Hitchhiker's guide to learning ukulele (DON'T PANIC)

pedagogy corner Jul 19, 2023

By Zsolt Schäfer

I recently re-read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and discovered a truth in there that also applies to learning ukulele as an adult.

"The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why, and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question 'How can we eat?' the second by the question 'Why do we eat?' and the third by the question 'Where shall we have lunch?'"

During my own ukulele journey (of an adult learner) I've discovered the same three phases.

Phase of Survival (or "How?")

The question most people ask early on revolves around the bare necessities that allow them to strum their way through a jam session namely, "How do I play a C chord?"

This is the phase is when a great number of ukulele players get so excited about the seemingly-endless possibilities that they want to learn every song they ever liked. Anyone going trough this is carrying around an 8cm thick folder full of printed out sheet music of their favourite songs (and chord charts to be prepared for anything), even though most of the songs never get past the "I want to learn this some day" state because our interests shift. When I revisited my own binder after 6 years I still could not throw away every piece of paper. I just don't carry it around any more.

However, this beginner phase is full of excitement and the joy of finally being able to make music, not just listen. So if you see ukulele people running around with a folder you can be almost certain that they are up to some jamming!

Phase of Inquiry (or "Why?")

This phase followsand partly overlapsthe first one. It is characterized by huge music theory nerdiness, when your best friends are Wikipedia and music theory textbooks. This phase starts when you ask the question "Why is it called a C chord?" And once you get the answer, you can easily find yourself down a rabbit hole...oh, wait, that's a different book.

In the "Why?" phase you realize that music theory actually makes sense, big revelations occur as things click and you'll probably end up learning much more than you actually apply to your playing. And if you encounter somebody in the same phase you can have hearty discussions about chord inversions, minor keys, scale modes, harmonic functions and more.

Just be considerate not to dump too much of it onto somebody with a binder full of songs.

Phase of Sophistication (or "Where?")

When you arrive at this phase you realize that all you need is your ukulele. Your knowledge is far from complete (spoiler: it never will be!) but you've learned to accept it. You only care for theory that serves your playing and you only care for songs that you like. Now that your hands and your brain are in their comfort zone, your ear will begin to take the wheel. The question you find yourself asking is, "Where can I find the prettiest C chord?"

You will try out new chord shapes, improvise melodies or just noodle around without any purpose and you might even explore other instruments because it's not just about the ukulele any more but about music - for the rest of your life.

Just don't forget to bring a towel. Maybe one with chord diagrams.

Zsolt Schäfer is an JHUI certified ukulele instructor, book author and uke club leader in Hungary and is also a member of Team Uketropolis.

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