you can sit a novice down at for an hour and have them playing a Beatles song at the end of the session! However the gulf between that and true understanding is vast.

  7. Verity B 2nd October 2017 at 1:52 pm #

    Great stuff… And alongside this, is that when you start to push your personal boundaries, you can go back to that 3 chord song and play it better, play it smarter, play it with more musicality, and play it easier. The thing I love about ignorance is that it’s so curable!

  8. Dave Howard 3rd October 2017 at 8:29 am #

    Thank you for this Phil.
    You make so many great points, not least Accessibility vs Dumbing-Down; if I see another chord chart that labels a chord without a D in it as a “D7” I’m going to explode.

    I’m a a teacher with 40 years of guitar, keyboard playing and music production behind me, and I’m still no virtuoso.
    I didn’t dare call myself a musician for the first 20 of those (even though I was being paid to compose and produce), and I only started instrumental teaching 5 years ago.

    On the flip side I’m also a community musician – “Everyone Making Music” is my vision, and the fact that music making can nurture and support diverse communities is a powerful thing for me. Getting together a couple of times a month to play C and F can be worthwhile for some.

    For those who want more, you’re so right; the range of choices is daunting. I have a question though: The internet can give access to learning for people that are both time and cash poor. Your point about guidance from a teacher who can see what a student is doing, and steer their learning – in a way that suits their own learning objectives and style – is extremely important, and I think my students value that, but isn’t the lack of that in viewing an online video similar to the same lack of 2 way interaction with a book? A YouTube video may not be able to see where a student can improve, but neither can a book.

    I think that the 2 way interaction is the most valuable learning element, but for those who choose book or video based learning the next most important are structure and consistency – learning through a narrative, along with a knowledge of the most common problems that learners face, so that they can be pre-empted. I’m putting together some online resources – we’ll see how that goes and how well I achieve that!

    I’m sharing your post Phil. Thank you once again.

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