Revisiting how to practice the ukulele

A little over a year ago I outlined an index card based system for organizing my ukulele practice sessions. I designed it to help me retain old material while always learning more, to keep my practices structured but still interesting. I used it to create and execute regular practice sessions for several months with great success. In fact I even had the great opportunity to share my system at the first Port Townsend Ukulele Festival during Cathy Fink‘s session on practice tips.

Now, the system wasn’t without its flaws – the biggest complaint was its complexity. While I still believe in the system’s core goals, I’ll admit that the particular implementation I came up with isn’t for everyone.

With that in mind, and in light of this year’s ukulele festival, I thought I’d take another whack at the problem, and distill last year’s system into something a little more user-friendly.

Goals

My goal has never been to become a professional musician. I just want to be able to make some nice music for my family and friends without any notes, aids, and with a little more than a basic up-down-up-down C, F, G7.

With that in mind, the system needs to:

  1. Track all of the new material I want to learn.
  2. Track my progress with the material I’ve already started learning.
  3. Make it easy to create fun practice plans that balance learning new material with retaining old material.

The New System

The new system can be quickly summarized as:

  1. Keep a stack of cards, each with:
    1. Something to practice written on the face.
    2. How many times you’ve practiced it tallied on the back.
  2. When you want to practice, turn the cards face down and draw a random set. Remember:
    1. The more cards the longer the practice session.
    2. Try to have a mix of cards, ie. some with no tallies, some with a few tallies, and some with lots of tallies.
  3. After you’ve practiced each card, add a new tally to the back and return it to the stack.

Simple enough? Too simple? Let’s walk through the details:

The Practice Stack

The new system starts, like the previous one, with a stack of index cards. This is your Practice Stack. Size, color, lines or plain, it’s up to you. Just get a good sized stack.

Now, each card in your Practice Stack is going to represent some particular thing you want to practice. It can be a technique, an exercise, or even a whole song.

So on one side of the card, write or print exactly what you want to practice and for how long. If it’s a technique or exercise, give it at least five solid minutes. For a song, at least long enough to get through the whole thing two or three times.

You can be as vague or specific as you want, whatever works for you. For example, let’s say you want to practice picking your C Major Scale. You can write a simple “C Major Scale / 5 min” or a more elaborate “Finger-pick first-position C Major Scale with a metronome for five minutes”.

Personally I prefer being a little vague, one because it’s easier to write, but also so I have room to experiment while still using the same card. In the beginning, I might practice that C Major scale as slowly and accurately as possible, staring at the fretboard the whole time, but after a lot of practice I might decide to use a metronome to rock out that scale with my eyes closed. Being vague on the card lets me use one instead of two.

Your Stack is Personal to You

Now to start out your Practice Stack, I recommend creating at least a good thirty index cards. Remember, this is your list, so pick things that you want to practice. Your stack won’t be the same as anyone else’s, and that’s okay!

If you’re having trouble coming up with thirty, try the following for inspiration:

The only recommendation I have is to keep a mix of songs and techniques. It’s tempting to list out just the song’s you’d like to learn, but you’ll get much better if you throw in some technique practice.

Tallies Mark Your Progress

Where the front of the card keeps track of what you want to practice, the back keeps track of how many times you’ve actually practiced it. Every time you practice what’s on the front, you’re going to add a tally to the back. How you tally is up to you – you can use pen marks, stickers, colored squares, whatever works for you.

The goal is here is to give you both a physical representation of how much practice you’ve put in and also an easy and quantitative way to compare cards with one another. You’ll use this information to help you decide what to practice.

Practicing

When you sit down to practice, you’re going to draw some set amount of cards from your Stack. Remember:

  1. The number of cards you draw will dictate how long you practice.
  2. By placing them face down and choosing randomly, you’ll make sure that no practice is the same.
  3. By watching the tallies on the back, you can make sure you can get that balance of new and old material.

Now, what will happen is, over time you’ll build up this nice set of index cards with all of the things you’ve learned, and you’ll be able to quickly see the things you’ve focused on and the things you haven’t. It’s quite the feeling to have a physical artifact in your hand of all of the effort you’ve put into playing the ukulele.

Conclusion

That’s it! I hope this helps folks out there, especially those that were intimidated by all of the charts in the first iteration of this system. Does this work for you? Have improvements or other ideas? Let me know in the comments!

Happy strumming,

/jon

Chordious 0.8.0 available, less requirements on Windows installs

I’ve had the code for Chordious 0.8.0 sitting on my laptop for a couple months now – haven’t found the time to add anything more to the pre-1.0 line since I plan on re-factoring a lot of the app after 1.0. Nothing too fancy in this release then:

  • Chord finder: Added the option to produce mirrored diagrams (for “left-handed” chords)
  • Windows: Removed the dependency on GTK# for .NET (now you just need Mono)
  • Windows: Fixed the StartChordious.cmd script to work on Win XP
  • Bug fix: Selected chords in the Chord Finder now unselect between searches

Check out these lovely screenshots (of 0.6.0):

For download links, check out my Chordious page, or the Chordious project page at Launchpad. You’ll find links for both the binaries and the source. Be sure to download the right binaries for your system (Windows or Linux / Mac OS X), and follow the installation instructions carefully.

Happy strumming!

/jon

Note: Chordious is still beta software, so please be sure to backup any ChordDocuments and diagrams you create. If you run into issues, or have feature requests, let me know!

Chordious 0.6.0 available, now with an integrated chord finder!

It’s been five months since I last released Chordious, my free app to generate beautiful chord diagrams for stringed instruments. Version 0.4.0 brought the first public iteration of the graphical chord designer, greatly simplifying your ability to create diagrams to meet your own style needs.

