Last week we presented Sarah Maisel’s article on how to practice on ukulele. This week, we offer tips from five other top pros: Jake Shimabukuro, Daniel Ward, Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Neal Chin, and James Hill.
Play It Slow. Practicing everything slow is the greatest approach. When you go to the park and you see those people practicing tai chi, that’s what they do; they’re going through their fluid motions. They’re so slow and graceful. They’re focused on every single movement, every single turn. Taking that approach with your instrument is very effective because when you play things slowly, you suddenly become aware of every little thing that you’re doing, like how your finger comes off the string, the finesse of how you release the string and all those things. You become more aware of how the instrument breathes and the way each note breathes.
When you’re young, you just want to hear the head of the note because you’re more concerned with playing as fast as you can. You spend very little time listening to the tail end of the note or even the middle. As you practice things slowly, you start to realize that there are so many different parts of a note and a tone. When you first strike a note, there’s the head of the note, and then there’s this body that kind of opens up and develops. There’s a point where the tone is just right there; it’s got this beauty to it. And then it starts to taper off. Then the tail of the note has a completely different character. If you play everything really fast, all you’re presenting is the head of the note. If you want to change the texture, change the mood, you need to let the note speak so the audience can hear that and feel that as well.
I used to hear it all the time from my teacher: “Practice slow. It’s a lot harder to play slow than play fast.” You think, “You’re just saying that because you can’t play fast!” [laughs] But then later on you realize, “Oh my gosh, they were totally right!”
Practice space. Make sure you are in a comfortable space to spend some time just playing for a while. (I suggest a minimum of 5–20 minutes so you can really feel the physical changes as you listen and work on your sound. Spend less time, and you won’t reach that place where things start to sink in and really gel.)
Play slowly. If you can’t get through any part cleanly and in rhythm, you are going too fast. Practicing slowly allows you to focus on more things at once, and is the quickest path to becoming faster and clean. Use a metronome later to check yourself if you like, but the motor rhythm should come from inside you.
Learn the chords that make up the song and work for smoother changes and sweeter sounds.
Look at your plucking hand while you play. Concentrate on relaxing it while keeping the back of the hand steady, without bouncing or “grabbing” at the strings. This will build tone and strength, and will lead to clean speed in your strokes.
Finally, open your ears wide and focus on breathing evenly.
ABE LAGRIMAS, JR.
Ear Training. When I learn a new song, I almost always transcribe it, because when I do this I’m training my ear to hear harmony and melody. If sheet music is easily accessible and available, I will only use it as a reference to compare to my transcription. When you transcribe something, not only are you training your ear to hear more, you also learn more about harmony and this increases your chordal vocabulary.
New Skills. Technique comes to mind when I think of developing new skills. To me, learning a new skill takes time for the mind and body to absorb before it becomes part of your arsenal. This involves a lot of repetition and application. It’s been said before, but if you want to learn something in the shortest amount of time, have patience, and practice slowly and correctly before you increase the tempo.
Exploration. I try to reserve time to noodle and wander around the fretboard. This exploration time can be rewarding and educational, as it’s often a great way to hear the strengths and weakness in your playing.
Warm Up Physically, Too. When I am actually playing, my goal is to be free to go wherever my mind wants to go. By warming up with a few physical exercises (about 10 minutes) before jumping into my actual practice, I’m much more limber to do what I want to do and I’m able to focus more on musical concepts and ideas more than physicality.
Listen. The instrument is an illusion; you are playing your ear, and the more you can exercise the muscle of listening, the better. This can be sitting down with your favorite album, a quick song on the radio, or even listening to the way the wind sounds bellowing through your favorite corner of your home. The more you can hear, the wider your auditory world will become.
Practicing this way is fun. These exercises can sound pretty great on their own and may even be part of one of your arrangements someday. Try these exercises every day for a week, then try singing and strumming again. I guarantee you’ll feel—and hear—an improvement! Here are three examples.
Speak (don’t sing) the words while strumming the chords. This eliminates the melody, allowing you to focus on words and rhythm.
Hum the melody while strumming the chords. This takes your mind off the words and allows you to focus on the chords and the melody. For a variation, sing the melody to the syllables “lah,” “loo,” or “lay.”
Sing the melody and words while strumming a muted chord (the so-called “Z chord”). This takes your mind off the chord changes, allowing you to focus on melody, lyrics and keeping the beat.