Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘ukulele

Working slower, working faster

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The calypso strum

One of the hardest aspects of learning a musical instrument is training yourself not to think. When you’re trying to sing, strum, maintain a steady rhythm, and change chords all at the same time, if you worry too much about how your fingers and hands are moving, you’ll find yourself pausing, stumbling, and forgetting what you were trying to do in the first place. Ultimately, it’s repetition and muscle memory that make the difference, not conscious thought, which can be a difficult concept to grasp for someone like me, who has never been accused of underthinking anything. While playing the ukulele, though, I’ve discovered something interesting: if I’m having trouble mastering a strumming pattern, it helps if I strum faster, not slower. The result may be a little sloppier than if I were counting out every beat, but once the tempo has passed a certain threshold, I simply can’t think about it too much—I’ve got no choice but to leave it up to my hands. And my hands, left to themselves, generally know what they’re doing, if I can just manage to let them do their own thing.

A change of tempo can be a powerful creative tool in any field, and it can be just as helpful to slow things down. Roger von Oech, the author of A Whack on the Side of the Head, likes to tell a story about a solar energy lab technician who had to make precision cuts in gallium arsenide using a high-speed saw, only to find that the material cracked repeatedly. It was only when she reduced the speed of the saw, as she noticed her husband doing while cutting wood for cabinets in his shop at home, that she was able to make the cuts she needed. The story may well be apocryphal—I haven’t managed to find a source for it anywhere else—but it gets at an important point. Whether we’re artists, musicians, or other skilled professionals, we tend to fall into certain rhythms in the way we get things done. The speed at which we work is something we figure out over time, based on our own personalities and experiences, but it’s easy to fall into a rut, and sometimes all it takes to move past a creative obstacle is to try for a change of pace.

A page from the author's notebook

I’ve written elsewhere about speeding things up and slowing things down in the context of art itself—some stories are best told at a rapid clip, others in a more meditative style—but it’s equally important to take this into account during the creative process. I’m a fast writer, for instance, but I’ve found that the fluency with which I can get words on the page can be a liability: I’m likely to settle for something that reads fine the first time around, when a more laborious approach might have yielded interesting discoveries. As a result, I’ve deliberately sought out ways to slow myself down at crucial moments. It’s why I still write many of my notes using pen and paper: the tactile nature of the materials forces me to write more slowly, allowing additional ideas to emerge during moments of downtime. I used to outline two chapters a day; now, I’m down to one, both for the sake of my own sanity and because that extra time yields a richer engagement with the material. And even if I can still crank out a draft in a couple of hours, I devote an equal amount of time to revising what I’ve written that day, so that the overall rendering time remains constant.

But there are also instances when it helps to write even more quickly than I’d otherwise prefer. With a baby in the house, I’ve had to become more efficient in terms of how I spend my time—there are days when I only have three or four hours to devote to writing, including this blog—and I’ve found that the work can benefit indirectly as well. I’m less concerned about perfection than with coming up with something good enough for me to move on, and I think the writing gains something in immediacy and freshness. There’s going to be a lot of revision later, of course, just as I need to refine that strumming pattern, but in the meantime, I’ve internalized something essential that I wouldn’t otherwise have acquired. The writing life accommodates a wide range of tempos, and the best works of art are often those that were written in haste and revised at leisure, or the product of alternating bursts of energy and inactivity. Restricting yourself to one mode of working can be as big a mistake as limiting the emotional register of the story itself: it closes you off to other possibilities. And sometimes the key to a breakthrough can be as simple as a change in speed.

