Ukulele Basics: A Beginner's Guide to the Ukulele

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Ukulele Basics

My new ukulele starter guide includes a free digital download and eleven videos designed for brand new players (or anyone who needs a refresher)! Learn how to play two strums, three chords, and three songs. Ukulele Basics covers all the essentials of getting started, including:

• How to play chords

• How to strum

• How to play Frère Jacques with the C chord

• How to play Shoo, Fly! Don't Bother Me with the F and C chords

• How to play You are My Sunshine with the C, F, and G7 chord

 

A note about the songs: I love sharing folk songs with my students, and I’ve specifically chosen these three well-known songs because they have easy-to-memorize lyrics, common chord arrangements, and singable melodies. All of these qualities make them great songs for new musicians and help make your learning curve a little bit gentler. 

Are you ready to start strumming? Download the PDF and let's play!

Please note: you will have to go through some of the checkout process in order to receive the download link, but you will not need to enter any credit card data. The PDF is free!

 

 

How to Tune Your Ukulele for the First Time

Ukuleles purchased online usually arrive with the strings really loose and very out of tune. And if you're a brand-new player, just getting your strings in tune can feel like a challenge! 

In my latest video I tune up a very affordable and adorable Diamond Head ukulele, which I purchased from Amazon for about $24. The tuner I use in the video the Snark SN5X. There are so many flashy and fancy tuners out there, but I like this one for its simple design and bright display.  

How do you tune up your instrument? I love seeing the tuners my students bring to lessons. Two recent standouts were the Hello Kitty tuner and a flashy contraption that lights up like a pinball machine each time you play a string!   

 

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Learn to pLay the Ukulele 

Let's Play! The Ukulele Handbook for Beginners is now available in paperback and as a digital download!  

My new how-to guide is perfect for anyone who wants to learn to play the ukulele. Created for absolute beginners, this book was designed to make learning to play the ukulele simple and fun. It’s beautifully organized with easy-to-follow diagrams and is accompanied by dozens of instructional videos to guide you along the way. 


Watch More Video Tutorials:

An Easy Way to Figure Out the Key of a Song

Beginning musicians don't always think about what key a song is in, but it's a valuable piece of information. In this video, I share a really simple way to figure out the key of a song, plus I explain why it's an important thing to know: 

One of my goals as a teacher is to de-mystify music for my students and break down concepts so that they're really easy to understand. I plan to make more videos along this vein, so if you have any topics you'd like me to cover, please let me know in the comments! 

How to Get Your Kid to Practice the Piano (or Any Instrument)

How to Get Your Kid to Practice the Piano (or Any Instrument)

Parents frequently ask me how to get their kids to spend more time playing their instruments. And I have good news! I think there are a lot of things parents can do to support their children's musical development and encourage them to play more. Here are a few of my top tips for parents of elementary school-aged children:

No, You Don't Need to Practice Every Day

Most music teachers will encourage you to practice your instrument every day. But why? Are you rehearsing for a public performance? Are you a musician by trade? Assuming you're learning the ukulele for fun or as a new hobby, I'd much prefer you played what you want, when you want. I truly want the ukulele to be a source of joy for my students (and everyone!). And when was the last time you felt joy completing a homework assignment?!?*

Your relationship with your uke will be happier and more sustaining if you play when you feel intrinsically motivated to play. Even if that means you're only playing once in a while. I pick up my uke for any number of reasons— to provide entertainment for my kids, to create with others, because I want to try out something new, or (most often) because it's fun. What motivates you to play? 

 

* For the occasional student who insists on assignments, I tell them to simply pick up their instrument every day. 

You Can Take It With You!

Heading out of town this summer? Don't forget to pack your uke! 

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One of the ukulele's best features is its portability. It's perfect for hotel rooms, the beach, the campground, and almost anywhere else you might be heading to this summer. Road tripping? Perfect. You'll almost certainly have room for it in the car. Traveling by air? Bring it on the plane. Your ukulele qualifies as a carry-on item. 

