Ukulele: a port of entry to music and guitar

Recently I have been taking on students who want to study ukulele.  I noticed about nine or ten years ago that the ukulele was starting to capture the attention of many young people.  It was starting to show up in pop tunes, such as “Hey, Soul Sister” by Train and was being played by popular artists such as Jack Johnson.  Some of my students were starting to play it in their spare time, and it was not unusual, while walking in the New York City streets to see a young person with a uke on his or her back.  When I was a kid, guitar was the instrument to play; everyone knew at least a few chords and, if you were even cooler, you could play the riff for “Day Tripper”.  Ukulele was not even in our purview, except as the instrument of a different culture or being played by eccentric individual like Tiny Tim.  Why the sudden interest?

One of the attractions of the guitar is that it is a great social instrument.  My initial reason to start playing was to be able to take a more active part in the campfire hootenannies at my summer camp.  You can go to a friends house and bring your guitar and share your latest songs or discoveries on the instrument.  It was an instrument that initially was fairly easy to learn, once you get past the pain that goes with pushing down the strings.  One could play hundreds of songs with a few chords, and with a capo it was easy to play in any key.  Guitar in the 60s was the ultimate social and utilitarian instrument.

However, there were some difficulties to surmount.  First of all, as I mentioned before, the pain.  Especially when we are young the skin on the tips of our fingers is pretty tender, and holding down a steel string can be uncomfortable.  Furthermore, when we play a chord, sometimes we need to hold down three or four strings simultaneously, which requires a certain amount of hand and finger strength.  And then, there is the arch:  while playing a C chord, we have three fretting fingers, one playing a note on the 5th string, one on the 4th string and one on the 2nd string, all the while stretching across three frets! A formidable task for the beginning player, especially a seven year old with small hands.  Inevitably half of the chord gets lost to blocked notes until the player develops the agility and strength to arch the fingers correctly.  Needless to say, many give up before mastering those first four chords.

Here is where the ukulele can come in handy.  First of all the strings are made of nylon polymer, much more forgiving to the inexperienced finger.  And because of the small size of the neck, the strings lie closer to the fingerboard and are much easier to press down.  Finally, because of the smaller fret size and the fact that there are only four strings, one doesn’t experience to same difficulties with stretching and arching.  The instrument is small, so it can easily be carried on the back or put in and airplane overhead.  Finally, for about $60 one can get a pretty good instrument that will serve your purposes and sound fine.  Even the barre chord, that frustrating bug bear of the aspiring guitarist, can be accomplished with not too much difficulty.

Some of my students who have started on uke have eventually become frustrated by the lack of range and have gone on to study guitar with me.  They have made a pretty easy transition, because to ukulele has taught them the basics of fretting and strumming and has give them some hand strength.  For my younger, smaller students, it has been a welcome alternative to the half size or three quarter size guitar.  Likewise, elderly students, who may be experiencing stiffness or even arthritis in their hands, would find it a more comfortable way of making music.  Finally, I have students who have stayed with ukulele into their teen years and gone beyond strumming chords to playing melodies and even chord melodies.  After all, Jake Shimabukuro has showed us melodic possibilities on the ukulele that we never would have imagined.

So whether it is an entry level introduction to fretted instruments and musical involvement or an end in itself, the ukulele has turned out to be an accessible and fun method of music making, and one which I hope will be around for many years to come.  Perhaps someday we’ll live in a world where there will be a ukulele in every household!


The Four-Chord Song

One of my teenage students once introduced me to a YouTube video about the “four-chord song”.  This was performed by a comedy-pop group called the “Axis of Awesome”, and it’s premise was the fact that you only need four chords to write a hit song. In fact, it is a requisite of a hit song that it only have four chords.  This witty performance proceeds to give us a multitude of examples of songs that use the same chord progression.

