How I learn songs: stumble through, site read, memorize, polish

By | November 9, 2013

Restored from the old site. Originally posted on November 9, 2013.

I’ve developed somewhat of a process for learning new songs on the ukulele. This really applies to finger style arrangements as sing-along chord songs I can generally play without much practicing. But finger style and solo ukulele tunes often require a good deal of practice to play through without stumbling or sounding clumsy.

While I can play lots of songs with music in front of me, I don’t consider myself to really know a song until I can play it by memory. Being able to play with tab is great, but I find its a crutch that ultimately holds me back in my ability to play the song as best as I can.

At any given time I typically have a few songs in rotation during practice at various stages of the following steps:

  1. Learn the song from tab. A this point I’m playing it very slowly, focusing more on the fingering than the rhythm and style. If its a hard song I’ll tackle it in small sections to make it easier. Depending on the complexity of the song, this stage might take from a couple of nights or up to a week.
  2. Once I can play it through with the tab, I’ll do this over and over again and practice it this way, essentially site reading the tab. My fingers have learned how to play the tune and the tab is really just reminding me what comes next. My eyes are focused on the tab, not my fingers. I do this until I can play most of it by just glancing at the tab once in a while. This usually lasts about a week.
  3. Then I move to memorizing it. By now I’ve basically memorized the song, so it’s not hard. I just take the song in parts and play them without looking at the tab. If I need to look at the tab, I stop playing, look at the tab, and start over without looking at the tab. If I’ve played with the tab long enough, I can typically go from needing the tab to not needing the tab in a couple nights doing this. If I get discouraged, I just go back to play with the tab for a while longer as doing so will eventually and effortless embed the tune in my brain.
  4. Finally, I practice playing the song without tab regularly. This is where I find my playing of the tune really goes from sounding somewhat novice to really polished. Without the tab to distract me, I can really focus on playing the song just right, and my fingers become very comfortable with the transitions. This final stage never really ends. As I own the song more and more, I can play it more perfectly and start to add some of my own flair to it.

This nuts and bolts of daily practice isn’t something I hear much about from other ukulele players and I’d be curious to. What do you do?

One thought on “How I learn songs: stumble through, site read, memorize, polish

  1. colleen Holman

    Thank you for sharing this info. These are the same steps I am taking.
    I hope they pay off as well as they have for you!


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