Uke

A bright, clear, warm day yesterday, in which I took a walk with my older daughter, who is visiting for a couple of weeks from Hawaii. She says that the air temperature felt about the same as Hawaii. It looks like we are having our famous Junuary, the winter lull in cold fronts that makes central California feel like summer. It may actually be warmer than in June, because June is often filled with the June gloom–the fog and wind that settle in all about us and makes me want to snuggle up indoors near the fireplace.

The old wall heater from our living room is now gone since we remodeled the house last year, but my daughter still instinctively stands against that wall upon visiting. I have also found myself doing the same, standing there and waiting for my back to warm. It would look very curious to an outside observer.

My father’s vintage Martin ukulele has now been out of the repair shop for more than a week. The body is built of mahogany and the fret board of Brazilian rosewood, sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. The shop man tells me the rosewood is now banned from import or export to other countries because it is now considered an endangered species and that my ukulele cannot be shipped outside of the United States. Not that I had planned to sell or ship it anywhere except perhaps Hawaii, but the idea that this kind of wood has become rare seems like it almost deserves its own dedicated ukulele song.

I struggle with learning how to play the little demon. I follow lessons on youtube and have ordered a couple of books on Amazon to read more about music theory and to study the cloudy world of chord charts. For such a tiny piece of craftsmanship, hardly the size of a shoebox, I cannot believe how much thought has been put into producing music from it. In the UK, a whole ukulele symphony exists, with hundreds of players all strumming in harmony and melody.

One of the perhaps more interesting challenges right away for me is learning how to hang onto it. If I clench it tightly, my muscles in my hands soon cramp and I smother the resonating quality of the sound that exudes from all sides of it. If I hold it back closer to the bottom where it is thicker and less slippery, my strumming hand goes over the sound hole and blocks the sound from coming out. I see from trying to follow the advice of other online advisors that there are a hundred theories on how to hold it. One person says he doesn’t really exactly hold it, but rather sort of cradles it and continually readjusts where it sits on his arm as he strums with one hand and moves his fretting fingers up and down the neck. He sees the handling of it as more of a nudging and scooting action than a firm clenching. I think I might concur with him. With a guitar, people lasso themselves with a neck strap, which solves much of the problem of how to hang on for the ride, so I have located a uke strap online that I am waiting to receive so that I may saddle up and see if that helps.

The Martin has a rich sound quality to it, but perhaps this is true of even the most mediocre of ukes. Since I am trying for the first time in life to see what sort of noise I might make with one of these, nearly everything I try to do with it is a new experience for me. Others have told me it is the easiest instrument in the world to play, but I am not sure to which world they might be referring. If this one, I can’t imagine where the scale of difficulty goes from here. So many variables must come together all at once to produce any sound that might truly be recognized as music, but at least it doesn’t produce awkward squawking and squeaking, such as that of a badly played saxophone.

I always thought of my hands and fingers as being inordinately small and slight, but on the fret board of a uke they seem like big fat, uncontrollable German sausages sort of bouncing around out of control, with no finesse and no feeling. While the one hand is consumed with this ridiculously tough task of trying to understand where it belongs and what it is supposed to be doing to produce harmony, the other hand, struggling on the other end of the instrument, acts as if it and my brain have never communicated with one another. This hand is supposed to be strumming these four simple little nylon strings to produce a pleasant syncopated beat, and yet, after several hours of effort, I find my fingernails often sticking to the strings and producing all sorts of incongruent, high-pitched cries of anguished torture, as if I were pulling the tail of a dog.

I have only had the uke a week. I’m told that I must give it time. I think what people are not saying when they give me advice is that I must let it take over my entire life, and even then, I will not be able to practice enough to make it sound anywhere near decent. I’m beginning to understand a little of why it is that I never learned a musical instrument in my younger days, even though I loved the concept in principle. Now that I am retired and do have a little more time on my hands, I probably need to ask myself whether this is going to be the main goal for the rest of my life, learning how to get a pleasant tune from out of a mahogany shoebox. Some of the videos I have watched on the web this past week, however, spill over with a passion from which I could easily become infected. I wonder if my father intended all of this for me when he left me this danged thing.

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