As funny as it seems, this premise has much truth to it, and, in fact, has a much deeper significance in the state of our contemporary song. For many years, having focused my teaching around the particular musical interests of my young students, I have had the opportunity to get know contemporary pop musical culture quite well.  There seemed to be a period where almost every song that students were asking me to teach them had the same three or four chord progression through the whole piece.  When you are trying to expose your students to many chords and harmonic situations, this represents quite a dearth of harmonic material to give them.  In order to actually teach some harmony I would often turn to the rich catalog of Beatles’ songs.

Why this lack of harmonic ideas or imagination?  This is especially strange when one realizes that it wasn’t so long ago that Lennon and McCartney were writing brilliant songs with varying degrees of harmonic complexity, some very simple like “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” to the very complex harmonies of “Martha My Dear”.  I started to get insight into this through my teaching, specifically with two students.

Both were singer/songwriting girls.  Both of these girls were talented singers with a love for writing lyrics and songs.  Their songs were good.  However, they both complained of the same problem: no matter how hard they tried, how different the lyrics and melodies of the songs were, they found themselves writing the same chord progressions.

The bottom line is that we are products of our environments. If you listen to music with one chord, chances are you will write one-chord music.  If you listen to more complex harmonies, those harmonies will become part of your musical make-up, and your ear will eventually hear many alternatives for a given situation.  But if almost all the songs you are listening to have the same or similar progressions and vary only in lyrics or arrangement, when you put pen to paper chances are you will be trapped by your ear and habits into similar progressions.  This represents a kind of harmonic ‘comfort zone’, and unless we look elsewhere and challenge ourselves, we will stay in our comfort zones.

I mentioned before the significance that this phenomenon has for the state of pop music.  We live in an era where good musicianship is not a necessity in the world of popular music.  If a singer has a nice voice and stage presence and looks great he or she can have a decent career as a pop singer, provided the right song comes along. Conformity is a predominant aspect of this music and its creators, much as it was in the music of the ’50s. As it was in the music of the ’50s, the harmonic language is extremely limited.

The fact is, there is not a large value put on musical innovation at the present moment.  The tastes of the public are often confined to what they hear on the radio or television.  The decision about what makes it to the radio or television are made by musical corporate men or women whose decisions are driven by what has worked before.  Instead of looking forward for artists who might be visionary, the music business looks back to those artists who have been financially successful and tries to recreate that financial success through imitation. The result is a popular form of music that seems stuck in its old habits.

Why I Love Music

Ever since the age of ten I wanted to be a musician.  I was aware at an early age of my musical abilities: a good ear and sense of rhythm.  But it wasn’t until I started playing guitar that I developed the passion for music.

My first experiences with the guitar were at summer camp.  Up to then I had been playing violin and then cello, which mainly involved private lessons and daily practice, a pretty solitary pursuit.  Guitar, on the other hand, was about playing with other people: at first, around the campfire with the counselors and other campers.  I loved the group sing and the fact that guitar provided the background chords and rhythms.  Guitar was also about learning from others, first the counselor who taught me my first chords, and then from my peers, with whom I traded cool musical moves.  Not being an athlete as a child, guitar became my way to bond with others and a good source of my own confidence.

As far as I can remember, I have had an emotional response to music, whether it be marching to a Sousa march in 1st grade or listening to one of my two favorite pieces of classical music as a young child.  My active involvement with music, learning how to play, fed that emotional response, and I would feel excited when I was able to master the musical challenges that were presented to me.   Throughout my life this has not changed.  The emotional power of music still affects me strongly, and the satisfaction derived from learning and mastering continues to feed me.

I started out as a folkie, but once I heard Kenny Burrell playing jazz guitar I was hooked.  I loved the bluesy sound of his instrument, and his rhythms were seductive to me.  Through the process of imitation, learning from records, I began to learn how to play jazz.  Upon first hearing a great solo, I was struck by the magic of the sound and a desire to learn how he did that.  My vinyl records received a pretty good beating from putting the needle down and picking it up over and over in order to learn a lick or a solo, but it was through this method of learning from imitation that this magical world started opening up to me.