If you're worried about keeping your ukulele safe on your adventure, you may wish buy a cheap one (affiliate link) to keep as your designated travel uke. You'll enjoy your vacation more if you're not too concerned about keeping the elements (or children) away from your instrument. Just don't forget to pack your tuner (affiliate link) and Musical Mama binder. 😃

Jam in the Car

If my husband's driving, sometimes I'll even play on the road. We also hold in-car family jam sessions where we take turns picking songs to stream via our smartphones. Egg shakers and jingle bell bracelets (affiliate links) are easy to pack and a simple way to liven up a long day of driving— I have a feeling we'll be jamming to this earworm all summer!

Jam at your Destination

When you're out of town and away from the usual to-dos and responsibilities, you may find yourself with a bit more free time. Won't it be nice to have your ukulele on hand? Just having that vacation mindset may positively impact your playing.

Even if You're Staying Local...

Having a dedicated travel uke means you can keep it in the trunk! Taking the kids to the park? Maybe you can strum while they play in the sandbox. Or, if your kids take lessons of any sort, why not play in-between chauffeur duties? 

Where will you be playing this summer? I'd love to hear...

 

Quick Tip: Put It on a Stand

Just a quick post today about how to improve your sheet music viewing and, therefore, your overall playing. In short: buy a stand! Many uke players set their sheet music on a flat surface and look down as they play. But that's really hard on your neck and negatively impacts your playing (and singing!) posture. 

I bought this cute little tablet stand from IKEA a while back, and it's been so useful. It easily holds my Musical Mama Foundations binder with all the lesson materials and song sheets, and I've even been using it during private lessons. This stand is portable, so it works well on a table top and is easily repurposed for random kid projects and as a recipe/cookbook holder in the kitchen. You can find it at IKEA for $15.99. 

 IKEA RIMFORSA Tablet Stand, Bamboo

IKEA RIMFORSA Tablet Stand, Bamboo

Happy strumming!

Incorporating Your Instrument into Your Decor

If you keep your ukulele in its case, it's likely to stay there. But that's not where you want it! If your ukulele is out and ready to be picked up at a moment's notice, you will be so much more likely to play it. So, let's talk about the important stuff: how to display your instrument when you're not playing it. There are two basic options— stands and hooks— and they're both easy.

 

Stands

An ukulele stand (affiliate link) is an easy way to display your instrument. There's no installation required and it's portability makes it great for those who are unsure of where they want to set-up their instrument.

 my desk, aka where the magic happens

my desk, aka where the magic happens

I have a home office where I prep for lessons. I'm also working on an exciting new project, so I'm constantly playing when I'm working at my desk. It only makes sense for me to keep an ukulele available for strumming here. 

 in my living room

in my living room

This pineapple uke sits on a stand right next to the TV. We also keep a banjo, a guitar, and a banjo-lele in the same room, on floor stands. We spend a good chunk of time in this room, and I keep all of our kid instruments in one of the fabric bins in the bottom of the picture. Having multiple instruments out and accessible makes impromptu jam sessions easy. The TV might get turned on once or twice a week, but the instruments get played daily!

 

Hooks

The age of your children is an important consideration. If you have very young children, you may want to keep your instrument up high! 

There are a variety of wall-mount hooks (affiliate link), and they are pretty simple to install. If you're handy, you can even make your own! I love how the instrument hooks in the picture above have been painted to match the wall color. My only concern with a room like this is that you don't want things to look too precious or perfect. After all, the goal is to play, not just admire! 

I love how these instruments were able to fit in this living room. They're so cute stacked vertically like this! 

Doesn't the guitar look great against that grey wall? 

This last room looks like heaven to me! If you can pull off a wall of instruments, go for it. Think of the family jams you could have in that home! 

