How to Master the Ukulele and Other Life Skills
By fourteen years old have an incredibly distorted view of what is cool, the more obviously false the better. Ideally you should spend time around a group of theater kids that contains a disproportionately large number of ukulele owners, but this is not necessary.
Have parents who want you to fit in with your peers so badly you will come home to find they have bought a ukulele, simply because, for reasons beyond their understanding, their son thinks it will make him cool. (It helps if your parents also have a tragically flawed understanding of the way your peers think.)
Tune the strings. If you have never tuned an instrument before, try tuning them slightly off pitch. Think it sounds better this way for an embarrassingly long time. (This is the musical equivalent of building a house with a tilted foundation, because you think it looks better.) Still, this is for the best, since new strings have a hard time remembering their tuning, and this way you won’t have to worry about that.
Try to strum a few chords. Your parents have made you take piano lessons for as long as you can remember and you are fascinated by music theory, so you know a little bit about the hidden architecture of chords and the way they build on each other, fitting into tense arrangements that stretch your spirit taught as a nylon string.
Fail spectacularly. (A ukulele is very different from a piano.)
Keep failing. Try to let the strings thud more often than they ring. Make sure your fingers are just slightly out of place, so your notes will bump and jostle into each other like a crowd of people rushing to escape a collapsing building. Strum randomly with no regard for rhythm. If your playing sounds more like street noise than music, you are on the right track.
Try to figure out how to navigate the dull golden frets that stretch like a ladder up the neck of your tiny, chocolate brown instrument. If you have never dealt with a fretted instrument before, this will be an interesting learning opportunity. If you have friends with experience, see if one will tell you that your right hand, which does the actual strumming, should be gentle and glide over the strings, so they ring like a doorbell, even after it is gone, while the left presses stings down with surprising firmness.
When you go to rehearsals for the musicals you take part in, (You and your parents think this is necessary so that you, a homeschooled child who has always been quiet, can have some contact with other teens.) bring your ukulele. Sit by yourself and play. Soon you will have a basic grasp of strum patterns, so your playing will sound less like auditory soup.
Practice chord recognition and moving seamlessly from one bone-bending hand position to another. If you were a nerdy child, who was never good at sports, this may be you first experience of muscle memory. You will soon see that your hands can remember things much better than your head and put them into action before you even realize what you are doing.
Be inspired by how easy it is to just learn the names of chords and turn them into a song on your uke. Start improvising on the piano in the living room. It will begin as an awkward pile of chords, but one day, for reasons you do not understand, it will start to sound like music, like you finally, by sheer accident stumbled on the blueprints you wanted from all of your many piano teachers. You will start adding notes to your chords like rococo filigree, until they feel wonderful and decadent, sixths and major sevenths and flatted fifths, the devil’s interval, sounding like something that was bent finally breaking. You will never need to think of the notes that build a chord again. Your finger will remember the distance between them, the way they remember how to button your pants.
Have a grandfather who develops dementia and go with your mother, his youngest child, to see him in a locked ward that smells of antiseptic and stale urine. She will visit him three or four times a week to make sure his face his shaved and help him with the buttons on his many, nearly identical shirts. Try to go with her at least twice a month, even if you cannot think anything to say. Hear him seem perfectly lucid one day and totally incapable of conversation the next. Realize there can no longer be a structure to your conversations, since you cannot know what he remembers, so there is no rhythm to organize a conversation around.
Instead of talking, bring your uke. If you have followed the previous steps correctly, they will think you are doing it to be kind. If they do not think this, repeat steps 3-10 until they do. If they compliment you, say, “I’m not that good.”
If a member of the staff tells you your music is good for the residents, say, “I’m not that good,” then take the opportunity to look around. Do not notice any look of happiness in the patients, who are still tied to their wheelchairs, eyes boring angrily into the empty air; wandering aimlessly, humming the same two notes over and over; or screaming at you to “Go play in the barn! We don’t tolerate that kind of noise in the house! When my parents get home, there’ll be a fuss!”
Play the nursing home’s battered piano (Play it, even if it is nowhere near the small, bare-walled room where your mother and grandfather will sit for hours.), until you meet a woman named Anne. Offer to listen to her play and realize she can make better music with her stiff, arthritic fingers than you ever will with yours.
Tell her so. Her body will shake like a marionette as she says, “I’m not that good.” Do not say anything else.
Forget why your grandfather needed anesthesia.
Bring your ukulele to his funeral. Pay attention to those minor chords. If you do, people will think you are playing for him. If you have followed the previous steps correctly, your hands should be playing by themselves, while your mind listens to them go.
As you empty his house, your mother will show you the fragile, little, blood red ukulele your grandfather played and tell you he used to learn a new instrument every winter. In almost the same breath she will say she worries about her older sister’s memory. Think of your grandfather, who was never a talkative man, even when he was healthy, and who seems to be tied to you by an elderly, nylon string, so taught it would buzz like a hornet, if you knew how to pluck it. Wonder why you had never heard him play or mention music before, except to joke about playing tuba or dropping his pick in his dulcimer and being unable to shake it out.
