Creativity for Fun | Discovering the Joy of Ukulele

Most of us who learned to play an instrument when we were young remember feeling pressure. There was the pressure to practice, the pressure to play well for the teacher, the pressure to perform at recitals and concerts. Music teachers (not all of them) notoriously push students toward perfection and mastery.

Some young musicians take on the challenge and become extremely talented. Others put down their instruments and assume it’s just not for them. But what if there was no pressure?

I took piano lessons as a kid, and while I enjoyed playing and still do today, there was a lot of drudgery involved. Don’t get me wrong, I had some excellent teachers, and I had a repertoire of songs I loved to plunk out on the keys. My family probably heard Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” about a thousand times each.

However, in between those fun songs was a lot of frustration and even some potentially unhealthy competition. My parents and teacher tried to avoid this by having my little brother and I use different course books so we wouldn’t compare ourselves. But I could see my sibling flying through classical songs with ease, getting gold star sticker after sticker on page after page.

Meantime, my teacher once made me practice Bach’s “Minuet in G” for more than nine months. That feels like a huge chunk of your life when you’re only nine-years-old! It may have been because I tried to “jazz it up” and told her I thought my version sounded better. Shocked that I assumed I could create a better piece of music than a classical composer, she decided to have me play the song until I perfected it.

Needless to say, this did not help me develop an appreciation for Bach. “Minuet in G” is probably one of the simplest little pieces of classical music ever written. I felt angry at myself and ashamed for not being able to get it right. I wanted to stop practicing that damn song so badly. At one lesson, I struggled to hold back tears. My teacher noticed and decided it was finally time to move on.

My face still twitches a little when I hear that song.

Most of us won’t ever play in a prestigious symphony or become famous professional musicians. Yet, music and playing an instrument is something that can benefit all of our lives. I think the problem is that too many of us still feel like little kids taking piano lessons.

I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way.

How the ukulele entered my life

One Christmas, my wife decided to get our youngest son a “real instrument” instead of one of those kid-sized, toy guitars. She ordered a soprano ukulele from Hola Music off of Amazon for about $40.

Christmas evening, after all the gifts had been unwrapped, the kids were in bed, and my wife and I were sitting around in a messy family room falling into a food and wine coma, she asked me to get the uke set up for him. The instrument’s strings were totally loose, and I needed to tune it up. So, I turned on the little tuner that came with the ukulele and got on YouTube to figure out what the heck I was doing.

We’ve all taken a trip down YouTube rabbit holes, but this was one that — at the risk of sounding overly dramatic — would alter the course of my life. After getting the uke in tune, I couldn’t help but click on videos that promised to help me start playing. In less than an hour, I’d learned a few chords and was playing songs. I was hooked.

I’d always been a little jealous of guitar players. It looked so much cooler than playing the piano. I actually tried teaching myself guitar as a young teen, but I never got anywhere. Something about the ukulele was different. Namely, it was way easier. Maybe the four strings helped me make sense of playing chords like the left hand on a piano. Maybe it was the help I got from YouTube. Maybe it was because the uke was small and unintimidating.

But, I think it was psychological. I think it I fell head-first into playing the ukulele because that’s all i was doing — playing around — no pressure.

My son graciously agreed to share his Christmas gift with me, which basically meant it was mine now. I’d come home, stressed out from working at an ad agency, pick up the uke and learn something new. It was a great way to unwind, avoid staring at even more screens, and use a different part of my brain for a little while.

It felt great. I’d discovered a new creative outlet.

banjo uke
Pretending to be Kermit the Frog with my banjo uke

Sharing the ukulele with others

For months, the only people who knew I was playing the ukulele were my wife and kids. My mom was one of the first people to hear me play and she immediately said she wanted to learn too. The price point for this little instrument made it the perfect Mother’s Day gift. So that May, Mom was on her way.

Next month on my birthday, Mom accompanied the family on her uke as everyone sang “Happy Birthday”, and I unwrapped a banjolele (banjo uke) from my wife.

A birthday song on uke from Mom

That summer, we took a camping trip in Upper Michigan with some friends, and following a slightly inebriated fireside performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy”, I convinced some of them to get ukuleles and start learning.

