Learn the ukulele at any age

Photo by Casey Kellow

I’m holding my ukulele as my fingers awkwardly strum a rhythm pattern. It’s a combination of up strumming and down strumming while changing between the A minor and G chord. I’ve taken a few lessons in the past. Lately, I’ve been taking free lessons online on YouTube.

I started dabbling in ukulele a few years ago after a trip to Ucluelet, B.C. My husband and I were staying at a bed and breakfast overlooking Little Beach Bay. One evening, while sitting on the deck watching the sun sink into the ocean, I heard the strumming of a soulful tune behind me. It was so fitting for the moment that it gave me a little shiver despite it being a warm evening. I couldn’t quite place what instrument it was. I turned to where the music was coming from and saw an older couple sitting together nearby. The fellow was playing a ukulele. I turned back around and settled into my adirondack chair. I looked out at the rolling waves while the music filled the air. It was one of those moments that I’ll always remember – the ocean, the night sky and the accompanying music. The stars came out and the moon shone brightly in the sky. Eventually, I returned to my room, but only once the couple retired to their room, taking the ukulele with them.

In the morning, being the only other guests at the bed and breakfast other than the ukulele couple, we ended up sitting together for breakfast. We exchanged introductions and it wasn’t long before I was asking Max questions about his ukulele: when he had learned to play it and what his experience learning to play it was like.

Max said that he had been playing the ukulele for about 10 years. After he retired he had read that learning something new would be a good way to keep his brain challenged after removing the stimulation that his day job had provided. He had always wanted to play a musical instrument. So, he chose the ukulele.

Max said he took some private lessons for 6 months and then joined a weekly ukulele group. The group included musicians of all levels, so there was always someone to help him when he needed it. He became good friends with a few of the ukulele players in the group and even travelled with some of them (with ukuleles in tow!). The neat thing was that after a few years it was now his turn to mentor new ukulele players. He encouraged me to get started and reminded me that there was no ‘right’ age to start learning the ukulele, or anything for that matter.

After hearing how Max had learned to play the ukulele at 60-years-old, I was excited and inspired to play the ukulele, too. So, on my next birthday, I received a ukulele on and have been strumming away ever since. I have to say, although it’s an easier instrument to learn to play, it still takes time and practice.

Maybe you’ve seen the Hawaiian ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo’ole play ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ on youtube. It looks pretty simple, but to play that song you need to learn six chords. Once the chords are learned, then you need to practice transitioning between the chords. That’s the part I find tricky. ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ was one of the first songs I tried to learn to play, but eventually I got frustrated and gave up. Luckily, there’s lots of songs that only require three or four chords to transition between. Songs like Lean on Me, Clementine, Amazing Grace and Happy Birthday are better songs to begin with.

At first, it’s a lot of coordination of your fingers and hands and reading and recognizing the chords. Believe me, your brain works hard.

And learning an instrument is indeed good for your brain. When you learn to play an instrument you use both hemispheres. You use the left side of your brain to learn the notes and where to place your fingers.

You use the right side of your brain for your creativity — to feel the rhythm, to maybe write your own songs or lyrics. Plus learning the ukulele stimulates blood flow in your brain, creates new synapses and challenges your memory.

I look away from the computer where an upbeat guy is trying to coach me through the strumming rhythm. I give myself a few minutes and then start practicing on my own. I know my fingers will get the hang of the transitions and rhythm on this song eventually, and when I do it’s going to feel great!