Before you buy: Identify when and where you're most likely to play. Then do your best to keep your uke in that room— whether that's the play room, the living room, a bedroom, or even near the kitchen. If you're unsure, or if you're having a hard time making time for your hobby, experiment by moving your uke around. Sometimes the simple act of relocating your instrument is all it takes to get you in the habit of playing more frequently.

How are you displaying your instruments at home? I'd love to hear about it!

Family Jam Time!

Today my daughter and I had our first play-along jam session in a long time. I recommend them to students all the time, but I hadn't realized we had fallen out of the habit of it in my own home! 

 

What is a Jam? 

Our jams are inspired by the play-alongs that occur in Music Together classes. We simply get out our kid instruments, crank up a song, and play along to the music! If you don't have a basket of instruments, break out the wooden spoons and pots and pans, and take a quick look around the house to see what else might be turned into a noise maker. :)

 

MM: Favorite Disney Songs for Family Jams

Since my daughter listens almost exclusively to Disney soundtracks, we were jamming to songs from Frozen, Moana, and Tangled. We had so much fun that I created a playlist for us to reference the next time. Wanna hear it? I've created the playlist in Apple Music/iTunes and Spotify

What's in it for the Grown-Ups

As a mom, I'm partial to activities that are stimulating for my kids AND me. I don't just do these play-alongs to humor my children. I totally get into them and probably get a little too carried away! But honestly, there's a lot that beginning musicians can get out of these jam sessions. 

Hone your vocals. 

The personalities singing these songs are very expressive and some are quite over-the-top, which I find to be great inspiration for my singing. Sing along if you know the words, and try to match the level of emotion and mood. 

Build up your endurance.

Beginning musicians can fizzle out over the course of a song (or songs). Playing along to recordings is great training for developing your stamina. The recorded music will carry you, which is easier than setting and maintaining a tempo on your own. 

Boost your mood.

One of the best things about music is its affect on our emotions. Singing whole-heartedly and shaking some egg shakers or buzzing on a kazoo can totally perk me up and turn me into a more joyful, peaceful parent. And that's something everyone benefits from. 

 

What's in it for the Kids

They have your attention.

There's a difference between watching your kids play and actually playing with them. You are doing something together, which makes the activity feel special. Jams are suitable for all ages and development stages, and it's a lot more fun than yet another round of Don't Break the Ice (or whatever your child might be obsessed with lately). 

Developing their musicality.

Rhythm is the most important element of music making, and your kids can learn a lot about music through this type of play. Just as you're striving to keep your playing in time with the music, so are your kids! It's so thrilling to see little ones sing along to their favorite song or bang a drum right on beat! 

Permission to be loud, Permission to be silly.

Jams are the most fun when you all let loose and get noisy. Kids love to see their parents be goofy, and this playlist is full of happy, upbeat songs that I enjoy as much as my kids do. I hope they are as big a hit in your home as they are in mine. 

 

Do you have a favorite Disney jam song that's not on the playlist? How are you making music with your kids? I'd love to hear about it

 

Feeling the Difference Between 4/4 and 3/4 Time Signatures

Unless you're a regular reader of sheet music, you probably don't spend too much time thinking about time signature! But time signature is an important piece of information that tells you about the rhythm of the song you're trying to play, and it dictates the count of your strum. 

4/4 time: A song in 4/4 time has four beats per measure and is counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, and so on. 4/4 time is also called “common time” because it is the most common time signature for pop, rock, R&B, folk, etc.

3/4 time: A song in 3/4 time has three beats per measure and is counted 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, and so on. This time signature is also quite common and is often referred to as waltz rhythm.

In my beginner's ukulele course, we learn strums for playing in both of these time signatures. Beginners occasionally get confused about the difference between the two, so I've created a video to help with that! 

Note: If you're clapping along to a fast-paced song, you'll no doubt have to increase the speed of your claps! If you're clapping to a slower song, you'll be paced similarly to the examples in the video. 

