In my 30 years of playing music, there’s one trait that’s helped me practice ukulele and improve the most as a musician.
It’s a trait I wish I had when I first started because it would have prevented me from giving up when things felt difficult. This trait has helped me so much so that I…
Lose track of the time when I practice.
Have more fun when I practice.
And, have more patience for myself when I can’t perform.
Yesterday, I was working on practicing a particularly difficult bluegrass solo on guitar by the great flatpicker Tony Rice (I’m a lifelong ukulele player but also play guitar and piano!). The solo is a short, lightning fast 8-bar passage in the song Nine Pound Hammer, and for me, it’s just… hard.
Every time I step on the gas it falls apart.
I practiced this solo for nearly two hours yesterday without taking a break, and you know what?
I had the time of my life.
In fact, I’ve been working on this solo for almost a year and I get excited every time I sit down.
And it got me thinking, why is this so much fun for me to keep failing?
For me, the answer is simple.
How to Lose Track of Time When You Practice Ukulele
If there’s one thing you need to make practice fun and the time fly by it’s…
Compare two ukulele players who sit down to practice…
The first is Bob, and when he goes to practice, he has the goal of learning to play the Disney song Lava for his granddaughter in the span of an hour on a Sunday afternoon. Soon into the practice session he’s running into trouble changing between chords without hesitating or pausing and getting the notes to ring out. It’s frustrating, so he starts saying to himself…
“Your fingers are too big.”
“You aren’t ready for this.”
“You’ll never be able to learn this song.”
I think we’ve all been there. Some practice sessions are like this… defeating.
But there is another option…
Alice, on the other hand, sits down to learn a solo arpeggio piece with a lot of changes up and down the fretboard and she gets to a section of the song where the chord position is really difficult and isn’t able to get all the notes to ring out. But she says to herself…
“Okay, how can I get curious about this?”
So instead of making statements, she starts asking what I like to call the Curious Question, which starts with the words:
“What if I…”
So she starts asking…
“What if I… tried this finger instead?”
“What if I… held the ukulele like this?”
“What if I… tried to position in this way?”
This powerful question “what if I?” shifts you from frustration to a place of creativity.
If you want to be a more creative musician, it starts with your curiosity!
One Powerful Exercise to Develop Curiosity
Now, don’t be mistaken…
This is not “just think positive”… thinking positive is really difficult when we feel frustrated about the lack of progress we are facing in a given practice session.
In fact, you can feel all that frustration about wanting to be better, farther along, etc., but where a lot of people make the mistake is stopping the session right there.
We need something to give us a push which is why we need a powerful question.
Try this exercise next time you find yourself really frustrated in a practice session and want to quit, or even better, start your practice session this way!
I call it the What If I Exercise and here’s a way you can implement it:
Step #1: Pick a chord any chord
For example, you might pick a G major chord, played in a standard way like this.
Once you have that chord…
Step #2: Ask yourself the question
Now, let’s say you’re having difficulties playing or switching to and from this chord.
So ask yourself the question, “What if I… play this chord using a different finger position?”
After some thought, maybe you arrive on this alternative finger position where you place the middle finger on the 2nd fret of the C-string, little finger on the 3rd fret of the E-string, ring finger on the 2nd fret of the bottom A-string, letting the top g-string ring open.
This is tapping into your curiosity and creativity!
Step #3: Check in and ask yourself the question again
Sometimes the first idea isn’t the one that works, so ask the question again…
“What if I… play this chord using a different finger position?”
So you think some more, and you come up with a whole new position!
This time you press or barre the index finger on the bottom three strings at the 2nd fret and place the middle finger on the 3rd fret of the E-string, letting the top g-string ring open.
This is how you get curious when you practice.
The same idea can be applied to any challenge that comes up in practice, like with the fretting hand, picking hand, or strumming hand.
When you do this exercise, 3 big benefits will emerge as you practice…
- You’ll lose track of the time and have more fun. This means you end up putting in more reps which compounds into more developed skills. You’re excited about what you might discover next and you let any frustration you feel fuel you a step farther.
- You’ll have more patience. Practice is about finding your limit but having a consistent attitude of curiosity allows you to see improvement over time… like, you know, when you come back the next day and things just feel a little easier than they did the day before.
- You’ll discover solutions to play that make you become a better ukulele player. By leveraging curiosity, you spur on your creativity to find a solution that works for you. When you’re the one who finds the solution, that skill becomes embedded in who you are as a musician.
Frustration and failure in practice is normal, so use your curiosity to fuel you to keep going!
Tell me in a comment below:
How do you work through failure and frustration in your own practice?
I read every response!
