Learning to play an instrument as an adult shouldn’t be the same as when you were a kid.
If you learned music as a kid, there was probably a big focus on traditional music education. You know what I’m talking about… scales, classical music, rote memorization, theory, ticking metronomes, rulers smacking your knuckles if you mess up, and all that fun stuff!
And a big reason for the “traditional” approach is, when you’re a kid, time is on your side… you have time to follow through the “twelve grades of playing piano” over the next 12 years.
But as an adult, you don’t want to spend 12 years… you want to play music as soon as possible.
Of course I’d be lying to you if I told you that you don’t need to practice.
You need to practice.
But what you practice is SUPER important.
For most adults, the starting goal is to be able to take your favorite song, look up the chords, and play it!
Note: This is a very reasonable and attainable goal for new players who have just started playing the ukulele.
To do this, here are the most important skills you need to develop in your practice and nothing else.
1. It’s All About the Chords Starting Out
Take 5-10 minutes every day just practicing chords.
Build your vocabulary of the most common ukulele chords found in songs.
At first, your fingers won’t know where to go or what to do! It will feel awkward. The fingertips will feel sore. And it will require mental effort because your brain is doing something completely brand spankin’ new. Give yourself a high five for stepping outside your comfort zone!
Then, write out 3 to 4 of those chords you’ve learned and practice switching between those chords in a repeating sequence, like…
C -> Am -> F -> G7
And although it’s tempting to ignore the challenging chords, take a couple intentional minutes each practice session to focus on the more difficult chords like barre chords to build finger strength… it goes a long, long way!
What I would NOT focus on yet is memorization… that will come through repetition, much like how you can probably tie your shoes or chew gum and walk down the sidewalk without any conscious thought. It’s normal right now if you have to have the diagrams in front of you. Trust the process!
2. You Have to Build Your Strumming “Vocabulary” Too
Take another 5-10 minutes every day to just practice a single strumming pattern.
In the beginning, just learning a couple patterns will do the trick!
If you need some ideas on beginner-friendly strums, then, I recommend starting with this lesson on 5 Effective Strumming Patterns For Beginners I made awhile ago.
A super important strum pattern to practice
The big goal here is to intentionally practice various strum patterns with different note lengths and to count out loud.
The reason you count out loud is because it BUILDS UP your internal tempo clock.
A lot of people wonder how people just “feel” the rhythm and this is how… by practicing patterns and building your Strumming Vocabulary!
Building the muscle memory for strumming is extremely important, where you don’t have to think much about what you’re doing, and the only way to get to that point is by repeatedly focusing on practicing on one pattern, then two, then three, and so on.
What I would NOT focus on here is being as complex or “fancy” as possible. That will come. Instead, focus in your practice on being as steady as possible.
3. I Wish More Beginners Would Focus On This Underrated Part of Practice
So here’s a fun one that has nothing to do with playing your instrument but will improve your ukulele playing ten fold!
If you’re just starting out playing ukulele, I want you to take 5-10 minutes a day and listen to one of your favorite songs.
And really listen to it… this isn’t time for listening while you do something else like chores around the house! Sit, listen, and do nothing else.
I want you to listen to the song 3 times, and each time through focus on one of the following:
- First time, tap or clap along consistently to the beat (bonus points if you can count along to the beat in four, three, or six)
- Second time, snap your fingers whenever you hear a chord change
- Third and final time, write out the feeling for the song, like happy vs. sad (there’s no right answer on this one)
“But I don’t have a musical ear, Brett! I can’t do this!”
I know, I know, but how do you get a musical ear? By practicing your listening!
You might listen to a song 3x through and not be able to detect any of these things yet and that is ok! I still want you to set a time to just listen to the music and do nothing else.
The big reason I’m including this tip is because so many songs we want to play on our ukuleles are played by looking up a lyric chord chart (like typing in “[song name] chords” on Google), and unfortunately, lyric chord charts don’t have specific information about the strumming pattern you should use, which means you have to rely on the Strumming Vocabulary you’ve developed in the last step to deduce and figure out the best strumming pattern for a song.
How These Things Come Together to Play Songs
The goal in practicing the above is to build the critical skills to successfully strum actual songs.
In order to strum a song, first, you have to know the chords of that song.
Then, you have to identify a strum pattern that will work with that song based on that song’s count you’ve identified in your listening.
And third, you have to be able to change the chords of that song while keeping the strumming going.
Only when you’ve done the above can you start to even think about singing out as you play. Singing and playing at the same time is quite literally like playing two instruments at once, so if it doesn’t come easy at first, don’t beat yourself up! The way you improve that is by focusing on the above. If your chords and strumming fall apart when you start singing, then, that means you have to go back a step and continue to practice.
A good example of how this works in practice is how I introduce the play-along for Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on ukulele using beginner chords and a beginner strumming pattern to eventually sing the song.
Learning to play a musical instrument isn’t without its challenges but focusing on these things will help you the most when you’re first starting out!
And if you want to be able to have the skills to be able to learn the chords and find the right strumming pattern for any song, then, join me in the Strumming Tricks online video lesson course where I give you a step-by-step plan to go from complete beginner to proficient strummer on ukulele.