Popular 3/4 Songs: 

Oh, My Darling ClementineDown in the ValleyMy Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, Amazing Grace, Lavender's Blue, Rock a Bye BabyLittle Boxes, and a LOT of Christmas songs are all in 3/4 time. Which one are you most familiar with? Try clapping out the 3/4 pattern as you sing it! Looking for more contemporary tunes to test this out with? Quora has a list of pop songs in 3/4 time. And playlists.net has a playlist of some, too. 

Another example of a song in 3/4 that comes to mind (because my kids have been listening to it on repeat!) is "Gaston" from Beauty and the Beast soundtrack. Be prepared to clap quickly with this one, as it's pretty fast-paced! 

 

Popular 4/4 songs:

Almost everything else! I refer to 4/4 time as the default time signature. It's the rhythm most beginning musicians start out playing, and it's the time signature our ears are most accustomed to. 

 

More Unusual Time Signatures:

If you've totally nailed 4/4 and 3/4 rhythms, you may want to familiarize yourself with more complex time signatures. If you have a child who's 5 years or younger, I highly recommend attending a Music Together class! Each song collection includes at least one or two songs in a less common time signature. I've seen songs set in 6/8 (similar to 3/4), 7/8, 5/4, and 12/8. (I'd include links to songs but can't find versions on Apple Music, Spotify, or Youtube). 

For more casual listening, Quora has a list of songs set in unusual time signatures

Feel the Beat! 

When you're making music, the absolute number one goal is to keep a steady beat. This is so much easier when you're actually channeling the rhythm of your music through your body. The clapping patterns in the video are a great way to start feeling the beat which, in turn, improves your overall strumming. Plus, it involves no special equipment, and it's something you can easily do when you're hanging with your kiddos! 

Do you have a hard time keeping the beat? Or do you naturally have a good sense of rhythm and timing? I'd love to hear from you

PS: Searching for the Gaston video sent me down a Youtube rabbit hole that uncovered this little gem of Josh Gad, Luke Evans, and Alan Menken singing it live at a Disney event. 

 


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Finding Time to Play at Home

I love hearing the brilliant ways my students are finding time to play the ukulele, and I thought I'd share a few of those ideas here on the blog. After all, what's working for them might work for you, too! Here are a few ideas for incorporating your new hobby into life at home:

  • Do you have a child who's a picky eater? Mama H plays her ukulele to entertain her toddler at mealtimes. Isn't that clever? 
  • What about after dinner? Mama C has a nightly jam with her sons. How fun is that? I love that it's become a ritual in their home! 
  • Mama S plays with her daughters in the morning before heading to work. What a fun way to start the day! 
  • Mama E takes her son to preschool in the afternoon and sometimes ends up having some time to kill before pickup time. I suggested she bring her ukulele and Musical Mama binder in the car so she can jam on the go! 
  • Another mom has a toddler who really wants to play her mama's ukulele. In instances like these, I recommend having a few kid instruments on hand. Or even a second (cheap) ukulele so your child can feel more involved in the music making. 
  • When my children were 1 and 3, my most successful time for playing was right after breakfast. Now that they're 4 and 6, I can usually fit in some time in that narrow window between picking up the kindergartener from school and dinnertime. And if I'm honest, my current favorite time to play is probably after bedtime— my kids sleep soundly enough that my playing doesn't wake them and after a long day, it's a nice way to remind myself that I have an identity that extends beyond "mom."  :) 

You may find you have to adapt your music habit to your children's evolving rhythms as they grow but as with most other aspects of parenting, a little flexibility and creativity can go a long way. 

How are you finding time to make music at home? I'd love to hear about it! 

Dance!

New musicians have a lot to juggle when learning the ukulele-- the strumming, the chords, the singing, and (most importantly) maintaining a steady rhythm for the duration of the song. People frequently think of learning an instrument as a chore involving a lot of homework, like locking yourself away in a room to practice for a set amount of time every day. Fortunately that's not true, because that sounds pretty awful to me! There are many ways to work on your skills without even picking up your instrument. One idea I really suggest you try is.... Dance!