The problem was, you still needed to know what chords you wanted to make diagrams for. The biggest ask then was for an integrated chord finder.

It took me some time to bone-up on music theory, and then figure out exactly how to implement a chord finder in an efficient way. Other apps have done it before, but it’s a non-trivial problem to solve, and so I wanted as efficient, complete, and flexible solution as possible.

It took a few months to plumb the whole thing through, but Chordious 0.6.0 now features an integrated chord finder! Check out these lovely screenshots:

Now you can simply pick your instrument, tuning and search parameters and then search for chords! Right now you’re limited to the instruments, tunings, and chord types that I’ve entered- to start I just added some of the more popular banjo, guitar, and ukulele tunings. In the future I plan on making the list user editable. Same thing with the chord qualities- right now you’re limited to major, minor, augmented, diminished, 7th, 6th, and some of their variants.

Though the chord finder is the meat of the release, there are also plenty of other new features as well, including:

  • Export: Export images as PNG or JPG for easier use
  • Diagrams: Strings can be “muted” by setting them to -1 (and they show as x’s above the string)
  • Diagrams: Strings left open can optionally have an O at the top of the diagram
  • Diagrams: If Barre is set to -1, the diagram will make an “educated guess” where the barre should go
  • Diagrams: Barres can now be partial (only crossing the minimum number of marks) or cross the whole fret
  • Diagrams: If Baseline is set to 1, don’t show the 1 fret number (just remove the nut line, great for creating blank diagrams)
  • Bug fix: Fixed an issue where the app kept running in the background when you closed with an unsaved document open
  • Lots of other clean-up and code reduction

For download links, check out my Chordious page, or the Chordious project page at Launchpad. You’ll find links for both the binaries and the source. Be sure to download the right binaries for your system (Windows or Linux / Mac OS X), and follow the installation instructions carefully.

Happy strumming!

/jon

Note: Chordious is still beta software, so please be sure to backup any ChordDocuments and diagrams you create. If you run into issues, let me know! I’ve still got plenty of room on the road-map to version 1.0.

Update (02/16/2014): I finally fixed the StartChordious.cmd script to work on Windows XP, so I’ve updated the 0.6.0 windows binaries zip to include the fix.

Free Left-Handed Ukulele Chord Charts and Diagrams (GCEA, DGBE, GCEG & DGBD)

Not long after I released my free standard ukulele chord charts and slack key ukulele chord charts I got a request for some left-handed versions, where the diagrams were horizontally mirrored. Now it’s a little controversial, but for the ukulele at least, the main argument against switching the order of your strings is that it makes it harder for you to find and use resources designed for “right-handed” players. From a tab/diagram perspective, it’s essentially a different tuning.

Well, I myself already use non-standard slack-key tunings on some of my ukes, where there are exactly five printed uke books using those tunings. None have great chord charts. So for those southpaws who really do just want a nice set of mirrored diagrams, I feel for you. Play what makes you happy. I understand how frustrating it can be to constantly tweak charts in your head- it’s why I started making chord charts in the first place.

The next version of Chordious will have an option to easily mirror charts, but in the meantime, here are mirrored versions of all of the charts I’ve released in the past:

Left-Handed Ukulele Chord Chart (Standard GCEA) [1.2M PDF]
Left-Handed Ukulele Chord Chart (Baritone DGBE) [1.2M PDF]
Left-Handed Mini Ukulele Chord Charts [1.1M PDF]

Left-Handed Ukulele Chord Chart (Slack Key GCEG) [1.2M PDF]
Left-Handed Ukulele Chord Chart (Baritone Slack Key DGBD) [1.2M PDF]
Left-Handed Mini Slack Key Ukulele Chord Charts [1.2M PDF]

As before, all of these chord charts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Basically it means you’re free to do whatever you want with these charts, even sell them, as long as you credit me with having made them in the first place.

And again, as an added bonus, I’m also giving away the individual chord images I generated for the charts. Do whatever you want with them. Hell, you could print them out on stickers and “fix” all of your “right-handed” songbooks.

Left-Handed GCEA Ukulele Chords PNG [306k ZIP]
Left-Handed DGBE Ukulele Chords PNG [307k ZIP]

Left-Handed GCEG Slack Key Ukulele Chords PNG [306k ZIP]
Left-Handed DGBD Slack Key Ukulele Chords PNG [307k ZIP]

Enjoy and happy strumming!

/jon

P.S. The program I wrote to create the images is available and includes an easy option to mirror diagrams for left-handed use. Download Chordious today!

P.P.S. All of my free ukulele chord charts can be found here.

Chordious 0.4.0 available, now with a graphical chord designer!

It’s been a couple months since I first released Chordious, my free app to generate beautiful chord diagrams. The first version was mostly just functional- a pain to use command-line utility that required users to create a custom text file with all of the chords they wanted to make.

But a pain no longer!

Chordious 0.4.0 now features a fully-graphical chord designer. Check out these lovely screenshots:

chordious0.4.0_01 chordious0.4.0_02 chordious0.4.0_03 chordious0.4.0_04 chordious0.4.0_05

Now it’s easy as pie to make chord diagrams for all of your favorite stringed instruments, from the ukulele to the guitar. Give the new designer a whirl and tell me what you think!

For download links, check out my Chordious page, or the Chordious project page at Launchpad. You’ll find links for both the binaries and the source. Be sure to download the right binaries for your system (Windows or Linux / Mac OS X), and follow the installation instructions carefully.

Happy strumming!

/jon

Note: Chordious is still beta software, so please be sure to backup any ChordDocuments and diagrams you create. If you run into issues, let me know! I’ve still got plenty of room on the road-map to version 1.0.