Just as guitar helped me connect to myself, I made a deeper connection when I started to write music.  This world can only accommodate so many bebop guitarists.  However, it was through the process of composition that I got in touch with a deeper musical self.  I started to realize that the process of writing music was really a search for whatever particular musical phrase or gesture I needed to say at that moment.  There were the times when I would write somecthing that sounded pretty good, but didn’t really hold up when I came back to it later.  But when I actually wrote what I was hearing deep inside there was a sense of inevitability; that this is the way it has to be.  Musical composition became my way of connecting with my center.

Finally, as I started to get good and began playing with others, I discovered the excitement and fun of making music with friends and colleagues.  In my years of touring, doing concerts and recordings, I loved more than anything else those exceptional musical experiences where the band played as a unit, where you felt swept up by the rhythm and sound, where making music was like breathing, where it seemed inevitable that beautiful sounds were happening and where we musicians were simply the conduit for something bigger than us.  It is as close to rapture that I can imagine.  This is why I love music.

Why I Teach

I have been teaching guitar since college, but it is only in the last 15 years or so that I have made a commitment as a career. After so many years feeling fortunate to experience the pleasures of discovering, learning and creating music I felt it was time to give something back.

I deeply believe that the pursuit of music is a discipline unlike any other. To master an instrument demands a unique combination of dextral, aural and perceptual skills, the acquiring of which offers the musician a multitude of pleasures: the satisfaction of accomplishment, the pleasure of making beautiful sounds and the excitement of sharing a musical experience with other musicians are just a few of the benefits of musical expression. I have cherished my musical experiences and at a certain point in my life I felt that I wanted to help others have similar experiences.

My goal has not been to create young budding virtuosos who would go on to lucrative careers in the music field. My experience in the field of music and arts in general has taught me that a successful career is only available to a select few. However, I feel strongly that musical pursuit has more to offer than just musical success. The beginning musician does not pursue an instrument with the long-range goal of becoming a virtuoso. He or she persists because of the pleasures of learning to make beautiful sounds: so many wonderful composers and song writers have given us the means to experience beautiful melodies, lush harmonies and seductive rhythms through recreating and interpreting the sounds that they have invented.

Or it could be about discovering the sounds within ourselves.  Improvisation has always been a major focus of my musical life.  But this is a skill that must be developed and honed.  Many of us are not aware that it is possible to make up music on the spur of the moment.  It has been a great source of pleasure for me to introduce a young guitarist to improvisation. The majority of my students that experience improv for the first time say, “That was fun!”

In addition to all that, teaching is a way for me to continue to learn and study while helping others do the same. I have learned more about guitar technique in these years of teaching than in my previous years of performing and recording through the process of seeing others’ struggles to master this instrument and through a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn’t work.

Yet, there is one big benefit that I didn’t foresee, a benefit which has been a great source of satisfaction to me. That is the people! Getting to know my students through teaching them and seeing them grow as musicians has been wonderful. Each student of music brings a different set of abilities to the table, in the same way that each student has their own particular challenges. I take pride in the ability to observe and understand my students, so that I can give them the tools they need to progress and get better at playing. I often try to impress on my students the fact that musical ability is complicated. There is no such thing as being “tone deaf” or having “no sense of rhythm”. These things are skills that can be acquired.  One of my students couldn’t clap a steady 4/4 when he first came to me, and was convinced that he had no rhythm. We made that part of his goal and in the end he was playing James Brown guitar parts.

All the various aspects of my musical career has presented their own challenges to me, whether it be learning to play a difficult piece of music or to manage a rapid tempo in a solo, or arising to the task of setting a particularly beautiful lyric to an appropriately beautiful melody.  Likewise, each student presents me with a challenge, and as the student progresses those challenges change. It is this changeable nature of teaching that keeps me interested and committed.