Here's why:

Feel the Music

This is really what we're trying to do when we play an instrument— feel the music! In addition to mastering the mechanics of music making, we want to bring our songs to life. When you dance, you're essentially translating a song's rhythm and emotion through your movements. It doesn't really matter how sophisticated your movements are. Swaying or bopping in time to the music is good enough, unless you're Lil Buck. Then you can do things like this:

Improve your timing

Beginning musicians typically find it challenging to maintain a steady beat for the duration of the song. Dance can be great training for your musician's mind in this way. In dance, your movements have to match the rhythm of the song, and transferring that rhythm through your entire body is wonderful training for your internal metronome. 

Improve your musicality

In dance, we're essentially approaching music from the other side. We're working with a finished product (a song) and translating it into another language (dance). Working your way backwards into a song, whether you're dancing at home with your kids or in a ballroom, thinking about the emotional tone or narrative arc of a song is good practice for your singing and playing, especially as you branch out into playing different genres and styles. 

Whose Body is it Anyway?

If you're a parent (especially a mom), it can feel like your body doesn't even belong to you. It starts with pregnancy, when you give over your entire being to growing a baby. Then you have a baby who is completely dependent on you. Then that baby grows into a toddler who literally doesn't know how to stop touching you! Dance is a great way to reclaim your body as being your own after all the changes that pregnancy and parenthood can bring. 

Dance with Your Kids

Just as most kids love to sing and make music, most kids love to dance! Dancing is another form of self-expression and it's a wonderful way to relax and play with your children. Do your kids love to choreograph elaborate routines? Or do they like to wiggle and spin? If dancing feels super awkward to you, try following their lead. Be open to being silly and not worrying about how good your moves are. You'll have more fun that way. :)

 

Free Song Sheet: Peace Like a River

Here's a simple, powerful song that I sing to find comfort on hard days. Peace Like a River is a sweet song with very simple lyrics that make it easy to improvise your own verses. It uses the 1, 4, and 5 chords, and in the video I play it in the key of C (with a little "help" from my daughter). 

Download a free PDF of the chord sheet so you can play along at home! Want to strum along to another version? Search Apple Music or Spotify (or wherever you stream your music) for Elizabeth Mitchell's version, which is also in the key of C. Happy strumming! 

 

 

What Beginning Musicians Can Learn from Jimmy Fallon's Classroom Instruments Series

Have you seen any of the songs performed in the Classroom Instruments series on Jimmy Fallon? The Roots, Jimmy Fallon, and a musical guest (or band) all cram into a small room, where they then jam to the guest's hit song, playing only "kid" instruments like maracas, toy xylophones, and, of course, a ukulele. It's pretty much my favorite thing ever.

Check out this video of Idina Menzel singing a song you're probably sick of hearing! What do you notice when you watch it? Two things stand out to me: 

1- The movement

There they are, all squished together, yet no one looks uncomfortable or stiff. In fact, their bodies are all in motion! Do you see how they're all transferring the rhythm of the song through their movements? They're feeling the music! Maintaining a steady rhythm can be difficult when you're learning a new instrument, but that steady beat becomes a lot easier to maintain if you allow yourself to relax and feel the music!  

2- The joy

Can you count the smiles? Doesn't it look like they're all having a blast? Making music with others can be incredibly fun, even when you're just learning how to play, and even if you make mistakes! Did you catch how Idina Menzel started singing the second verse too early? (The goof happens at the 1:29 mark). She laughs it off and keeps going. When you begin any new venture, musical or otherwise, mistakes are bound to happen. Please don't let them interfere with the joy of learning something new! 

Care to see another example of movement and joy? Check out the Classroom Instruments version of Call Me Maybe: 

And with the holidays rapidly approaching, we can't forget about the Classroom Instruments version of the best Christmas song of all time: 

Are you ready to learn the joy of making music? Contact me for more information on the Foundations beginner ukulele course!