Total Pageviews

Friday, May 13, 2016

Ukulele Day 10 - Stand By Me

I've been working on this one for a couple of days, sort of.

I took Thursday off, didn't play at all. I was out of the house most of the day, and got home around 11 after a fun evening with Rick. It was supposed to be my life group, but everyone else dropped out. Happens sometimes.

On Wednesday I watched a video tutorial for how to play Stand By Me, by Cynthia Lin. (I really hope you watch mine first, because if you watch hers first you will have great difficulty sitting through mine.) The lesson actually centered around the strum pattern, which I had not been thinking of much. My strumming so far has been whatever I felt like. I started with my thumb, then found that the uke is traditionally strummed with the forefinger. So I'm working on this pattern. It's not that hard by itself, but combined with fingering in the left hand and trying to sing in a different rhythm,

I have dealt with minor variations on this problem playing other instruments, but I was never good enough at the piano to spend serious time on it. It's like drawing a square in the air with your right hand while drawing a triangle with your left: either one is easy on its own, but combining them is way more difficult than it sounds.

So I started working on this strum pattern, and added another chord to my repertoire. I now have six chords under my belt: C, F, G, G7, Am and the oddball Am6 (the one I used in "This Land is Your Land"). I'm not even sure where I got that Am6. Had to look it up on an extensive chord chart. So I'm working on solidifying my grasp of them by playing songs that use them. I struggle with remembering labels, but I am trying to keep the labels on these rather than just remembering how they sound or feel. So another goal to work on.

I hate to sound like an old guy, but people today have it pretty good. If I had been learning this 15 years ago, I would have had to seek out the expertise of people who happened to be nearby. Granted, I got started with some help from Conor: he sketched out four basic chords (C, F, Am and G), and taught me how to read chord charts, but then he went to his next class. After just a few minutes I did some Googling, to clarify some matters, rather than just experimenting or waiting until I could ask him some questions the next day. I don't have to buy an ukulele practice book, because I can find lots of instructions on the internet. And I can see and hear so many examples of how to play that I could easily be overwhelmed by all the options.

The toughest problem you face in learning a new skill is not a lack of teaching, but an excess of it. I suspect this is true for almost any skill out there, from language, to math, to playing the ukulele. Make the most of this information age! Go learn something!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ukulele Day 8 - Amazing Grace - This Land is Your Land

So here it is, a full week into the ukulele experience. I have practiced at least 15 minutes each day, but I'm sure it's closer to 30 some days. I basically stop when my fingers hurt enough

I'm actually writing this on Day 8, but the video below is from last night. I surprised Horyon by playing Amazing Grace in front of her family. I wrote about it in the Day 6 post, which I actually wrote mostly on Day 7. Dang. This is confusing.

So the next video is the one I actually recorded today, Day 8.

Here's the main idea, if you aren't keen to watch the video: today I added a new chord, the D7, and it led to a new song.

Of course, the devil is in the details. I have attempted the D major before, but I have to line up three of my fingers in a row across one fret, and I just can't do it yet without some serious contortions or reversing my grip on the ukulele. But the D7 only involves pressing two strings, so it's easily playable. I was strumming it, and switching back to the old familiar chords, when a song came to mind: This Land is Your Land. It's a bit of a high register for me to sing, but not terribly so.

And I get it! This is why some people just get to be good at playing the ukulele, or guitar, or piano! Because when you can make the songs in your head appear out there in the real world, it's awesome! I knew that before, but I didn't really get it until now.

My first instrument was the recorder, like every other elementary school student. And like every other elementary school student, I learned that the recorder was a foolish instrument, not worthy of respect, and a magnet for mockery. My next instrument, taken up around 5th grade, was the trumpet. I didn't really get it then. Band was just something to do, something our parents made us do. Kind of fun in a noisy, hanging out with other kids way. By jr. high (middle school) band was a habit, and I was starting to see some fun in it, in the cooperation of a huge room full of people who have very little else in common. But there were some real jerks in there, and in all likelihood I was one of them. The band teacher, Mr. Roller, was a good guy, and in hindsight amazingly patient. But he communicated his love of the art form in ways too subtle for me to pick up on at the time.

Or maybe he just hated his job.

