Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My Ukulele: A Love Story

I've mentioned the ukulele here and there in posts over the past year, but I don't think I've ever actually devoted a post to the topic. So here it is:

My family is full of musicians: both my parents play the piano, my dad professionally since his retirement, and my mom has sung in high-level choirs; my brother plays a bunch of instruments and sang professionally as a kid; my spouse was a music major in college and has a closet full of various instruments from recorder to viola da gamba. I'm the non-musician in both my adult family and my family of origin: I love to sing, and sing a lot, but I don't read music and I've never really mastered an instrument.

That's not to say that I've never tried, albeit halfheartedly. As a kid I played piano for a few years, but dropped it when the theory got too hard (which was very early). I played viola for a year or two in elementary school (we got to pick our instruments, and I picked viola because the name of the instrument sounded pretty and romantic) but never practiced. As a teenager, I tried to learn guitar, briefly, but the metal strings hurt my fingers and my hands were too small. When I first got together with the Renaissance Woman, back in the mid 1990's, I was inspired to teach myself recorder with her help and encouragement; I learned some notes and some tunes and then plateaued because there wasn't much I could do with it, and stopped playing. What I really wanted to do, after all, was sing and play, and you can't sing and play the recorder at the same time.

So, for a long time, that was that. I sang songs at library story times, and I sang to the Mermaid Girl at bedtime, and I sang for fun by myself and with friends, and I just figured I was the sort of person who was not going to play an instrument, either because I was too lazy to learn or because there was no instrument that was quite right for me.

Then, a little over a year ago, I went to a library storytime workshop. The format was very simple: each of us was to bring two songs or rhymes. We sat in a circle, and went around the room, each in turn teaching our songs and rhymes to all the other participants. About halfway through the workshop, a librarian stood up with a tiny little guitar-like instrument which was, she explained briefly, her ukulele. She taught us her two songs, accompanying herself on the ukulele, and sat down, and we moved on to the next presenter.

So, that was it. But it was...I don't know how to put this without being cliched and corny. It was like a lightning bolt had hit right in front of me! It was like a spiritual experience! It was like the proverbial light bulb went off! I stared and stared at that little ukulele and knew I had finally, after 42 years, found my instrument.

Well, not that particular one; that one was the other librarian's, and I resisted the urge to run across the room and wrest it out of her hands. But, you know.

So I went home and told RW that I had found my instrument and that it was the ukulele and that if, you know, anyone was trying to figure out what to give me for Chanukah, a ukulele would not go amiss. And, lo and behold, a ukulele was what I got. (Oh-- I did write about this part, I guess.)

So off I set to learn how to play it. I found a ukulele book in the library, and renewed it several times and then just let it go overdue because I needed the chord chart so that I could play songs I liked in Rise Up Singing with ukulele chords. I learned three chords, then four and five and six. I learned how to play "Clementine" and "When the Saints Go Marching In" which are very easy and have very few chords, and then "Angel from Montgomery" and "Desperado," which are more fun and sound more impressive and have more than three chords but are miraculously not actually that hard.

Then I really needed to return the ukulele book, so I turned to the Internet to print out a chord chart. And that was when I discovered that, once again, I had been an unwitting pawn of the zeitgeist. Because! Ukuleles are everywhere! Especially on the Internets! While I'd been blissfully bonding at home with my new little orange ukulele, believing that it was pure providential luck that I'd finally found my instrument, thousands and thousands of other people were simultaneously-- or actually a little ahead of me-- discovering that the ukulele was also THEIR instrument, and were busily posting Youtube videos of themselves in their room playing ukulele. There are online ukulele stores, and online video ukulele reviews (so you can see and hear what various models are like before ordering them online), and online video ukulele tutorials, and magazine articles heralding all the above and talking like the ukulele was the biggest thing to hit since grunge.

Just like when I'd suddenly inexplicably gotten the urge to buy a brown zip-up hoodie, I had once again stumbled blindly into trendiness. Dammit.