The ukes came out at my extended family’s annual trip to my aunt and uncle’s cottage in Door County, too. My little sister and her husband, who plays guitar, started playing around with me. And, even though the chords are completely different, my brother-in-law was jamming out in no time.

Teaching my sister some Ingrid Michaelson on uke

A year after my wife purchased that little uke for our little kid, guess what was waiting for her under the tree that next Christmas?

She wasn’t sure about it at first. But we started spending our time together after the kids went to bed learning songs on our ukuleles together instead of binge-watching more Netflix. Before long, she was mastering tricky chords with her slander hands that my chubby sausage fingers couldn’t quite pull-off. The student, quickly became the master.

By the spring, she was even comfortable enough to let me shoot a video of her playing the so-called Prettiest Ukulele Song in the World during a day-trip to Potawatomi State Park in Sturgeon Bay.

Relieving the pressure of playing an instrument

This summer, more than 18 months after I picked up my son’s uke and more than a year after I’d given one to my mom, she confessed to me, despite her initial enthusiasm, she hadn’t played it in quite a while.

At first, she claimed that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she got depressed and stopped. But being stuck in our houses should have given us more than enough free time to focus on fun hobbies, right? So, what was really going on?

As we talked, it surfaced that the real reason she wasn’t playing anymore was frustration and the pressure she was putting on herself. My mom had taken piano lessons as a kid just like me, and as a mother, she’d been the one to make sure her kids spent 30 minutes a day practicing.

Now she was doing the same thing to herself. And it wasn’t fun. She’d made it a chore, and she put unrealistic expectations on herself. Maybe, as a recently retired teacher, she felt like she needed to assign herself homework.

I asked her why she felt the need to be such a perfectionist about it. Was she planning on becoming a professional ukulele player? Did she have a concert coming up? Was there a strict ukulele instructor waiting to belittle her for failing to master “You are My Sunshine”? NO!

She was supposed to be doing this for fun. There was no pressure. All she needed to do was appreciate the challenge. If she wasn’t enjoying the process of learning one song, she could find a different one to play. If she messed up, she could laugh and just keep going or start over and take it from the top.

I believe playing a musical instrument is part of the human experience. We should all do it — or at least try. It doesn’t have to be the ukulele. A few of the other instruments I’ve played just for fun are the harmonic, the bongo drums, and the melodica. And I still sit down at our piano regularly to play my favorite songs. In fact, now and then, I even try to play “Minuet in G.” I still remember most of it.

Don’t let fear and perfectionism keep you from experiencing one of the great joys of life. Making music makes us feels more fulfilled. So … make a joyful noise!

(FYI – there are also many other creative activities that take no skill)

The Creative Mission and ukuleles

Wouldn’t it be cool to learn ukulele together as a group? Wouldn’t it be awesome to put together a ukulele choir full of dozens of people playing and singing together?

It would be a unique spin on The Creative Mission’s community choir concept.

They’re already doing it in cities like Austin, Texas where the Austin Ukulele Society attracts dozens of members to learn and play songs like “Don’t Stop Believin'”, “Sweet Caroline,” and even “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Here they are performing “Karma Chameleon.”

That’s exactly the kind of thing we want to start with The Creative Mission! People of all ages and backgrounds gathering to make music together. Imagine how much fun everyone would have. Think of the joy this would spread — especially if we take it out and share some uke music with the world.

Are you interested in something like this? Could you step up to lead a ukulele chorus? Contact us and let’s talk.

Get started on the uke today!

Of course, you don’t have to wait to start learning ukulele and having fun making music. Just like me, you can get a decent instrument for less than $50 and learn everything you need to know to play plenty of songs just by learning a few easy chords.

Seriously! These are the chords you’d need to learn and you’d be off and running:

Here are a few of the YouTubers who helped me get started:

When you think about the ukulele, you might picture Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” or maybe the theme song to the PBS Kids show Peg + Cat (which is actually kind of tricky).

Yet, despite having just four strings and being considered a simple instrument, the ukulele can be quite versatile in the right hands. One pair of hands like that belong to Jake Shimabukuro who plays all sorts of genres on the uke.

Check out his very entertaining TED Talk below and find out how playing ukulele got him an audience with the Queen of England.

“I truly believe that if everyone played the ukulele, this world would be a better place.”
~ Jake Shimabukuro

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