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Thanks, Brett, for the insight as it will come in handy as I try to again master all the chords I need to learn if I am going to obtain the playing skill I want.
I’m glad I could share, Jennie! Chords are often one of the biggest things that require curiosity to get the sound you want. Keep at it!
I love this strategy – if you want to call it that. I have been playing for two years and am finally comfortable letting my curiosity take over and play chords in different ways than the standard “beginner’s form”. It really works and is quite fun!
Hey Deb! I love that. Yes, I agree. I think it’s more of a mindset than a strategy that can help when you practice!
Thanks Brett gives a whole different perspective to practice, more like discovery than practice, letting your mind think about different approaches leads to discovery.
That’s a great way to put it, Nigel! Thanks for your comment.
I’m still working on the Christmas Finger picked songs. Coming up with different finger patterns for the chords has really helped me have fun. Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favorite pieces. Thanks to the “what If….” it’s coming along. My biggest problem was instilling the piece into my muscle memory. But playing at night just before bed helped a great deal.
Awesome work, Ronda. Playing and practicing in the evening before bed is also one of my favorite times. I think it’s because I’ve learned that sometimes the best thing to do is going to sleep and trying again the next day! Often I’m surprised that a tricky passage is coming a little easier the next day. Thanks for sharing!
Thank you very much Brett,
Very interesting re curiosity! Very practical advice for learning anything…then the brain starts searching for solutions automatically it seems…
Otherwise it can become a chore!
I learnt the little finger on the E string version and find it very useful for some chord changes, eg G to G7.
But I found it did take time to strengthen the pinkie…it does pay off though!
Looking forward to trying the barred version!
I sometimes vary which finger I put down first when practicing chord changes.
Thank you…I plan to get more curious!
Well said, Mary! I love to hear you are trying different finger positions and working on strengthening the little finger. That opens up a lot of options! Thanks for your comment.
Where do I find easy, beginner “picking” tricks? I am a members student of yours. Do you have any picking lessons for beginners?
Hey Mary Lou! I recommend getting on the Fingerpicking Tricks waiting list. I’ll be opening the course again later this year! In the meantime, I have some fun free fingerpicking lessons here on the blog.
I used to be frustrated that some ukulele songbooks would include suggested left-hand fingerings, and some wouldn’t. Eventually, I realized that having to experiment with alternate fingerings actually does make one a better player. So, good advice Brett.
You got it, Rob. Being able to see and identify different fingering options and choosing the best one for the song is a really helpful skill!
Eureka. G to G7 has been my nemesis. I can’t believe how easy it is now. Never knew you could deviate from illustrated
finger positions. Duh. Thank you so much.
Glad to help, Patsy! And don’t worry… it trips a lot of people up at first. It’s definitely ok to deviate and find what works best in the context of a chord progression!
Thanks for the encouraging blog! I initially had a frustrating time learning some pieces because I have quite a few problems with hand pain and middle and ring fingers locking up, depending on the chord. That really interferes with my ability to play chords the “traditional ways.” Early on I realized I had to finger the G chord in the 243 manner or I couldn’t play it without a several second delay while I waited for my middle finger to unlock to get into the “traditional” position. After switching to the 243 position, and then the 121, I also decided to try the 231 positioning. It’s great to have so many ways to play a single chord so you can change them up depending on the chord you’ll be changing to next. Really improved the speed on chord changes, keeps my fingers from locking and hurting, and makes play ukulele all around so much more fun! Keep up the wonderful videos and blogs, Brett, you’re such a good encourager and great teacher!
Way to go, Cinde! You bring up a great point that another reason why it’s important to get curious and try different ways is because it can allow you to play with less pain and more pleasure. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks for the tip, Brett. I will look at it that way when the ol’ fingers don’t want to cooperate by moving too slow or not strong enough. That is one of the great things about you as a teacher. You’re more like a coach that cares about his team of ukulele players. You’re always sharing and caring about us, and I appreciate that.
You bet, Lynne! Thanks for your comment!
Hi Brett, thanks for this. I’m past the halfway point on your Strumming Tricks course and the way you break down the lessons and learning new songs/techniques does help to make the learning process more enjoyable. Each new song i learn is positive reinforcement that I will be able to learn the next one.
I keep some of the more difficult ones on my practice list as I know it will just take time to improve. The strumming pattern for Buffalo Gals seemed like having a pat my head and rub my stomach moment so I closed my eyes to practise it and worked it out in a couple of days.
I’ve always wanted to play an instrument and so glad I found the ukulele and your lessons.
