Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Life Lessons from a Ukulele Learner




A cartoon woman in a yellow dress plays a yellow ukulele.
A Yellow Ukulele, Image by Jem Yoshioka

Over my quarter of a century playing many different instruments, I've learned a few life lessons that help me maintain my momentum as a ukulele learner.


Over the past twenty-five years, I've dabbled with the violin, harmonica, and clarinet. I've struggled with the guitar and French horn, and I've somewhat successfully pulled off the mellophone, F-alto, and cornet. Recently, I added the ukulele to this list, this symphonic menagerie. The uke certainly isn't the instrument with which I currently have the most proficiency, but even though it's the newest of my instruments, it isn't at the bottom of my list, either. I attribute this proficiency not to mere skill, knowledge of scales, lessons, or expensive gear. Rather, over my quarter of a century playing many different instruments, I've learned a few life lessons that help me maintain my momentum as a ukulele learner.


A little humility can make a big difference.

First, I've learned that a little humility can make a big difference. There's more to humility in this case than having to keep stubby fingernails and develop unsightly calluses. For example, I was mortified the first time I saw myself practicing the French horn: My eyebrows moved up and down the scale with my notes, my nostrils flared, and I suspect that at one point my eyes even crossed. I'm convinced that this one glimpse in the mirror forever stilted my ability and was the reason I sat sixth chair out of six horns for six years. I was terribly vain about the whole thing, but I've learned my lesson. When I catch myself looking a bit silly, wearing my self-crocheted ukulele strap and wincing with wrinkled nose over my bad singing, I just smile it off and persevere.


Play is what playing is all about.

More importantly, I've learned the value of play. This is not to say that I never practiced or worked on a particular piece of music or memorized fingerings and scales. It's to say that until a few years ago, I never recognized the value of just plain old play. It's great to practice, work, and memorize, but when all is said and done, I want my experience to just be fun. Incorporating whimsy, experimentation, improvisational moments, and laughter into my daily practice sessions reminds me that at its center, this is what playing is all about. It's that sense of play and playfulness that keeps me wanting to learn.


Patience is a natural part of the process.

And although it's taken me the longest to learn, I've learned that being patient with myself while making mistakes is a natural part of the process. I've learned this lesson by example from kind-hearted musicians who have an enormous capacity to encourage and inspire. Even when playing with professionals, I've been complimented on my tone, my ability to read music, or even just how I shake a plastic egg. In the studio they've patiently waited for me to tune, to empty my spit valves onto their floors, and waited for me to comfortably reach my potential at the right moment. Their kindness has helped me remember that in this, the process of learning is just as important as the product. Contrary to the popular belief that instruments should be practiced in teeny-tiny closets called "practice rooms," I've found that practicing with others has helped me learn to be kind and patient with myself.

I'm fairly certain at this point in my life that I will never be a professional ukulele player. However, I do know that no matter how proficient I do become on this instrument, the lessons about life that I've learned, and will continue to learn while playing, will be well worth the effort.  That's why I play the ukulele.

Why do you play the ukulele? Feel free to leave a comment.

Want to read more life lessons and insights?  Try

Instead of Watching Television
Project 333: Making My Own Rules
Grief and Healing: Using the Nice Dishes




Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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