Practicing ‘Ukulele: 8 Ways to Supercharge Your Sessions

Learning how to learn is very important. If you haven’t done something new in a long time it’s possible to go about practicing the new skill completely wrong. Do this and you will, obviously, struggle to get where you want to go. Even if you do most things right in the practice department, there’s always room for improvement and opportunities to make your time more efficient.

What follow are some tips regarding ‘ukulele practice that I’ve collected over my years in the woodshed.

Consistency:

Practice your ‘ukulele playing in as consistent a manner as you can. 15 minutes a day is much better than 4 hours on Saturday. It allows you to build upon what you learned in your previous session. Otherwise, you’ll end up relearning everything that forgot over the work week.

Brain Power:

Learn when you are fresh. Your brain retains things better if you are not tired. I like to go to bed early and wake up with the sun, giving me an extra hour of productive time that I otherwise would have spent zoning out the night before.

Be sure to drink plenty of water. Make sure you’re getting your eight glasses daily or your brain will be starved for fuel. (They say your brain is already drying out by the time you feel thirsty.)

Slow Down and Don’t Practice Mistakes:

Give yourself the room to play it right the first time. Anytime you get sloppy you build bad habits.

The key to never making a mistake is going slowly. Slowly. Get out your metronome and set it very slow. Then play the piece to the click. Hopefully it’s slow enough that you feel border and stifled. Good! Focus on playing everything perfectly while you have the chance to look ahead and take your time getting to notes.

If you can’t play your uke at a slow tempo, you might as well not play the song at all. Going slowly should be easier than the normal tempo once you figure out how to do it. By skipping this step you are simply muddling through the song and covering up bad playing with speed.

Once you’ve played it perfectly slow, you can speed up by a few BPM each time around until you are back at the performance tempo.

Repetition:

Repeat yourself and play whatever you are working on over and over (as long as you aren’t practicing mistakes!). The best way you can get something in your head is to play it again and again. The goal is to get to the point that you don’t have to think about what you are doing. It should just happen by itself.

I call this “autopilot.” It’s a little freaky when you play a whole song at a gig and then realize you were watching the crowd instead of thinking about where to move your finger. That’s when you really know a piece well.

Don’t Watch Your Fingers:

Many people have to stare at their fingers to play well. This is a severe limitation and should be avoided by practicing without any visual input. If you’re playing a song in a coffee shop and someone drops something, your reaction is to look up to see if there is a threat. Is that going to make you stop playing? The answer should be “no.”

One way would to practice this be to play your ‘ukulele in the dark (really dark) – it forces you to feel and hear the notes and not see them. Another one I’ve heard is to play lying down. This makes it difficult to lift your head and look at the notes. (I shouldn’t have to say that you must maintain proper technique and positioning for this to be worthwhile – don’t turn your ‘ukulele up toward you!)

Warm Up:

Warm up before practicing. That way you will already be on the top of your game when you begin you practice session.

Stretching your fingers is a good place to start. After that, maybe run some scales or chord changes to get your fingers going. Here are some ‘ukulele warmups I’ve put together for you.

Use Your Ears:

Transcribe songs to train your ears. Being able to know what’s going on in the music without a chord sheet is very powerful. By practicing along with the radio or iTunes you can work on hearing chord changes, keys, and melody.

Start easy and if you want, write out the song as you go. The more you do this, the better you will get. If you need some ideas on how to start, look at: How to Figure Out Songs by Ear on ‘Ukulele.

What to Spend Time Working On:

It’s temping to pick up your uke and noodle out a song you know. But let’s be honest: this isn’t practicing, this is playing. Practice is when you work intently on a new skill, movement, or song. Working on fresh material is a million times more effective at pushing you to new heights than playing what you already know.

Here are some examples:

  • Use a higher inversion of a chord. C is never going to change once you know how to play it. Add a new shape to your repertoire and use that instead.
  • Pick with a different finger. Mastering a new motor skill is only going to come by doing it a lot. If you know the notes with your left hand, make the right hand work harder.
  • Learn a new song with chords you already know. If you know the strumming and chords to “I’m Yours,” find a new song that uses the same shapes. The new timing and progressions will make you work.

The bottom line is just like exercise: “No pain, no gain.” You can’t “practice” lazy and expect huge results. Every second spent with an ‘ukulele in your hand is valuable, but dedicated effort multiplies your efforts by many, many times.

If you ever run out of ideas for what to practice, here is a big list that should keep you busy: Things to Practice.

Squeezing More Practice Time Into Your Day

There are never enough hours. Especially when you add another pursuit, like the ‘ukulele, to your life. The good news is that few modern lives are fully optimized for ‘ukulele playing and there is usually room for improvement.

  • One of the best things you can do for quick practice moments is have your ‘ukulele on a stand or in a case nearby. If you have to dig it out of the closet you are much less likely to pick it up. Make it easy.
  • Put the TV volume on “mute” during commercials and run through a scale or song before your show comes back on. That’s a good 15 minutes – at least – of wasted time each hour. Don’t just watch the talking heads and read the “possible side effects” – sneak in some practice time!
  • Use driving time to work on anything you don’t need an ‘ukulele to practice. There are lots of things like this: singing, rhythm, thinking through songs and chord progressions, etc… Just because you can’t play ‘ukulele doesn’t mean you can’t practice music. Better yet, get someone else to drive when possible and jam in the passenger seat.
  • Replace Popular Mechanics with an ‘ukulele in your “library.” Any musician worth his salt knows that the bathroom is usually one of the best sounding rooms in the house.
  • You can practice strumming anywhere by using your leg as an instrument of sorts. A pair of pants actually seems to have resistance similar to ‘ukulele strings. Just strum against your thigh. Everyone else in the doctors office will think you have a bad case of ADD, but you’ll know you’re making progress.
  • Make choices on how you want to spend your time. Less Facebook = more ‘ukulele. Simple as that.
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