A problem that many new players struggle with is the challenge of playing their ʻukulele and singing at the same time. Dividing your brain in half like this at first seems an insurmountable problem! When you focus on getting the ʻukulele part right, the singing usually goes off track or you forget the words. When you focus on singing correctly, your strumming often stutters and/or you forget the chords.
There is no silver bullet to this problem, but with practice it’s possible to sing and play at the same time like a pro. Here is my main tip on how to do so.
If I had to sum up this lesson in one sentence I would say:
Practice both singing and playing separately until you can execute each in your sleep and then – only then – put them together.
But what fun is that? We all know we need to practice. Here are the next steps and a more detailed look at the process you should take.
Practicing To Forget
Usually the main problem with trying to sing and play together at the same time is that you have to think about it. It’s the conscious thinking that causes problems. Your brain can’t compute the two trains of thought at the same time and you end up jerking back and forth between them.
What you want to do instead is be able to operate on autopilot. That is, don’t think about what you’re doing. It sounds counterintuitive, but at the end of the day it’s one of the few things that actually works.
Especially in an exercise like this which requires the complete competence of each part, it’s important to choose a song that is easy and achievable at first. It’s usually a good idea to start with an easy song just to learn the skill. The skill is priority here (NOT the song) and will lead you to be able to play any songs you wish in the future. But if you start with a hard song you’re only going to be frustrated and not able to play each part well enough to succeed. So start with something simple, please.
You can find some good easy tunes for ʻukulele here.
So how do you engage autopilot when playing ʻukulele? The simple answer is: practice. But to be more detailed, you need to drill your ʻukulele strumming and/or picking part until it’s easy to play. So learn your chords, get them memorized, and strum them over and over and over.
This includes getting the timing of the chords correct. You don’t want to practice one way and then find out that you can’t properly fit the words around the chords and rhythm. So on your chord sheet (or in your head) make notes on how long each chord lasts for: one bar, two bars, two beats, etc… This way you’ll be able to strum the exact structure of the song and the words will drop in perfectly once it’s time to add them.
When you can play the chords easily, it’s time to work on putting them on autopilot. To do this you must force your brain to forget. The obvious way to do this is to take your mind away from the task at hand (playing the chords) and focus on something else – multitasking! Many of us spend time sitting and watching TV. Why not play your ʻukulele while trying to follow the plot of your favorite TV show? Or play your ʻukulele while you say the alphabet or the times tables? Anything to distract yourself from your ʻukulele!
The singing side of things, while a challenge to many people on their best day, is more straightforward then the playing. Since your voice is a natural part of your being, it doesn’t take as much practice to use it.
The main thing you want to work on is learning the lyrics to your song. This is the tripping point for most people. Learn the chorus and then one verse at a time. You can try alternating lines to help you memorize the rhymes and order.
Once you know the words, sing them a lot. In the car, in the bathroom, before you go to bed, at work, etc. The main thing here is repetition. Like I said, you want to be able to do this in your sleep.
Putting It Together
By now you should have two separate parts that are completely practiced and memorized and, hopefully, ready for prime time.
Let me say it again: practiced. And memorized.
Without memorizing the material you are adding an additional step of brain-processing to the task: reading the chords or lyrics off the page, interpreting them, then strumming or singing the right notes. If you memorize the song you are going straight from your brain to the instrument – a much faster turnaround time.
Begin by strumming the intro, or, if the song starts with singing, strum a couple chords to get your ear in the right place, then sing. One part will end up “leading.” This part will take precedence in your mind which means that the other part must operate on its own subconsciously. Usually the leading part is the one that you’re weakest at. Not ideal, but hopefully with minimal thought you can keep this part on track enough to stay linked up with the other.
Do it! There’s really not much more to say. As long as your preparation was sufficient you should be able to get through the song, no problem. It might help to put a metronome going to help give you a beat to follow.
Playing and singing together is a skill. Like any skill, your practice accumulates. So the next time you begin on a new song, you won’t have to work nearly as hard. The more songs you sing and play, the easier it gets. But to begin, you must practice and memorize the song. If you haven’t done this before, just take your time and work through the parts of the song as manageable chunks until you’re comfortable.