Catching Fireflies

finding magic along the way

How to Write Like a Ukulele

I was probably first introduced to the ‘ukulele sound while watching the Brady Bunch special where they went to Hawaii. (Come on, admit it! You saw it too!) If you missed it, you can view it here. That was the only ukulele sound I knew.

For those of you who are used to pronouncing it you-ka-LAY-lee, I was there too. Never heard it said any other way. But in Hawaii, it is pronounced OO-KOO-le-le. The name roughly translates to “jumping flea,” and it has been an integral part of the Hawaiian culture since it was first introduced in the 1880s.

A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of being introduced to the music of Jake Shimabukuro, who is a virtuoso on this often underestimated instrument. He plays traditional sounding Hawaiian music, but also popular rock songs such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps“. He plays songs from all genres with such depth and dexterity that you will forget you are listening to an instrument that many people consider to be a toy. I immediately wanted one, and my husband and I began to suffer from ‘ukulele acquisition syndrome (anyone who plays a music instrument understands this – one is simply not enough).

I recently watched an interview Jake did last fall on  Musicians@Google to promote his new CD. He said that the beauty in having everyone consider his ‘ukulele a toy is that people have such low expectations when he starts to play. 🙂 I am sure that he astounds the non-believers.

He also said that if people approached other instruments like they approach the ‘ukulele more people would play and the world would be a happier place. I think he is absolutely right. People look at the ‘ukulele as a toy because of its small size and high sound. They pick it up because they think it will be fun to play, and it is. They immediately start strumming and dancing around and find they can learn some chords pretty quickly. But like any other instrument it takes skill and practice to become proficient.

Just think if people would approach other instruments with the same abandon. Instead we approach them as though they are difficult or fragile, and we assume that they take great skill to play well so we don’t even try. Don’t misunderstand me. They often ARE difficult to play, but anyone can learn with the right teacher and practice. The problem with this thinking though is that it stops us from trying or it gets us too tangled up in our worries about perfection to actually play. We get weighed down by not sounding as good as someone else (ie. a recording artist) and give up.

I have taken piano lessons from a handful of teachers over my lifetime. I tend to get a bit of pain in my lower back when I am in a lesson or practicing because I am so tense. Oh my God! What if I play a wrong note! It makes little difference to my state of mind to realize that the teacher has heard so many wrong notes over the years that one more will not kill her. I always had trouble with getting the notes and rhythm together, a common issue, I am sure. I think a lot of that stems from being too tense when I play, so fearful of playing wrong or making a jumble out of the rhythm that I don’t play at all.

In voice lessons, the tension was in my jaw. It is difficult to get a free and easy sound when you are clenching your jaw. The wonderful teacher I had in high school would make me sing scales and do other vocal exercises while bent over at the waist and with my arms dangling to the floor. In this way she managed to get me to relax and goof off a bit with it, and this made the sound open up.

I noticed the same tension when I took violin lessons. It showed up in the death grip that I would have on the instrument while playing. My thumb would grip the fingerboard and not move. It was completely subconscious, but I still catch myself doing it. For anyone who has ever watched a violinist or fiddler, or played yourself, you know that you have got to be able move that thumb if you want to play! Needless to say, the tension that I held in my body while trying to play stemmed from fear of wrong notes and making a fool of myself. Violin is NOT the instrument to choose if you are afraid to be heard playing an incorrect note. It is a loud instrument and takes a lot of coordination. I felt like a total klutz when I first started trying to tame that unwieldy bow. But when things were clicking, it was a hoot!

Well, duh… There will be wrong notes. It is all part of the learning process. You have to make a huge noise before it turns to music. You have to make a mess before it becomes art, and you have to make a mess before it becomes a coherent story.

Aha! See what I did there? You thought I was merely rambling, but I did have a destination in mind. 🙂

What Jake said about music applies to writing, painting, sports, anything that you are passionate about. If you approach it as though it is a toy – fun, a joy to do, and without risk – you will not only show up to do the work, but you will get more work done and have better results. If you dread approaching your work in progress because it has become a chore or because you are filled with angst over failing, you won’t want to be there. And if you do manage to convince yourself to do some work on it, it won’t be any good. It will be stiff and stilted and too worried about what other people think.

So stop working and start playing. Approach the page with wild abandon as though it doesn’t matter. I think that is how we need to write if we are to ever write well. We need to have fun, and just get out of our own way.

For anyone who is interested in checking out this very inspiring musician:



  1. I really loved this. Do you mind if I reblog it?

  2. Reblogged this on Green Embers and commented:
    Hey check out this post, I thought it was great!

    • Thanks! I will head over and check out your blog now! 🙂

  3. Cheryl, did you also know that to tune a string instrument you play the cords for “My dog has fleas?” “Fleas has my dog.” The origin of that might go back to the Hawaian way of pronouching the instrument 🙂

    • Now I am stumped… I have heard that but is that a tune? I’ve heard the ukulele strings are lettered “Good Cockroaches Eat Alot – GCEA” but where do the fleas come in? 🙂


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