Written by nevalalee

February 5, 2014 at 9:29 am

A young person’s guide to the ukulele

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Marilyn Monroe with ukulele

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through an old copy of the Guinness Book of World Records when I came across an entry for the easiest and most difficult musical instruments, as determined by a panel of experts. The hardest instruments were the French horn and oboe; the easiest, the ukulele. I noted this fact with some interest, since I’ve been playing the ukulele a lot, and although I’m not sure it’s really the easiest instrument to learn—I suspect that the real title belongs to the musical saw, which I’ve always wanted to try—I’ve got to admit that once you dive into it, it is pretty easy, although this can be hard to believe if you approach it without much in the way of earlier musical experience. I’ve been playing it off and on for about three months now, and while I’m not exactly at a point where I can give any recitals, I’ve performed it with pleasure for my family and friends, and I’m certainly good enough to entertain myself. As someone who loves music but has never played it, I wouldn’t have thought this was possible, and I thought I’d take a minute today to share some of my discoveries for other aspiring ukulelists. (For those of you wondering what any of this has to do with the larger themes of this blog, don’t worry—I promise that there’s a point.)

First, you need to get your hands on a ukulele. (It’s like the famous recipe for rabbit stew: “First, catch one rabbit.”) I’ve been playing on a Lanikai LU-21 soprano uke, which comes highly recommended by enthusiasts and ships from Amazon for $89.99, and I couldn’t be happier with it. You’ll also want to pick up an electronic tuner—mine is a Snark SN-6, which costs about twelve bucks and is worth every penny, especially to the ears of your friends. Once you’ve obtained and tuned your ukulele, the next thing you’ll do is teach yourself four chords: C, G, F, and A minor. Fortunately, you’ve got a universe of online resources available, and a quick search uncovers dozens of instructional videos for every level of expertise. This happens to be the one I used for my first three chords, but there are plenty of other options. You’ll also want to learn a basic strumming pattern. Again, there’s a world of possibilities out there, but I’ve found that if you’re playing for your own amusement, it’s best to pick one good pattern and stick with it until it becomes wired into your fingers. I’m a fan of the calypso strum: it’s a little tricker to manage at first than some of the simpler ones, but infinitely more useful, versatile, and satisfying once you’ve gotten the hang of it.

Arthur Godfrey's ukulele

Now you’re going to practice those four chords, getting to the point where you can move between them easily while keeping the strumming pattern going. But you’re not going to switch between chords at random: you’re going to focus on a handful of chord progressions, particularly variations of the I-V-vi-IV progression: C, G, Am, F, and so on around the horn. You’ll be doing this, above all, because it sounds good—there’s a reason why just about every pop song seems to follow the same basic progression—and because you want these progressions to become a matter of muscle memory: once you start playing songs for real, you’ll find yourself coming back to the same combinations again and again, to the point where your fingers are playing the chords before you’ve had a chance to think about it. But that’s all in the future. What really matters is that once you’ve become reasonably accustomed to those four chords and that one strumming pattern, if you’re anything like me, you’ll want to keep doing it. The ukulele, above all else, is a fun instrument, and the fun starts surprisingly soon, once you’ve devoted a few hours to learning a set of simple skills. (I’d estimate that it probably takes ten to twenty hours of practice before you’ve internalized the motions enough to start to sing along.)

And the fun is the crucial part. What playing the ukulele has taught or reminded me is that it’s easiest to devote energy into learning something new once it’s become a pleasure for its own sake. Those early steps are the hardest, and in fact, I owned my Lanikai for years before really picking it up, simply because even playing a G chord seemed so daunting. Once I’d gotten past those essentials, though, I found that I wanted to learn more, and even if I stumbled along the way, I could always fall back on those few simple chords if I just wanted to noodle around. And there’s no hurry. Gradually, you’ll want to add more chords to your repertoire: I’d start with an E minor, just because it lets you hack your way through “Over the Rainbow,” which is the only song that anyone will ever request by name. D, D minor, A, and Bb will vastly expand the universe of songs you can play, all the way up to the dreaded E chord. (This list gives you a good sense of the most common chords, although I’ve found that it’s best to learn chords as specific songs require them.) The secret, if there is one, is to master a few basic skills, focus on entertaining yourself, and then move on to learning a few things you like. And it doesn’t just apply to the ukulele: it’s true of any form of art, writing included. Once you’ve started to love the instrument for its own sake, the rest is nothing but play. And you’ll learn more than you ever thought you could.

