A lot of my fingerpicking ukulele learning process has been about setting myself some challenges which were reasonably difficult for me to make some progress but not completely out of my league.
After 8 months of ukulele fingerpicking, both learning via Skype with Herman Vandecauter and working things out myself, here is a reflection on the things that worked for me.
1. Liking a piece
First and foremost, and mostly because the amount of time I can dedicate to my ukulele learning process is rather restricted, it is absolutely essential for me to work on pieces that I choose myself.
This is a crucial motivational factor : if I like a piece, I’ll be very intent on learning it.
2. Finding a piece that reflects your emotions
In addition to liking a piece, it has to be in accordance with my emotions.
Music is an important vector of emotions so if I feel melancholy, chances are I’ll be much better at playing John Dowland arrangements rather than say, a lively Spanish tune. On the contrary, if I feel joyful, I’ll be glad to work on Irish reels or other upbeat pieces.
3. How should the piece sound ?
Once I’ve chosen a piece I like that reflects my state of mind, I move on to the next step which is to figure out how the piece should sound when played properly.
If I am lucky, the piece I have chosen will have been played by a skillful ukulele player and I will find a video of it on YouTube. In this case I’ll spend some time watching the video several times until I feel that the sound of the piece is imprinted in my brain.
4. Break down the piece into several parts, figure out the fingering, work in slow motion
Now it’s time to move on to playing the piece yourself. When I know what the piece should sound like, I try to break the work into several parts.
A good idea, supported by many excellent uke players I know, is to play the piece very slowly in order to define where you will use which fingers and the smoothest move possible between the different notes.
This isn’t easy and is definitely the most laborious part of the process. At first you will have to stretch your fingers into what feels rather uncomfortable, but over time, the move will become more and more natural.
When in doubt, watching a good ukulele player play the piece will help you define the correct fingering.
5. Play the piece over and over again until you’re happy with the result!
Finally, once you are more or less comfortable with the fingering, play the piece until you are satisfied with the way it sounds. Try to improve the musicality of your playing with each new attempt.
Know when to stop as well, there is no point in playing the tune to the point that you start hating it !
My five points in application
1. I listened to Tarrega’s Study in E minor played by Al and liked the piece.
2. I felt rather contemplative at the time and Tarrega‘s study suited my state of mind. I liked the haunting quality of the piece.
3. I watched Al‘s video several times until the melody was printed in my brain.
4. I broke the piece in two parts : based on the PDF I downloaded on Uke Hunt, I split the tune until measure 12, worked until I was happy with that part, then moved on to measure 13 till the end.
I spent a lot of time on measures 13, 14 and 15 as there are some tricky finger moves up and down the neck. My little finger still hurts a bit but it has most certainly gained in strength.
I noticed that on measure 14, Al was barring at the 5th fret but I’m still not comfortable with this barre thing so I chose to have my fingers cramped together instead. However, I don’t recommend doing this because it is far from error-proof, and I end up buzzing half the time.
5. I assembled the two parts and played the whole tune until I was pleased with the way it sounded.
It’s far from perfect, but here it is. One thing I noticed immediately when I watched my video was what Herman often tells me : ‘your fingers are moving too much ! You should keep finger movement minimal in order to play fast! ‘
I now know exactly what Herman means and I understand that the way I play can hardly be precise but I find it extremely hard to do otherwise. I wonder does this come naturally over time ?
What about you ? How do you progress on fingerstyle uke ? Do you have any tips to share ? I’d love to read your comments !