Learning to play the ukelele. Theory, Practice and Rock and Roll in learning.

Yesterday, i bought a ukelele. My logic behind this was clear; i can play the guitar to a tolerable level. It has taken me years. The banjo i’ve had for six months and can get a few songs out of. It’s smaller than the guitar and seems to have been quicker to learn. The ukelele is, frankly, tiny, so, by my new theory of the relationship between size and ease, i should have this mastered within a week or so.

My method for learning the uke is simple. I’m going to take it on holiday with me next week and, basically, annoy everyone else in the ski chalet by strumming it all evening whilst dreaming of hulas. For me, practice will be the key.

You see, from my previous experiences, i’ve not just taken away a handful of Beatles tunes and the ability to fumble ‘duelling banjos’, no, i’ve taken away an understanding of the core theory of playing a stringed instrument. With this core understanding in place, i could probably pick up any stringed instrument and, at a push, get a chord or two out of it. I understand the difference between playing chords and finger picking, and i can even translate patterns from one instrument to another.

Don’t get me wrong, i am a terrible musician, but i do, at least understand the theory. If i practiced more, i would probably be ok. In five years time.

My friend Catherine is, by contrast, the kind of musician who could probably wring a tune out of an armchair. She understands the theory of music and also plays a great deal. She is highly practiced. More than that, she has internalised many of the things that for me are still conscious activities (such as knowing which end of the thing to strum and which end to push on to make the chords).

Theory is a wonderful thing, but i’ll never play like Hendrix without practice.

Within learning, both e-learning and trainer led pieces, we tend to work hard to get the right balance between theory and practice. I find that there are two camps here. On the one hand, the academic trainers, who tend to base their work on theory and research. Evidence based training. People tend to like procuring research based approaches, after all, you can’t be criticised for going with this.

On the other hand, many trainers would position themselves as ‘practitioners’, their expertise based in long standing experience in delivery, but not necessarily creating original approaches or research. They will know the usual academic theories, and be able to implement them, but they tend to base their work on what they have done before, on the fact that they’ve done it for 25 years, on experience.

The two camps are not mutually exclusive, although there is some conflict between them. To the academics, the practitioners are just ‘winging it’. To the practitioners, the academics are just sat there with a load of research papers and their noses stuck in a book, but they lack the real experience on the ground. They haven’t ‘done it’ in the same way.

So what does this have to do with my ukelele?

Take Slash, redoubtable top hatted former G’n’R statesman of drink and drug fuelled excess. Not a man, i suspect, to whom theory came top of the list. He definitely strikes me a more the sort of person to take a ukelele on a ski trip. You could say that he and i have a lot in common. Well, maybe not that much in common, because i only own a trilby, but in terms of our approach to practical ukelele playing.

Take Nigel Kennedy, redoubtable scarf wearing former child prodigy and Aston Villa supporter. Notoriously not a man to avoid practice before performance (he refuses to play in the classical London scene as the orchestras can’t accommodate the three to four rehearsals he insists on to achieve ‘perfection’).

Both great musicians, both having followed a different path (although the raid by police on Kennedy’s after concert party, where he was suspected of smoking cannabis was possibly excessive, i suspect it fell short of Slash’s efforts).

So, both approaches work well in the extreme. Lots of theory, or just diving on in.

Clearly different learning styles suit different temperaments, and maybe there is nothing more to different training styles than different preferences, different approaches. Clearly Slash is able to play without having had any training in the theory, by simply finding things out for himself, by copying, by experimenting, by persevering. I’ve spoken about this previously in the ‘Drawing 60 Faces’ experiment (www.drawing60faces.wordpress.com) where we’ve looked at Alfred Wallace, the ‘naive’ seascape painter who created his own style, not by rejecting theory, but simply by never learning perspective, scale and so on.

So maybe i’ll learn to play in a week by sitting in a hotel room and practicing, or maybe i’ll buy a book on it, browse the YouTube lessons and copy some of these styles. Whichever way i learn, i doubt i’ll end the week in an excess of rock and roll, not least because i suspect it’s jolly difficult to smash a TV with a ukelele.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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