But by then, it was too late. I was bonded to my ukulele, and I was practicing, and I was getting better. I was even learning a little music theory-- first, I just played the chords the way the chord chart said. Then, RW taught me about the 1-4-5 chord progression and how you could apply it all up and down the scale. Then, this summer, I wanted to learn "Uncle John's Band" but the version I found was full of hard B chords (I hate B chords; they are devilish hard) and also the wrong key for me to sing, and I realized that I could transpose it-- if I changed the B's to G's, I could change the A's to F's, and etc. etc. And it worked!

I spent a lot of the summer playing, on our porch when we were home and at various campgrounds and in the passenger seat of the van when we were not. I learned more chords, and chord changes that seemed way too hard at the beginning of the summer were somehow not so hard by the end. When we met up with our friends on the Washington coast I got to play with other people, and that was fun and I didn't totally suck and drag them down.

By the time summer ended, I figured I was finally good enough to go out and play among strangers. So I started going to the monthly ukulele circle in the city. At first it was overwhelming: there were 40 or 50 people there, most of them better than me and with better, more expensive, better tuned ukuleles. For the first half of the meeting everyone played together out of a songbook, and even though I knew way more than three chords, I didn't know nearly enough to play along with most of the songs.

But everyone there was friendly and warm and encouraging, and told me to just play and not worry about getting it right, so I've kept going. Playing with the group has gotten me to finally tackle the B chord family, plus it is good for my soul. One thing about not reading music and not playing an instrument is that music for me has been mostly a solitary, or at most fleetingly social, experience. This is about the least original observation in the universe (aside from the one about time flying and babies getting older) but there really is something powerful about singing and playing music together with a group of people. The group meets on a weekday evening and every time I have to drag myself out the door rather than staying home and hanging out with MG and RW. And every time I am glad I went and feel lifted up and happy.

So, that is the story of a girl and her uke. I'm still not very good. But I can accompany myself on a bunch of my favorite songs, and I keep learning more. Even though I love my little orange ukulele, I can hear now that it's sort of a beginner one and I'm thinking about buying myself another one that has a richer tone and stays in tune better. When I start my new schedule in January, I might take some group lessons that someone from the ukulele circle runs. And these days, when I am feeling sad or low or frustrated or like the rain it raineth every day and it is dark all the time, I try to remember that the ukulele works better than Tetris or even the Internet for reminding me that there are good things and maybe even joy in the universe.

And if it's all trendy and whatnot, too-- oh, well; nothing's perfect.


Blogger Anna said...

What a great post! I sing and used to play the flute pretty well, but the flute has been dormant for years and almost the only singing I get to do is to the boy. How wonderful that you found your instrument, and play it with such natural joy. Well done! You made me smile with this one. :)

7:02 AM  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

I laughed and laughed at your throwaway line about the brown hoodie. So THAT'S why I want one.

Also, nodding in solidarity about guitar and the small hands. That was my excuse, too. I have a lovely classical guitar that MB bought me years ago, but I haven't touched it since the kids were born. I should -- it made me happy, even when all I could do was pick out a single note at a time.

Last but not least, I bet it would be easy for you to learn to read music. I mean, you've always been a reader, and it's just a slightly different way of presenting information visually in order to deliver it to your brain. Nu?

8:28 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

I too could never do well with guitar because of my short fingers, even when I got a small-sized guitar.

Whenever you talk about your ukulele, I remember when I was a kid and my 6'2" native Hawaiian uncle with the big afro would play his and sing goofy songs to entertain us all. It makes me giggle every time.

8:38 AM  
Blogger Arwen said...

I have never heard you be quite so openly joyful as when you talk about the uke, and this makes me very happy.

3:39 PM  
Blogger Tall Kate said...

This post made me smile and smile! Of course I've seen your references to your ukulele, but I love knowing how it all started.

3:13 PM  
Blogger Pamelamama said...

yes! yes! yes! yes!!

10:04 PM  
Anonymous cheesefairy said...

Wow! I love this story and I love this post. Also laughed about the brown zip up hoodie.

I heard a piece on the CBC a couple of months ago about the ukulele resurgence. From what all the people said, and like you said, it's a very accessible joy. Sometimes trends are trends for a good reason.

7:37 AM  

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