Sometime around jr. high I started taking piano lessons. Maybe high school. Four years of piano lessons, and I stopped. I went to Anastasia Medill at Tune Shop in downtown Leavenworth. (I was surprised to find that they have a pretty decent website!) She was a very patient woman, dealing with my pitiful practice habits. I can still play, and the theory I learned has helped in all of my musical endeavors.

In my senior year of high school Leavenworth High School got a new band director, John Lefler. During the first week of school he moved me from trumpet to euphonium. He needed more low brass, and could tell by looking at me that I would do better with a bigger mouthpiece. And I did. Enjoyed it, more and more as I got older. Asked for and received a Wilson euphonium for a graduation present. It's still in my parents' basement, as it is one large piece of luggage to bring to Korea.

In university I took lessons from Scott Watson, and learned to play the trombone from Max Bonecutter (the coolest music teacher name I've ever heard) the year Scott went on sabbatical. I had a lot of fun playing in the Tuba Euphonium Ensemble, as well as concert band. I tried marching band my first year, but it just didn't work for me. Probably because of all the time you had to spend pretending to be interested in football games.

One summer during university I took an internship working at seven different summer Church camps. I wanted to bring an instrument, so I took my Yamaha alto recorder. I played that recorder every day, whenever I had time, and got to be very good at it. It was still considered a very uncool instrument, but I was good enough to play along with campfire songs and at talent shows. I may have changed a few minds regarding the recorder, and I will always be fond of it. I also acquired a bamboo flute and a tin whistle around that time, and enjoyed playing them as well. Though the flute uses a completely different ambrature (mouth shape), the fingering was mostly the same, so I don't count them as separate instruments.

I bought an autoharp before my wedding, and accompanied myself on a song a wrote for Horyon. It was way, way, way too long, but by the time I realized that I was stuck in the middle with no idea how to get out. Fortunately it got cut a lot in our wedding video. I don't usually count the autoharp as one of my instruments because all you have to do is press a key and strum: instant chords. Sounds pretty, but not very versatile. And that was in early 2001. Since then I had not picked up a new instrument until last week.

So this is my sixth instrument, and my first real stringed instrument. (I know, pianos have strings, but you play them by striking them. Easier to just put them in the keyboard category so synthesizers and pipe organs have some company.) I already feel like the guitar is looming somewhere in my future if I can't get really comfortable with the uke. Time will tell.

It is Day 9 now, 40 minutes until Day 10, so I need to get my practicing done. I hope you are enjoying this journey, because I sure am!

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Ukulele Day 6 and Parent's Day

No video. I just don't have time to mess with it.

Today was Parent's Day here in Korea. We had my parents-in-law over for dinner, as well as my brother-in-law, his wife, and their son, Joon-young.

Of course, it is Mother's Day back in the States. We called my parents this morning before church, which was a minor miracle considering our usual Sunday morning rush and coming at the end of a four-day-weekend. But we pulled it off, and I cooked banana-blackberry pancakes. Mmm.

My wife did an amazing job. She stayed up late last night prepping the kalbi-cheem and jellyfish salad, then after church today she went to Apple Tree School and cleaned classrooms with other parents to prepare for the return to school. When she came home, she finished preparing dinner for six adults and three children. Her mother and sister-in-law also brought food, but she totally rocked the dinner. Good job, Honey.

Of course, part of Parent's Day involves kids doing little performances for their parents. Quinten and Joon-young did a little song-and-dance, Maxine played the violin, and I played a song on the ukulele for the first time in front of people other than my wife and kids. I played and sang "Amazing Grace," impressing everyone, even though my chord changes were slower than I would have liked. I wish that I had thought to have someone record it, but I don't feel too bad about it. Maybe I'll record it for Day 7.

It was a good day.

Ukulele Day 5, and my kids - Amazing Grace

Yes, I did not update the past two days. I also did not record myself. Is a daily recording really necessary? Here's today's recording:

No, I will not apologize, nor offer excuses.

Instead, I offer these insights into my process of learning the ukulele:

I am working on a few short term goals at this point. The first goal is to be able to play the C, G and F chords cleanly. The second is to be able to switch between them quickly. A slightly longer term goal is to be able to switch between them cleanly without looking at what I am doing.