Go upstairs and play the golden piano your mother learned on. It will be out of tune, because no one who lives in your grandparents’ house plays it, but that does not matter. Focus on the way your hands move, like crabs across the keys. Watch them like they were separate beings. Do not think about strings, hornets, or empty houses.
If you have a younger brother, you should let him play with your grandfather’s uke, so he does not break yours. You can afford to lose the red one. Its strings are too old to remember their tuning.
You will not need to take any more steps to develop your skills. Your fingers will stray along the frets like it is natural, and your body will curve around the little instrument to keep its body in place before you even realize you are doing it. Playing will be like walking and breathing, involuntary, so you will not need to worry about getting better. Your fingers will do that for you. Maybe you will take your ukulele with you to the nursing home, when your mind is too far gone for your family to care for you, or maybe you will leave it high on a bookshelf to be found by the relations who clean out your house when you are gone, its strings arthritic with age. They will wonder, if they stop to think about your ridiculous, fragile, chocolate brown instrument, what you sounded like, when your fingers still moved on its neck like spiders on a web. And maybe they will think, as if you ever controlled your hands when they were playing, that, if you returned to your house and took up your instrument, they might be able to step into the mansions you built inside its hollow body, even if only for a moment, and maybe get a little bit closer to you than they were before.
“You can’t keep driving the kids around when you're drunk, Bill,” I remember hearing my mother say hundreds of times throughout my childhood. “You’re going to fucking kill them.”
“I was fine, quit bitchin’ at me. They’re my kids too, I know how to handle them. I don’t need you constantly on my back.”
“No, that’s too much. You’re not doing that shit anymore. Not with my kids.”
“We were fine.”
“You’re going to fucking kill them!”
Not long after, I would hear the back door slam, the rumble of his car, and my mother's muffled sobs from the living room.
I must have heard this series of events hundreds of times through my bedroom door. Like a threatened dog, the hairs on the back of my neck would rise as I strained to listen for signs of life. The slamming of the door was my cue; rest easy, be okay, don’t strain. The car’s rumble was my lullaby, and the sobs were rain tapping their tune against the glass, dropping me deeper into sleep.
/ / / / /
Falcon Skydiving business runs out of what seems to be a series of small to medium sized sheds, some with four walls, some without. The structural state of the buildings was almost gimmicky, as though trying to make me reconsider boarding one of their planes just to jump out soon after. I sat on a shaggy, torn carpet watching the groups ahead of me board the small plane, holding twenty people uncomfortably at best, and takeoff. About fifteen minutes after that, I watched them flutter down like autumn leaves, their parachutes gliding them through the cool air. Though they all came down ecstatic (except for one fellow who passed out shortly after jumping from the plane, but he too was in a good mood when he awoke), I still felt the queasiness that comes along with paying $200 to jump out of a functioning airplane. I sat there a bit perplexed with myself until a hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around.
“You Thom?” asked a guy wearing an obnoxiously green outfit and goggles.
“Yeah, and you?”
“Aaron. We’ll be jumping together today,” he said with a smile as he shot out his hand for me to shake. “You ready man?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be I guess. So I’ll be strapped to you when we jump?”
“If you want to make it back down at the same time I do, then yeah.”
We boarded the plane, sped down the runway, and lifted off, the plane lurching and jerking as we ascended to fourteen thousand feet. The tiny plane’s sliding plexiglass door sputtered and rattled; I imagined it was mocking me as I sat there trembling.
/ / / / /
Why do all my vocals sound so shitty?
I kicked my desk chair and left my room for a breather. No matter how I worked it, my vocal recordings for my songs sounded like garbage. They hadn’t yet made it up to my world-class, amateur mixing engineer standards.
I came back, with a bottle of water, to an email notification that was waiting for me at the top of my screen; the preview read “yo, this sounded great. you shou…”
I should keep mixing is what I should do. I’ve come this far, no reason to stop now.
I threw my headphones on and put the same 0:28 second vocal recording on repeat, listening for hours to pick out every flaw, every rough edge, every transient sound.
A small EQ boost here, a cut over there, little compression… Nope. Maybe a cut here? And a little reverb… Nope. Another compressor? Should I re-record the whole thing? I don’t even like this shit anymore; I can’t believe I thought this sounded good…
/ / / / /
The man sitting by the small, plexiglass door threw on his goggles, gave me a thumbs up, and yanked the door open; wind burst through the opening like water through a broken dam. Deafened by the sound of the rushing wind and propellers, I looked out the opening, down at the square cutouts of brown crop fields. They seemed to crawl along as we sped by.
Aaron, strapped to the back of my harness, yelled into my ear, “You’re ready man, this is it! All the waiting, all the nerves, that uncomfortable ride up here, all for this! Let’s go!”
