Practicing ‘Ukulele: Supercharge Your Practice Session

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.

For more insight, I love this article by Martin Schuring on many aspects of practicing. It was written for oboe, but is mostly universal for ‘ukulele players.

Things to Practice

Sometimes as musicians we run into a period of time where practicing can seem sort of unhelpful. Nothing seems to be interesting and it’s hard to find new things to work on. It happens.

The good news is that the phase soon passes and you realize that there are thousands more things to work on than you previously thought. Here’s a list for those tough times or when you just feel like practicing ‘ukulele for eight hours and run out of ideas for what to do.

Scales:

  1. To a metronome
  2. Straight up and down
  3. In 3rds (C to E, D to F, etc…)
  4. In 4ths (C to F, D to G, etc…)
  5. In 5ths (C to G, D to A, etc…)
  6. In 6ths (C to A, D to B, etc…)
  7. In 7ths (C to B, D to C, etc…)
  8. Up or down in groups of 4s (C D E F, D E F G, etc…)
  9. Up or down in groups of 5s (C D E F G, D E F G A, etc…)
  10. Groups of 6s
  11. Slow
  12. Fast (notice the order there?)
  13. Play two notes, skip a string, play one note – up and down
  14. Play one note, skip a string, play two notes – up and down
  15. Play any number of notes on any number of different strings in a pattern
  16. Using 3rd intervals (played together)
  17. Using 6th intervals
  18. Using all other intervals
  19. Any of the above in a different position
  20. Any of the above in a different octave
  21. In a musical fashion (practice is just preparation for real music)

Chords:

  1. With a metronome
  2. A different way to play all chords
  3. Replacing one note with a 4th, 2nd, etc… to get a suspended sound
  4. Omitting a note from a chord shape (removing the 3rd, 5th, root)
  5. A new chord (you’ll never find them all)
  6. That one chord you struggle with
  7. Substituting chords
  8. Chord Melody
  9. Soloing with chords
  10. Soloing around chords

Rhythm:

  1. Straight note durations (quarter note, 8h note, etc…)
  2. Triplets (1 2 3 1 2 3…)
  3. Playing any number of notes in the space of one beat (start with two, then three, four, five, etc…)
  4. Playing with a metronome
  5. Playing with a drummer (it’s harder than it looks after playing by yourself all the time)
  6. Tap on things (just play a beat – your body is a drum set: left leg = high-hat, right leg = snare, right foot = bass drum)

Techniques:

  1. Sliding into a note
  2. Sliding out of a note
  3. Sliding from one note to another
  4. Sliding one fret up or down and then back rapidly over and over again (trill)
  5. Bending up a half step
  6. Bending up a whole step
  7. Bending up a step and a half (oww!)
  8. Pre-bend and release the above
  9. Bending and releasing
  10. Bending and releasing a whole step, stopping at the in between note on the way down (C to D bend: stop on C#)
  11. Tremolo picking 1 string
  12. Tremolo picking 2 strings
  13. Tremolo picking 3 strings
  14. Hammer-ons
  15. Pull-offs
  16. Hammer-on to pull-off
  17. Pull-off to hammer-on
  18. Double hammer-on
  19. Double pull-off
  20. Everything in between
  21. Natural harmonics
  22. Artificial harmonics
  23. Harp harmonics
  24. Octaves on the C and A strings
  25. Octaves on the G and E strings
  26. Octaves on the G and A strings
  27. Palm muting
  28. Attack (picking hard or soft)
  29. Classical vibrato
  30. Normal vibrato (Clapton style)
  31. Wide vibrato
  32. Piano style (picking the strings simultaneously with one finger to each string)

Strumming:

  1. Fan strumming (tremolo 4 strings)
  2. Mono strum (strumming all strings, but only sounding one note)
  3. Mute strum (chunk)
  4. Strum patterns
  5. Strumming and then picking in between
  6. Hammering on new notes to a chord (Hendrix style)
  7. Triplet strum
  8. Fast
  9. Slow
  10. And changing chords (the strum doesn’t count if you can’t use your fretting hand)

Songs:

  1. Dynamics (one part loud, one part soft, vice versa)
  2. Arranging (a new intro, what parts where, etc…)
  3. Learning to play a song all the way through with no mistakes (none)
  4. Timing (a metronome might help)
  5. Learning all the parts (chords, melody, other instruments – on ‘ukulele still)
  6. Learning a simple song and intentionally playing it simply

Ear Training:

  1. Tuning your ‘ukulele by ear (double check yourself with a tuner and remember if you were sharp or flat)
  2. Picking out simple songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle”
  3. Learn how different chord types sound (major, minor, 7th, etc…)
  4. Figuring out chord progressions
  5. Hearing different intervals (notes played separately or together)
  6. Putting it all together and learning a whole song – all parts (by ear!)

Performance:

  1. Playing to the crowd
  2. Playing with a looper
  3. Playing through a set list (talk to the “audience” too!)
  4. Your smile
  5. Playing from the heart
  6. Working through mistakes
  7. Making eye contact with the audience
  8. Using your amps, PA, effects
  9. Singing
  10. Soloing
  11. Changing things up
  12. Being entertaining
  13. Making a set-list
  14. Setting up your gear
  15. Playing with a band
  16. Starting a with a bang
  17. Ending with a bang

Theory:

  1. Reading music
  2. Reading tab
  3. Understanding the modes
  4. Building scales
  5. Building chords
  6. Key signatures
  7. Time signatures

Odd-ball:

  1. Playing cleanly (nobody cares if they can’t hear the notes)
  2. Teaching
  3. Living (music is life on a small scale, life is music on a big scale)
  4. Transcribing (putting music to hard media – sheet music, tab)
  5. Writing a long post on things to practice (and sharing your ideas with me because I’m out!)

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.

By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me