A medium term goal is to accompany myself while singing in church. I'm not sure how long I need for this, but I plan to volunteer as soon as I feel comfortable. 

My long term goal is to be comfortable enough to improvise in front of an audience.

My super-long term goal is to charm the birds out of the trees and make people fall over dead from listening to how awesome I am.

Enough of goals, on to what I've learned: I already knew this, but I am gaining a practical knowledge of just how many songs one can play using just these three chords. And I plan to exercise that knowledge on my path to expertise.

I want to build up calluses on my finger tips as well, so that I can endure playing more than 20 or 30 minutes at a time. I'm not sure whether or not it is a goal by itself, but I'm sure it's coming about with the daily practice. For now, my left index finger constantly feels like I have just attempted to catch a frisbee only to have it bounce off of my finger tip. My middle and ring fingers feel like that happened yesterday, and my pinky finger is wondering how long before the pain arrives.

I have found (after a conversation with a friend) that I don't usually need to press as hard as I do, so I can let up on my index finger. But sometimes I do need to press hard, so I need to figure out how to conserve my fingertips until I've got so much fingertip stamina that I go around pressing all the buttons for everyone. One thing that helps with this is practicing at night. I find that if I am strumming softly, I also tend to press the strings with my left hand more softly. If only I can get my left hand to relax the same way when I am strumming loudly. 

I have found that watching YouTube videos of people doing awesome things on an ukulele is not a good idea. It's like sitting down with a pocket knife and a stick on a moonlit night to whittle a moon lander. I need to take in enough to keep the dream alive, but not so much that I get discouraged.

I have found that ukulele is not properly pronounced "you-kuh-lay-lee", but rather "oo-koo-lay-lay." Pronouncing it this way makes me feel like I have joined the in crowd. It also encourages me that at least now I can spell it correctly.

It is fun to do something new and challenging. I mean, yeah, raising kids is challenging, no doubt. My friend Rick and I were having lunch with Quinten a few weeks ago. Quinten got up and announced that he was going to the bathroom. My heart swelled with pride as I told Rick, "It is such a relief that he can finally go to the bathroom by himself. It makes me believe that being a full-time parent won't last forever." 
Front teeth are optional.
Then Quinten's voice soared from the bathroom, "I'm poo-ping!" Rick laughed as I stood up to go wipe clean the anus of another human being. 

As you can see from his picture, Quinten is in the process of losing his baby teeth. Last week the dentist offered to take out those two front ones, as they were a bit wiggly. Quinten's reaction, as I understood it, was "Yank 'em, baby!" That same day he and Maxine started their week-long spring break. I swear that Quinten has been at least 50% naughtier since loosing these teeth. I have a few hypotheses to explain this behavior:

1) The front teeth contain some sort of gland that regulates behavior. Without these glands, kids just go nuts.
2) The weight loss in his head has freed up some extra energy, which he is using to cause trouble.
3) It is only May, but he is already excited for Christmas. (Yeah, that's a link to the Spike Jones song.)
4) He is used to a routine. An extremely subtle part of the routine is how the inside of his mouth feels to his tongue. Whenever his tongue feels that huge gap, it tells his subconscious that something important is missing, and maybe mommy and daddy will disappear forever if he doesn't do something to anchor us to the here and now. So he does.
5) He is completely aware that his cuteness factor has leapt to heights it has not seen since he was an infant, and could get away with vomiting all over everyone and pooping in his pants because he was so cute. He knows that at this moment in his life, he can get away with anything. ANYTHING. So he does.

Maxine, on the other hand, has recently lost the canine teeth that flank the two top front teeth. The sight of her reminds me that I once had a camp counselor who called me "Chipmonk." But the glasses are the big game changer.
See what I mean?
Suddenly she went from being my little girl to looking like a high school student! More and more often I feel that I am catching glimpses of the beautiful woman that she will one day become. Beautiful and funny. She is still willing to hold my hand in public, and I treasure every moment that happens, because I am worried that it won't last much longer. It is no longer acceptable sometimes when her friends are around, though I never push it. 

I have been telling myself that many girls reach the point at which they scream, "I hate you," at their parents (I'm betting on her mother being the main recipient, because it's just like that), preparing my heart to continue loving her no matter what. So far so good. 

