Monthly Archives: May 2014

Fingernails, Finger Picks and Finger Pads

I noted in my last practice plan that I intended to work with the aLaska Piks I’ve had kicking around now, largely unused, for several months. As someone who primarily finger picks the instrument, nails have been a substantial source of uncertainty and frustration. There’s a whole back story to this latest attempt, which I will now bore you with.

As a borderline compulsive nail biter, I started playing the uke with just my finger tips. I was quite happy doing this until one day I played the uke with a guitar pick and was blown away by the ringing clarity of the notes. I really wanted that tone in my playing, and I embarked on would would be a sustained and successful effort to grow out the fingernails on my right hand for use in finger picking.

Picking with the nails quickly became second nature, and the resulting tone rewarded the effort. All except for my thumb. I have a weirdly shaped thumbnail that causes it to break easily and also be maddeningly far from where it needs to be when playing.  The position of my hand when playing has the outer side of my thumb striking the string. Contorting my hand so that the thumbnail could be used is incredibly uncomfortable and awkward, and I’ve been unable to play that way with any success.

For some time I went on playing with the side pad of my thumb and nails on the other fingers. I told myself this worked, but as time went on it bothered me more and more and the difference between the tone of notes played by the thumb and the rest of the notes became more and more bothersome.

This brings us to the latest attempt. Here’s how it went. I decided to try and get used to a thumb pick. I have a few different kinds, some plastic guitar thumb picks of various thickness, some Herco Medium thumb picks, and of course the thumb-sized aLaska pik.

The aLaska pik suffered from much the same problem as my natural thumbnail: the position of my hand just didn’t get the tip of the pick close to the string when striking. The more guitarish thumbpicks would well and I was able to fairly quickly adjust to playing with them.

Unfortunately, playing with a pick on the thumb and nails on the rest of my fingers had the opposite affect of what I previously experienced. Now the notes played by the thumb were considerably louder and clearer than notes played with the natural nails.

So a final attempt was made at making myself use the aLaska piks. I even followed the advice of some YouTube videos and boiled them in order to fit them more precisely to my fingers, and filed them down a bit around the rough edges.

In the end, playing with the finger picks on all fingers was still to uncomfortable and crammed. There was a lot of finger picks bumping into each other, and I could see myself living with wearing these things all the time.

So my final resort was regression. I cut and filed down my nails to near non-existent size and am back to playing with finger tips. At first the tone was deeply unsatisfying, and I played very little for a number of days while sulking over this setback. But as I’ve done it more, the tone of the finger tips is growing on me. I can play very quietly, for one. Overall, I feel I have better control over the volume. Most importantly, all the notes share a consistent tone and I’m not suffering uncomfortable finger picks.

I’ve been telling myself that I’m not a professional recording musician. If I was, the need for the tone of nails would force me to keep pressing for a solution. But for my purposes, playing with my finger tips keeps it simple and fun and sounds good enough for me.

Of course, don’t take this settling as all out capitulation. There are still other options I may explore if I can’t help myself:

  • The Ultimate Fingerpick looks promising, and is a design I had considered myself so I’m glad to see someone making it. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have anything for the thumb.
  • Saddle Thumb Pick is an improved thumb pick. Not sure it really solves my problem; they don’t seem to make picks for the other fingers.
  • The Freedom Pick is an improvement on finger picks, but doesn’t address the thumb.

You can tell by all of the upstart finger pick inventors out there that this is yet an unsolved problem for finger pickers. I’m not alone.

A Plan for Practice

It occurred to me the other day that I want to practice more, but I don’t. I started this blog 9 months ago and haven’t posted to it in 4 months. I certainly did not stop playing or enjoying the ukulele. But my focus on it has taken a back seat to laziness, different projects and other distractions.

Lately I practice for about 15 minutes 3-4 times per week. While this is sufficient to keep my chops up, I’m not progressing at all.

I often think about wanting to practice more, but I don’t. This strikes me as an odd thing about humans. We find ourselves unable to find the discipline to do what we want to do.

So I spent some time a couple days ago considering what a more structured practice plan might look like, what would keep it interesting and how to keep myself accountable. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Use a weekly goal to fill 30 minutes of formal practice daily

Playing piano, trumpet and then guitar as a kid, the rule of thumb was 30 minutes of practice per day. That still seems reasonable to me. When I was taking lessons, the teacher would give me an assignment – something specific to practice each week. So I’m going to do that with myself. Each weekend I will give myself an assignment for the coming week.

These assignments might include:

  • Learn songs
  • Practice songs
  • Memorize songs
  • Learn scales
  • Specific tasks around site reading
  • Specific tasks around memorizing the fretboard
  • Practice singing

2. Split formal practice with another, non-rote activity that is closely related to practice

After the 30 minutes of structured practice, I get to do something a bit more fun. Not that I don’t enjoy practice, I do. But it’s work.

These non-practice activities will support my practice in various ways. The key will be to plan these at least one day in advance. That will keep me from just frittering away the time.

Here are several ideas I’ve come up with to fill this time:

  • Research and plan future weekly goal(s)
  • Learn/play the piano
  • Work on an original song
  • Work on an original arrangement
  • Create tabs for original songs or arrangements
  • Make a performance video
  • Record/produce an original song
  • Post to this blog
  • Learn to read music
  • Read about theory or another music-related topic
  • Watch other players’ performances on YouTube for inspiration and ideas
  • Check in on the UU forums
  • Find/plan/attend performance opportunities (e.g. open mics)

3. Use this blog to keep myself accountable

Finally, this all sounds well and good, but how to keep myself accountable? The best idea I’ve come up with is to post my practice plans and results at least weekly to this blog.

Today was day 1 – I practiced for 30 minutes (just worked on songs I already know as I hadn’t planned anything specific) and then wrote this post (after realizing I’d lost this blog and trying to recover as much as I could).

I won’t do this every day, but if I manage 3-4 days per week it will be a huge improvement over what I’ve done for the past 4 months or so. We’ll see how it goes.

Welcome to Uke Nut, Again

So, I had a blog here and stupidly cancelled the Godaddy hosting account it was on. Months ago. I thought it was hosted elsewhere (where it is hosted now) but I’d never actually moved it. Duh. So I’ll be re-posting content I am able to salvage from The Wayback Machine and Google cache. Looks like I’m going to lose about half the posts, which is a bummer.

In the meantime, I came here to write my first post in months. It’s about practice.

(for posterity, here was the original first post:)

Welcome to Uke Nut. I started this website because I love the ukulele and, while there are many ukulele sites out there, this one is mine. I hope you enjoy it.

I play mostly fingerstyle ukulele with an occasional strum & sing tune. I’m also interested in music theory as it applies to the instrument and using it along with rote memorization in getting to know the fretboard on an intuitive level. I’ll be posting what I learn here.

We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for stopping by.