That’s amazing, Tina! I definitely borrow the “close your eyes” trick every now and then. Sometimes it really does help! I’m glad to hear you were persistent with that song and keep returning back to it. It’s normal to have to come back to songs, even ones you’ve learned to play successfully before. Thanks for your comment!
Brett, i have found the same thing by sleeping on it, get up in the morning and i find i can play the thing i have been struggling with, the big problem is, it does not always work that way, so its back to the start, but if you keep at it, it will come and you will amaze yourselves, i have to stop playing and think to myselfe you clever old thing, being not musicle what so ever, but mastering so meny things on that uke
Hah, that’s true! Sometimes it’s just as hard or harder the next day. But you bring up a good point that repeating this process over time is where we can look back and say, “Wow! I actually did it.” Keep going!
Thanks for this – it made me think of the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s work about getting into ‘flow’ states… when you lost track of time, forget to think about anything else naciste you are so absorbed in a task. For me there is something about ‘tinkering’ in that mindset. Your description of tinkering about with a tricky chord change or phrase really appealed and I will certainly remind myself of this if I find myself tempted to put my Uke down through frustration at any point. 🙂
Hey James! I’m not familiar with their work, but I think you are definitely right that the mindset of curiosity could be a way to provide an environment for that flow state to happen more easily. I love that idea! Thanks for sharing.
I admit my response to frustration in practicing the uke is more like “Bob” in your example than anything more positive… I’ll struggle with it for a good while, but if it gets too frustrating, I just put the instrument away, usually for a few weeks. So I’ve likely wasted my money purchasing your well done and excellent teaching videos… The problem is with me, not your excellently assembled instructions. The uke’s been in its’ bag for a couple of months now, so maybe it is time to give it another try and make an effort to use this technique. Thanks.
Hey Jon, that happens! Sometimes a slower approach is needed. To go back to the example of me learning “Nine Pound Hammer” this past week, sometimes my only goal for a session is to work on one or two measures, making little adjustments and responding to what I’m hearing or what I’m failing at being able to do in that given moment. For me, even if I hit a wall, it’s a good practice session because I know having experienced this many times, when I come back to it, I have a greater chance than not of having it feel a tiny amount easier. All to say, progress can vary, so my encouragement would be to see if there is a way to adjust your process to add more curiosity and fun into it! Sometimes a slightly different approach is needed. If there’s anything I can do to help as you work through the course, be sure to post a comment or send me an email!
Hi Brett, I needed that kick in the pants to practice the ukulele finger picking. I think I went at it too fast. I enjoyed it and spent too much time but then I had to get back to chores on the farm like reparing the riding mower etc. I like your suggestion to figure out alternative to finger a cord. I also try to strum my plectrum 4string banjo, the fingering gets confusing. My wife and I practice every friday with the band. It is a lot of fun. I have to share this with you during my practice with your lessons on finger picking you uped the count from 1, 2, 3, 4. to 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & that gave 8 beats to a measure. Five plus years later I understood why Walt, a great player in the band used to say we missed 8 beats to a count. Playing the banjo too slow. A light went off in my head. I am learning to read music, I lean on your tab information. Love it. I did say that the stroke reduced me to a beginer level. more to learn again.
Making music with others is the best, Colin. I’m glad you had a light bulb moment! Subdividing the beat into eighth notes or sixteenth notes definitely makes notes go by faster. Keep at it and keep staying curious!
Lovely mindset Brett. Really appreciate all you do for the ukulele world. Uke is such a happy instrument and you do a great job spreading the joy. Thanks for all your tips and tricks.
Brett I really enjoy these mini lessons they help me to try something new . As for my frustrations I reward myself at least once a week by experimenting new or difficult chords quietly in front of the TV while watching with my family it doesn’t disturb them I get some extra practice and time with my family Keep up the great teaching Bonna
Loved your creative take on practicing with curiosity. It really helped me rethink on how and why I practice the ukulele and guitar. I’m currently working on Europa by Santana, a piece written for the ukulele and there is a chord change that I find most difficult and makes me so frustrated that sometimes I just give up on it. So I rethought how I was approaching the chord change and how I could approach learning it differently; two things came to mind, slow everything way down and only concentrate on that chord change and nothing else. I call it dedicated repetition with the thought “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. And I began to be patient with and during the process. After all I just play for my own pleasure. I love the ukulele. It’s a joyful instrument. That’s why I started playing it. So what’s the hurry. And add that to your suggestion to bring creativity into your practice I feel even better and more motivated to start practicing with it. Thanks Brett!!
That makes me really happy to hear, Noel! I love the question, how do you eat an elephant, hah! If we want to play the difficult tunes, we have to learn to love the process, because as you said, it’s one bite at a time. Glad you’re finding your own enjoyment in your practice!