Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Month: March, 2013

Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part II

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer of 2002, but in ten years I hadn’t gotten beyond a half-dozen chords and one melody. By the time I’d moved to Washington State, my two ukes had become nothing more than decorations, empty hints that I was a musician (like guys who “accidentally” carry guitar picks in their loose change). If you haven’t yet, go read that story in Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I.

Now, before I pick up my ukulele story in 2012, I first need backtrack a little to 2009, with my brief experience with another, inexpensive, “people’s instrument”. I’m talking about the tin whistle.

See, I like small, portable, entertainment. My favorite board games fit in a jacket pocket. I have packs of playing cards everywhere, in my bags, in drawers, even in my car. Now that I think of it, even back in college, when I was trying to learn the ukulele, I was also tried learning the harmonica. Harmonicas are legendary portable entertainment. The only problems were the breathing and all that tonguing. I could hardly keep my breath just being me, so playing wind instruments was just masochistic. Plus, I was trying to learn ukulele right? The harmonica quickly got lost in a drawer somewhere.

So, now it’s 2009, and I get the itch to learn an instrument again. I look at my ukes, but I think of my wrists, and I start shopping for alternatives. At the same time, I was also on a crazy personal mission to watch everything Star Trek, from beginning to end. Why you ask? Because I’ve been a self-claiming nerd for as long as I can remember, but when I really thought about it, I’d probably only seen a half-dozen episodes of The Next Generation as a child. So I set out to correct that.

Wait, what does this have to do with the tin whistle? Or learning the ukulele? Trekkies know the answer.

The Inner Light.

It’s one of the highest-rated Star Trek TNG episodes, and my absolute favorite. In it, Captain Picard, by virtue of a memory implant from an alien probe, experiences living an entire lifetime with a now extinct people. Most memorable is the titular song he learns to play on a little whistle. So now, sixty pounds lighter than I’d been in college, and with Captain Picard at my back, the idea of a wind instrument doesn’t terrify me anymore. I knew I’d found my new instrument.

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

Me and my Clarke Tin Whistle

I went online and bought myself a Clarke Tin Whistle, but much more importantly, I picked up The Clarke Tin Whistle Deluxe Edition by Bill Ochs. It was, by far, the best book on picking up a new instrument, any instrument, that I’d ever read. As I mentioned in Part I, I don’t have a musical background. And though I had a tall stack of ukulele books, most went straight into the grunt-work of learning an instrument, and just weren’t any fun. Frankly, I’d had enough of Mary and her damn little lamb.

But in Bill’s book, within a week, I had a half-dozen songs under my belt. Sure, Mary was in there, but so were others, longer, more interesting songs that sounded pretty even if I didn’t recognize them. Match that with the simplicity of playing the whistle itself, and I was having a blast. Presentation matters, especially for someone like me, with no musical background. And with the tin whistle, I had an extremely portable instrument that was fun to play, and with the book I felt like I was making real progress.

So why am I not writing about rekindling a lost six-hole love? Why did I put down that whistle?

Guilt mostly.

I felt like I should really be playing the uke. I mean I loved ukuleles. My grandmother had bought me one cause I said I was serious about learning it. I’d even bought an expensive one and dragged it around Africa with me. And so after a couple months, as I spent my time elsewhere, the little whistle went into the drawer along with the harmonica.

So why did it take another three years before I picked up the uke? Guess you’ll have to wait until Part III.

Update (02-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part III!

/jon

P.S. Though I set aside learning the whistle, I’d learned something else, something far more valuable. I’d learned that learning an instrument didn’t have to be all grunt work up front with all the fun at the end. That there was a logical progression to learning to play that didn’t need Mary and one chord over and over for hours. And in any area of study, it’s a powerful thing when you learn not just what you aim to learn, but the overall structure and progression for learning things of that category.

It just takes a good teacher. I learned my first programming language at age 8, but without any structure, any wisdom. I hadn’t internalized what it meant to program. It was through my high school computer science teacher that I got a grasp of how to learn a computer language. What to expect. What I needed to know to be able to use that language to solve the problems before me. That skill, learning how to learn a programming language, later became a cornerstone of my career as a software tester.

