Ed. note: This article was written by Guitar Lifestyle contributor and ukulele enthusiast Russ. You can read more of his contributions here, and you can follow him on Twitter here.
Aloha! I wanted to talk today about the importance of being flexible and allowing some freedom in your musical education (or the education of others). This is best summed up with my son and his love for the song “Shut Up and Dance” by Walk The Moon.
Transitions are one of the more frustrating things to learn on any instrument. Think about it: You take all this time and effort to curl and stretch your fingers in ways you’re pretty sure they weren’t naturally meant to and then you have to immediately change to a different chord! Talk about frustrating!
And that’s what I’ve been running into for the last two weeks. My kids know how to play C and C7. They can kind of make F chords, but it’s not clean (yet). My son thinks that the F is hard, but he was instantly amused when I told him that the F chord without the fretted note on the second string is an A minor. So he’s basically learning two chords in one (true enough).
I told them to practice moving from one chord to the next. Take their time, go slowly, focus on playing it cleanly before picking up speed. They just about failed to practice in any way for the rest of the week.
Perhaps this is because transitions for the sake of transitions is a boring exercise. You and I rationalize it – you’re building muscle memory which will make everything much easier later on down the road – but kids aren’t exactly looking into the future. They want knowledge, sure, but I think most importantly they want to put that new knowledge to use.
So I was going through the YouTube channel for the Ukulele Teacher and saw the song “Shut Up and Dance,” and decided I would see how hard it was. The song is super catchy and has a very Fall Out Boy vibe to it which I like. It turns out that there were only four chords to learn and the whole song can be played with them, almost always in the same pattern.
I learned the song, recorded a short video of me playing it, and sent it to my son to demonstrate that he too could learn it.
And then it hit me: why shouldn’t he learn it now? The chords are C, F, Am, and G. Besides the G, he knows all those other chords at least in a rudimentary, I’m-still-working-on-playing-clean way. I sent him and my daughter the chord sheets and then pictures of me fretting a G finger by finger (I was out of town at the time). First the second finger goes on the first string – CLICK – then the third finger goes on the second – CLICK – and then the first finger goes on the third string – CLICK! Now they knew the chord construction, what fingers to use, and the missing chord from the song.
While we’re still moving through the book, my kids were completely stoked to learn a song that they knew and when you’re working on a known song, you want those transitions to work because you want the song – the song you know and LIKE – to sound good. You want it to sound RIGHT. That desire makes you focus and practice more, especially when you’re already so close at the start!
In the end, the result was a bigger motivator than my boring exercises of slowly moving through made up transitions ever could be and in the end, the kids could play a whole song that they knew and love.
After I saw how excited they were about this, I took a moment to focus on the importance of flexibility in your education plan. We all have plans as far as what we’re going to learn and how we’re going to progress, but maybe at the next fork in the road, you should deviate from the more well-traveled and allow yourself to be motivated by something else – something you weren’t prepared for.
You never know, it could be just the motivator you need to keep going.
Until next time,
Cool article. It’s always hard to keep doing the boring stuff (chord transitions, scales, etc.) when learning to play, even though it’s so important, but it’s equally important to remember why you’re learning in the first place, which is wanting to be able to play songs you love.
I wasn’t familiar with the song mentioned here (Shut up and Dance), checking it out now and it seems pretty good. Glad to hear your son got excited learning the song!