Uke Got To Be Kidding

My stubbornness* knows no bounds.

None.

In fact, some people might say “obsessiveness” is a better description of that particular personality trait, but I’m gonna stick with stubborn because it has a mentally healthier ring. 

Maybe I should rethink that, though, since I just paid $40 to learn something I already knew. Which is on point, on brand and very, very much me. 

But, I did buy myself some peace of mind and when you look at it that way, $40 is a small price to pay for serenity and the independent, expert validation that yes, in fact, I am totally on the correct path to learn how to play Lizzo’s “Juice” on the ukulele.

Confused? 

OK, let’s back up a little. Well, maybe a lot. 

Call me…Ahab because I’ve always had some white whale I was chasing after. When I was a kid, it was figuring out how to walk on water because my dad told me I could. I didn’t realize he was kidding. That was a fair amount of time one summer day, stepping off the edge of the big pool at Jesse Owens Park over and over. And over.

Whale No. 2 was college algebra, which I started taking in seventh grade and then finally got the hang of when I was, in fact, in college.

Whale No. 3, maybe five years ago, was knitting. I bought a kit, for funsies, that was geared at kids ages 9 and up. I can handle that, I thought. Nope. Wrong. It was way beyond my abilities and I had to suck it up and pay for lessons at a knitting store.

I’m sure there have been dozens of whales, too many to keep track of, but those are the ones I can think of right off the top of my head until this most recent one, which involves my COVID craft…of ukeleleing. 

Humble brag, I’m self-taught. 

My method involves finding songs that would be really funny to get stuck in my alt-music loving husband’s head (such as Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams Come True” or Madonna’s “Material Girl”) or songs that are just flat-out, hype bangers like Tom Jones’ standard “It’s Not Unusual.” So yes, my set list is kinda eclectic. Anyway, I’ll search YouTube, find a version I like, track down the lyrics and match up the chords and words, and just play over and over until the song sounds right. It’s kind of painstaking, really. Recently, after striking out more than three times trying to find a version of “September” that was doable for a rookie like me, I stumbled across a tutorial from a Japanese ukulele teacher. I liked her version and was undeterred by the fact that it was IN JAPANESE. I thought I could figure it out if I just watched it enough. Around Day 3, I discovered there is actually a translation button.

It was not so helpful.

Sample: “So the rhythm turkey is also different and it’s a fairly simplified chord progression, but it’s okay, maybe I should help, especially the cat song in English.”

Also: “Let’s do it like a valley.”

I poked around YouTube some more and probably two weeks later, I ended up learning a very simple version. In English. Slayed that whale.

Back when I first picked up the apple-green uke, I set my sights on “Juice,” Lizzo’s anthem about being yourself and owning it, but after learning the chords I decided it was probably too much for a beginner. Now that I have some, ahem, “experience” I really, really, really, really, REALLY want to/need to/MUST learn it.

I found a rockin’ version that shared the chords, but no strumming pattern. I watched it at quarter speed, searched the internet, pestered several people I know, nothing. I was getting desperate. So desperate, in fact, that I DMed the dude who made the post. Obsession, er, stubbornness knows no shame. He ignored me. All four times.

Then I realized I could hire someone to teach me! Someone who knows stringed instruments would know what to do. I found a brochure at a local music shop for a smiley teacher who, with his long gray beard,  looked like a founding member of ZZ Top or maybe a long-lost cousin from “Duck Dynasty.” I fired off a message and on his weekly visit to the public library to check his email, he answered me back. I linked him to the video and hoped for the best.

Not surprising for someone in his 70s who really grooves on ’20s and folk music, he was unfamiliar with Lizzo but said an hour-long, $40 lesson would give me the knowledge I needed.

On the day of our lesson, my first teacher who did not come squeezed into a little YouTube rectangle, was dressed in a black leather vest and jaunty black leather bowler hat with two dangly, metal feather earrings swinging from his left ear. He pulled out an Acer laptop, which was a shocker to me.

“YOU HAVE A COMPUTER!”

“Well sure,” he answered calmly. “I just don’t have internet at home.”

He fired up the video and then clicked over to a link on the right for another, different “Juice” tutorial.

“Now this one…”

“Oh, I know this one,” I told him. “It was one of the first I watched. I don’t like that version.”

“It’s the same one you want to learn,” he said. “It’s just slower.”

“NO, IT’S NOT!”

“Listen,” he said, and clicked back over the the video I’d memorized because I’d watched it 587 times, at normal speed, half speed, even quarter speed. He slowed it waaaay down. “It’s the same strum.”

I tilted my head and listened. Then, he went back to the tutorial I’d dismissed as too slow and played it again. Dang it. He was right. Sitting there in that little room with the Bob Marley poster taped to the wall and a dusty keyboard behind me, I could hear it. I picked out the same down-up-down strum followed by scratching from muting the strings.

“Is this the easiest 40 bucks you’ve ever made?”

He shrugged. “No.”

I still got my hour long lesson, in which he told me I was on the right track and a musical prodigy (OK, not really, but he said I was really good for a beginner after I kept verbally jabbing him for a compliment) and taught me a smidge of music theory and chord stuff that I kind of paid attention to. 

So, the strumming pattern was right there in front of me the whole time. Sigh. Guess I gotta blame it on the goose.

In the course of the lesson, I did pick up a new term — thumb crotch, that fleshy spot between your thumb and index finger where you nestle the ukulele neck — and I am pretty sure that was worth at least $37.

*Stubbornness is such a weird word and I just googled it because I thought I made it up because it looks so wrong. I think stubbornitity has a better ring to it.

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