So Maxine and Quinten are my main audience. I want them to not only see me do something not that well, but not be ashamed to do it in front of others. Right now they have no grasp of the internet, and no idea how permanent and public this is, but someday they will. And in the mean time, I will make my efforts here more visible and public as I go.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Ukulele Day 2 - Because He Lives

So today I recorded a song, "Because He Lives." I had run through it a few times, and decided to keep my first take. If you just can't stand the sound of someone practicing, I suggest you skip this one.

This goes against most of my instincts. I'm listening to the audio as I write this, and wincing mightily. Like most, if not all people, I don't like to put work out there that is not the best I can do. And my instincts tell me that I can do better than this.

But I can't. The me of right now just can't do any better. I expect the me of tomorrow to be better. If I were to spend another 30 minutes working on it, the me of right now might actually be a tiny bit better, but it wouldn't be the me of this very moment.

And my purpose is to show how I am progressing. If I'm already awesome, how can I get better? So you get it as is: struggling to find my singing pitch, hair down, mosquito net snag and all.

This is fun!

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Ukulele Day 1

Recently I decided that I wanted my kids to see me learn something new. I wanted them to see me struggle with something, be not very good at it, then get better as I spent time working on it. As this idea was brewing, the ukulele somehow got added to the mix. My birthday was coming, and so I started asking my family to get me an ukulele for my birthday present. My wife has no time for shopping, and my kids are, frankly speaking, incompetent. Love 'em to death, can't count on them to buy a musical instrument worth more than two dollars.

So as my birthday approached, loomed, arrived and passed, I altered my approach, and simply asked for permission to buy an ukulele for myself. Permission was granted, and I started looking around and talking with people who know of these things. One of my coworkers, Conor Doran, came through for me. He was (and still is) in the market to buy himself a semi-acoustic ukulele, and knows where all the best shops are. So on May 3rd, 2016 he walked into the office with one for me!

It's an M2 concert-sized ukulele, and I find it to be not only adorable, but to have a most lovely tone. Well, lovely when played properly anyway. I spent 20 or 30 minutes with a chord chart written out by Conor (and modified after a Google search). Then I recorded this little video.

I am no longer sure if the ukulele is the ideal demonstration of learning a new skill for my children. It seems to me that I picked it up ridiculously quickly. I mean, sure, my finger tips hurt like heck, and it takes ages to change between chords, and I can't quite manage to pin the right strings down properly without blocking wrong strings. But I actually manage to get some pretty sounds out of this thing on the first day of playing!

I realized that part of what we are seeing here is hundreds, if not thousands of hours of musical practice on other instruments and with my voice. The lessons I've learned in various choirs and bands, playing trumpet, piano, euphonium, trombone and recorder have carried through. My body is used to the idea that little coordinated muscle movements can lead to sounds that are either pleasant or unpleasant to hear.

I'm going to stick with this, because I have had a repressed desire to learn the guitar ever since I was a teenager. My brother Chris learned, and got to be pretty good. My excuse for not learning was an operation on my left wrist*, which limited my flexibility. When I tried holding a guitar, it was extremely uncomfortable, and I was very much in to being comfortable as a teenager. 

The ukulele is a little uncomfortable for me to hold, but it is closer to my body than the neck of a guitar, and it is as light as a feather (from a large, wooden bird). My 20 and 30 minute bouts of playing have not caused any discomfort in my wrist, but my fingertips are taking a beating.

So the video above was made in the afternoon. That evening I had a long walk home after dinner. My walk was along Kwanganlie Beach, with a nice wide boardwalk. As I was walking I decided to practice the ukulele as I went. It is so light that it doesn't even need a strap! I could only remember the fingering for the C and G chords, so that's what I practiced: just getting them to sound clean and clear, and switching between them.

I'm excited to have an instrument which I can use to accompany myself!

*Osteonecrosis of the lunate, you know what I'm talkin' about?

A Brief Introduction

Roblog is my writing lab. It is my goal to not let seven days pass without a new post. I welcome your criticism, as I cannot improve on my own.

Here is a link to my cung post, which remains the only word which I have ever invented, and which has not, as far as I know, caught on. Yet.