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Our family adopted Nutty when I was just one year old so naturally I always considered him to be my brother through and through. The fact that Nutty was a squirrel never particularly mattered to us. He was just my little brother who happened to have a tail.
In the summers at the lake we’d all play in the water or hike along the trails chewing sunflower seeds together. In the fall, we’d all go into the woods and bury any extra nuts or snacks we had lying around just to make Nutty feel that we were as concerned about stashing resources as he was. He’d come into the house with a look of satisfaction that never failed to warm our hearts after a chilly fall afternoon of subterranean investments.
I guess I must have been about six years old the summer that Nutty first water-skied. At first we thought he’d just hopped onto the back of the ski out of curiosity but we soon realized that Nutty sincerely enjoyed being pulled behind the boat. “Hey! Isn’t that Nutty skiing?” the neighbors would exclaim as the boat swooshed along the shore. Before long, word spread that our tiniest family member did indeed water ski.
One day, a local TV news station happened to get some rather impressive footage of Nutty skiing in particularly photogenic conditions of blue skies and glassy calm water. That evening, the station ran the story of our Nutty, the water-skiing squirrel. In short time, other stations in the tri-state area began regularly reporting on Nutty’s agility on water skis, especially at times when the affiliate had run its entire news content and was in the difficult situation of having to fill three to five minutes with anything other than dead air. Those were ideal television atmospheric conditions for water skiing as performed by rodents..although that term was best avoided when around Nutty.
Attention and money flowed as people seemed to be insatiable for the novelty of our Nutty and his water-skiing talents. As for Nutty, he began to change in ways that happened slowly enough that we never fully appreciated what he was going through. His whole life began to revolve around water-skiing. His obsession at first seemed to us to be perfectly healthy. However, it became apparent that Nutty was now putting all his nuts in one hole–Nutty had become a specialist. Looking back, his pack-a-day cigarette habit should have alerted us to something lurking below the surface.
One day, in the back yard, I asked Nutty, sitting on the woodpile, if things had turned out as he had planned. Between puffs, he hoarsely and somberly stated, “ I can’t go back to just being a squirrel now even if I wanted to..” I knew exactly what he was getting at. You see, during the same period of Nutty’s ascension to water-skiing fame, I had become an ESL teacher of some repute. My life had taken a turn to specialized work as well. Rather than water-skiing, I had become accomplished and well paid as a teacher of English to second language learners. Like Nutty, I could keep accepting the lucrative payment for my performance or I could walk away and go back to a life that I no longer recognized..
Playing the ukulele is a great way to relax while learning new ways to use your brain, ears, hands, voice, and heart.
If you are reading this, then perhaps you already have an interest in learning to make music with the ukulele. Congratulations! Through your curiosity you have already begun your study of this interesting instrument. And, if you keep yourself interested in the ukulele, you WILL learn to play it. It’s really that simple. Of course playing the ukulele well requires some other skills. Those skills are what we try and learn for as long as we play the ukulele. You might say that the journey is as important as the destination. Like any other interesting skill, you are always studying and trying to learn new things. Aside from having an interest, the other skills are technical and can be learned if you have some patience.
Brain (The Mind)
Let’s start with that thing in our head called the brain. While you don’t have to be a genius to play the ukulele, your brain probably plays your ukulele more than any other part of your body. Imagination takes place in your brain, and imagination is one of your best tools for learning the ukulele or any other useful skills. If you can imagine yourself doing one of these skills well, the brain has a wonderful way of trying to make that image a reality. Some of this happens when you are sleeping, as dreaming teaches us many things. However, it is important that you take a little time while you are fully awake and imagine yourself playing the ukulele well. Having an idea and imagining how playing the ukulele looks, sounds, and feels, is a very important technique for realizing your imagined future.
Of course the brain does many other amazing things – thinking comes to mind!
In this world, there is plenty of information about the ukulele. Too little information is not a problem for most of us. The internet is a huge source of technical information about playing the ukulele and for actual recordings of beautiful ukulele music. This introduction is a resource kept simple, to get you started on your path of enjoying the ukulele. One of the peaceful and relaxing things about the ukulele is that it is easy to carry and does not need cords or electricity. While it can be exciting to play music through a sound system or to use technology like the Internet, ukulele enjoyment is found in its beautiful simplicity.
Listening well is another key approach to playing good music. First of all, accurately tuning your ukulele’s four open string notes, or pitches, from low to high, G (can be low or high), C, E, A is going to sound out good chords. A chord is like a family of notes, played together. On the ukulele, 3 different notes usually make up a chord. Basically, there are major chords, minor chords, and dominant seventh chords. Other chords can mostly be considered to be some version of these 3 basic chord qualities.
Good tuning of your instrument is a skill that you can continually improve upon. Finding the best notes to compare for a good tuning just takes time. Some, if not most, of these things naturally become known if you just pick up your ukulele and spend some time learning the map of the notes through experimenting and getting used to an ukulele. Electronic tuners are certainly an easy way to get your ukulele in tune. However, becoming familiar through listening and adjusting your uke’s tuning by ear will improve your overall musicality. Remember, whether tuning with a machine or by ear, you should always bring the string’s pitch down and then, gently, upward to the correct pitch. This tuning up into the correct note helps the ukulele better hold its proper pitch. Be sure to pluck the note as you turn the tuning peg.
Of course our hands play a big part in getting sounds from the ukulele. Just getting the instrument into your hands should naturally teach you many things about holding the ukulele. If you let the sounding of notes and chords be your guide for holding the ukulele, you are sure to find out what works best for you. Keeping your left hand fingernails short will help you in clearly fretting the instrument. (If you are left-handed and just starting to play the uke’, you should learn to play right-handed like others do. If you really feel better playing left-handed, learn to play a standard ukulele upside down; not standing on your head but sort of like how Jimi Hendrix did. ((caution: lighter fluid and ukuleles DON’T MIX!)) Seriously though, being able to pick up others’ ukuleles and play is better than being the oddball who has to play a special design ukulele. The experience of experimenting with different ways of making music with the ukulele is your best teacher. Your relationship to the ukulele is a personal one that only you can come to know closely.
If you sometimes try to match the note of your ukulele with your voice, you will bring the note relationship into your body and that can help your musicality. To sing some of the notes can lead you naturally to being able to sing in a very musical way. Your voice is the most interesting instrument you will ever use. Singing harmony melodies is an incredible experience that we can share while developing our voices.
Your heart and your guts are what are behind your expression, musical and otherwise.
(recording is of variations on Am-G7-F-E7, about 1 mb in size)