Written by nevalalee

January 28, 2014 at 9:41 am

The art of noodling

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Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

A few weeks ago, I broke a longstanding promise: I picked up the ukulele again. Earlier this year, I wrote a long post on how I learned not to play the ukulele, or, more generally, why my attempts at developing interesting hobbies have tended to fall apart. Writing consumes so much of my life that there isn’t room for much more, aside from family, friends, and books, but recently, I found myself taking an unaccustomed break. I had two or three projects winding their way through various stages that were out of my hands, so I was doing little more than playing the waiting game. Under most circumstances, I’d have filled the gap with an interim writing project, like a short story, but the break happened to coincide with a period when my daughter, now crawling like a champ, was demanding more of my time: I’d open a book or start writing up some notes only to jump up seconds later to stop her from chewing an extension cord. What I really needed was something to occupy my time while leaving me free to drop it at a moment’s notice, and the ukulele, which had been lying in my office closet for years, seemed like a pretty good candidate. So I dusted it off and set out, armed with an instruction book and a bunch of online tutorials, to see how much I could teach myself in a little over two weeks.

It helped that my ambitions were modest. At the most, I wanted to learn how to noodle around with it well enough to amuse myself and, ideally, my daughter. Over the last year, I’ve found myself with a lot of odd corners of time, too short to do anything meaningful but too long to spend just refreshing my web browser, and learning an instrument felt like a good way to fill up those orphaned minutes. (I may also have been inspired by Lin Yu-Tang’s description of the life of half and half: “[A man] who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself.”) And the nice thing about aiming only to noodle is that you’re pleased by even the most incremental signs of progress. C, G, F, and A minor, held together with some common chord progressions and a good strumming pattern, are enough to occupy a beginner for hours, and in the meantime, you’re developing muscle memory, a sense of rhythm, and those crucial calluses on your first three fingers. I’m nowhere near the point where I’d have any business playing for anyone but my closest friends, but two weeks into the process, I’ve picked up enough that I can see myself noodling away for a long time, acquiring new tricks as needed, and fumbling toward something like basic competence.

Stephin Merritt

And because I’m the kind of person who turns everything into a metaphor for something else, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means for learning any kind of art. I haven’t tried to teach myself a new creative skill in ages, and it reminds me of how much I take for granted: I’ve been a decent writer for as long as I can remember, and although I shudder a little when I look back at my past efforts—which include the earliest posts on this blog—it’s been a long time since I had to worry about the fundamentals. This isn’t to say that I’m not often dissatisfied with my work, but when I fall short, as I often do, it’s usually because of flawed execution at a higher level, or because the underlying premise itself is wanting. Within a broad range between those extremes, I move comfortably, as I have for a long time. Learning to play an instrument, even one as accessible as the ukulele, takes me back to a time when even the simplest building blocks refuse to come together, and it’s hard to do something as simple as switching from A minor to an E minor chord. You know the sounds you want to make, but your fingers refuse to cooperate, and when you look at the chasm the separates you from the masters of the craft, it feels as if you’ll never get even halfway to what you want to become.

Which is where the noodling comes in. Noodling alone won’t make you an artist, and there inevitably comes a time when you need to focus on aspects of craft that aren’t as fun in themselves—the rules, the development of discipline, the practicing of chords and scales. But when I look back at my own writing life, I’m struck by how much time was spent on the literary equivalent of noodling: bits of stories, fragments of ideas, fanfic, conceits pursued for a page or two before being abandoned. If I had left it at that, I’d never have become the writer I wanted to be, but it was an essential part of learning to live with, and love, the instrument itself. So much of writing instruction, and I include this blog in that category, is rightly obsessed with process and craft, but the rules only have a chance to take hold once you’ve had a taste of what the result will be. It helps to scale your expectations accordingly, and the ability to noodle around with your materials, whether they’re words, chords, or pigments, is as good a place to start as any. Some of us never get beyond that, and that’s fine; noodling offers plenty of pleasures of its own. But it’s reassuring to know that once our fingers have started to remember things for themselves, and we’ve had a hint of the joys to come, that there’s a world of craft still waiting for us, somewhere over the rainbow.

Written by nevalalee

December 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

Posted in Writing

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