It’s the same thing with natural languages. When I learned French in high school, I didn’t really remember a thing later. Like most Americans, I had a scatter-shot of language education, especially grammar. Not that important if you’re a native speaker, as long as you’re surrounded by people who speak correctly, you’ll pick it up naturally. But for a foreign language, especially in my case, where immersion wasn’t possible or even encouraged, I was just parroting most of the time. I had no roadmap for turning my thoughts into words. But in college, I learned how to break a language down, to know what things I needed to learn, so that I could function in an immersive environment. By the time I was learning Swahili in Tanzania, I was driving my teacher crazy because I kept wanting to jump ahead of my classmates. I could see the bigger picture, and so knew ahead what I types of things I was going to need to know. But after ten weeks of training, when I was thrown in the deep end of completely on-my-own immersion, and I swam just fine.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I ended up teaching computer science in Swahili. No way would I have been able to do that, if I didn’t understand how to learn programming, and how to learn a natural language. And computer science is hard enough to teach in your own language!

Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer before college- a little late you might say, considering I’d spent my childhood immersed in native Hawaiian culture.

I was surrounded by all the right an ingredients: Hawaiian music and instruments about the house, my mother who not only taught hula, but also choreographed new dances and put on performances, with all of the endless dedication and practice that that lifestyle requires.

Still, I was never forced (like many children) to learn a musical instrument. The most I’d ever done is dink around with a Casio keyboard, learning Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. Other then that, I couldn’t read sheet music, didn’t know a thing about music theory, never showed more than a passing interest in any school musical programs.

Fast forward to 2002, when on a family vacation to Hawaii, I began fooling around with a cheap toy ukulele I’d got at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. My grandmother asked me if I was serious about the instrument, and that if I was, she’d get me a “real one.”

Lanikai Soprano LU-11 Ukulele

My first uke, a Lanikai LU-11

I said I was serious, so she bought me a little soprano Lanikai. We got it from the Hawaiian Music Supply, back when they were selling ukes out of a van, before they became the ukulele powerhouse that they are today.

I spent as much time as I could on that instrument, and while in college I even joined Berkeley’s Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band for a time. Had a lot of fun, but it was hard to make progress: I couldn’t practice too much in the dorms, and the band’s “practices” often had 40+ participants, and was really aimed at members who could already play so they could practice the band’s set list.

The best sessions were the after-practice jams at Mike Dailva‘s workshop, who since then has been growing in recognition as a master ukulele luthier.

But I struggled a lot with the size of that soprano Lanikai; I could never keep the thing from falling over, and as this was around the time I started having RSI problems with my wrists and fingers, clutching it upright only made it harder to stay motivated and keep playing.

Thankfully by the time I’d left for the Peace Corps in 2006, I’d found part of my salvation in the larger, tenor-sized ukuleles. My grandmother had loaned me an antique Suzuki ukulele, and through it was easier to hold, it hadn’t aged well in appearance or sound quality.

Kala KA-STE-C Tenor Ukulele

First uke with my own money, a Kala KA-STE-C

So when I went back to Hawaii after graduation, I picked up a brand new tenor from Kala.

It was easier to hold than the Lanikai, easier to play, and sounded great! Problem was, I still didn’t have any real guidance on how to get any better. I took the Kala with me to Tanzania (logically I’d take my newest, largest, most expensive instrument abroad), and while it served as a great reminder of home during training, by the time I’d be assigned to Zanzibar, the uke spent more time in the case than out.

I came back from Africa no better at playing- my ukes had become decorations, ones I proudly displayed, even if I couldn’t do much with them. I brought them with me when I moved up to Washington in 2008, and I left the tenor out on guitar stand, even though the stand was too big and the uke was always at risk of toppling over.

I hardly touched them, and it wasn’t until four years later that ukulele bug bit me again, and hard. Stay tuned for that story next time.

/jon

Update (29-MAR-2013): Continue reading with Part II!