Reposted from 2015. Ukulele kindergarten: In which I embark on a learning challenge that is bound to fail, and experience irrational joy and relief.
Learn a new skill (this year and every year): this task is a pretty significant one, and you know why! For years scientists have told us that a powerful key to keeping an active healthy brain into old age is to carry on learning new things.
And by ‘new’, they mean new, not just updated. For example, doing crossword puzzles is surely an excellent brain exercise, no argument there. However, after doing a few hundred, you are probably not acquiring new skills even though you continue to accumulate new words and new allusions. Cryptic crossword creators have rich, agile minds — but they tend to play variations on a bunch of well-established cognitive exercises, which their followers know well.
Learning a new dance doesn’t count
In one sense, I learn something new every week at Crows Feet Dance Collective rehearsals. As each new dance is developed, we learn new choreography. Indeed, we often have to unlearn steps and sequences and start again as our evil leader casts aside the brilliant in favour of the better.
Yes, we do have to be mentally agile, and we do learn a completely new repertoire every year, and we do experiment with different genres. Besides contemporary dance, we venture into ballet, pop, tai chi, line dancing, hula — anything goes.
But, but, but … is new choreography new enough to maximise the agility of my mind?
Yes, but I’m on a boot camp, I remind myself. Learning a new dance seems like cheating.
My inner sergeant major won’t have a bar of it.
Bring out the ukulele
OK, change of plan. Long ago I learned how to play three chords on a ukulele at a winter workshop for beginners, run by members of the celebrated Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra. On my wall is a Certificate of Awesomeness, asserting that I can sing and play the ukulele at the same time.
OK, I did learn a teeny weeny tiddly amount. I even sang on stage with ten others while playing the odd chord, some of them correct, some of them in time. I certainly had fun. But apart from that single event, the certificate is an outright lie.
History bite: my formal musical education started and ended when I was eight. I failed spectacularly: after a year I couldn’t even point to middle C. I do love singing and I can sort of sight-read intuitively in a choir, as you do. But nobody would call me musically gifted!
So to advance my ukulele skills will be an honest challenge, a hefty challenge.
Early this year a tiny local ukulele group sprang up. We are the Ukulaliennes. We meet, um, every umpteenth Monday night, i.e. once in a blue moon.
My original learning goal for the boot camp was to sing and play a song all by myself without looking at the score. I thought, maybe, ‘You are my sunshine’? A doily could do that one.
(I forgot to say that I can’t even learn my own poems off by heart. Even after scores of public readings, I’m lost without a book in my hand.)
The challenge morphs into one that I will fail
Enter my 12-year-old granddaughter. That girl always has a new project. This time, she proposes to learn French in the hour we spend together every week. So we found a very cool French pop song and decided to get that under our belt. Just singing, mind you.
Then a stupid stupid idea popped into my busy brain: why just sing it? Why not play the ukulele too? Je veux has only got four (ukulele) chords and the tune is repetitive…
I committed — and then the horror began: one of the four chords is the dreaded B flat.
Last night, see me scrunched over like Gollum, every muscle bolted tight, forcing the forefinger to flatten, twisting the ukulele neck this way and that, and failing and failing and failing to hear any sound that resembles any chord, let alone the correct chord.
I will fail. I will try hard, I will persevere, and I may even find a cheat’s workaround, and I will still fail.
And I believe that will be very good for me.
Ukuleles should be fun. To hell with the sergeant major.