Hunched over, we walked to the door and I did as I was told: sit with your legs hanging out of the plane, tilt your head back, and enjoy the ride. I couldn’t tell if my heart was pounding or frozen.
“Thom, I want you to kick off the side of the plane for me on three, alright? One! Two! Three!”
/ / / / /
Fuck it, I’ll come back to it tomorrow. I need to reset my ears for a while. I’m goin’ deaf.
I removed my headphones and looked at the clock. 2:30 am. Realizing it was already tomorrow and that I had been working at the mix for five hours today alone, I went to bed.
The next morning came around after another poor night of sleep. Groggy and frustrated, I stumbled to my desk and opened my laptop. The email notification popped up again: “yo, this sounded great. you shou…” so I opened it and read on.
“yo, this sounded great. you should get that EP, or whatever you’re calling it, out. you said it was close to being done like 3 months ago. why haven’t you done it yet?”
/ / / / /
When I awoke, I saw raindrops glittering on my window. I climbed out of bed and walked into the living room to find my mother had fallen asleep on the couch. The window curtain was opened slightly, showing me that my father’s car was still gone.
My mother is a light sleeper.
“Morning. You okay?”
She stared at the black screen of the television as if looking for an answer in it. She must not have found anything.
I sat on the couch with her and said, “You know, it sucks. But he’ll be back. And he’ll apologize. And he’ll try to clean up. And he’ll do it again.”
“He’s so stubborn. He just doesn’t want to listen,” she said.
“We know that. But at some point we just have to let go. It’ll always come full circle. At some point it will stop, whether he makes that choice or not.”
She kept her gaze at the television, shaking her head slowly.
“Don't worry about me though,” I said. “At least he’s predictable. And don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m almost comfortable with this now. We’ll be ok.”
I had a version of this conversation with my mother constantly. After years of this, the time finally came when it stopped.
“I’m sorry Thom,” my father wheezed. “You are my dream come true.”
I hugged him and cried into his bony chest. I could feel his ribs on my cheek and my palms. His arms wrapped around me felt weak; he was withering away before my eyes.
Days later, I woke early to the unusual chirping of my pet parakeet. I went to the room in which my father was in his hospice bed. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and he did not answer when I called for him.
“Mom, Pat, come in here! This is it!” I said hoping I would wake them. I went to my father’s bedside and held his hand. My mother and younger brother hustled into the room.
“He’s dead?” Pat asked.
“I think he’s about to die,” I answered. “The doctor said his last breaths might look like this. Like a fish out of water.”
We watched him wheeze, all holding his hand. After what felt like the longest minute of watching him labor, his chest stopped moving.
/ / / / /
I was immediately disoriented. I kicked off the side of the plane and in a single moment, it felt as though my nerves did not jump off the plane with me. The rushing of the air past me as I accelerated towards Earth was deafening; so deafening it all seemed silent. I could not hear my own screams. The screams were not of terror, but of an indescribable elation. My body felt weightless as we soared.
Just before we reached the tops of the clouds, Aaron pulled the parachute. As we glided through them, I could feel the moisture accumulating on my hands.
“Well how was it man?” Aaron yelled from behind me.
“Holy shit, that was incredible! Amazing!” I replied as I looked out as far as I could see.
“I told you man, it’s all worth it,” said Aaron, adjusting the harness and undoing clips. “The waiting, the money, the plane ride, the nerves. None of it matters once you jump. You just gotta jump.”
/ / / / /
I felt my chest begin to move again. I must have been holding my breath as I watched my father take his last few. I sat there, staring at my father’s eyes, both of us not blinking.
“Well, that’s it,” I said after many moments of silence. “That’s the end.”
My mother and brother began sobbing. I joined them in a hug, but I did not join them in their crying. Looking back, I’m not sure if it was because of shock or a lack of full realization of the situation. My eyes never left my father’s. I could feel the nervous tension in my shoulders melt away down my back. The back of my neck tingled. The air in my lungs seemed to move freely again. I felt weightless, as if I was flying.
/ / / / /
“... they say ‘On three! One! Two!’ and they push you on two because people grab on three. You fall out of the airplane and in one second you realize that it’s the most blissful experience of your life. You’re flying. There’s zero fear. You realize that at the point of maximum danger is the point of minimum fear. The lesson for me was why were you scared in your bed the night before? What do you need that fear for? Everything up to the stepping out, there’s actually no reason to be scared. And then in that moment, all of a sudden, where you should be terrified, is the most blissful experience of your life. The best things in life are on the other side of fear.”
/ / / / /
I could not seem to stop rereading the email. It struck a chord with me.
“... why haven’t you done it yet?”
Well, because it’s not ready. Because there are still problems with it. Because there are things that need to be redone. Because I think I can make it even better. Because…
Because I am not ready to jump yet.