The little black case sat at the foot of my bed through Christmas, untouched and unopened like a gift from an aunt who tends to send potholders covered in cat hair or bags of razor-sharp ribbon candy.
It was silly that I hadn’t even taken a look. I wanted to do this. Learning to play a musical instrument has long been high on my list of yearly goals. I’ve just missed the mark, repeatedly.
In 2016, during the first year of “One Month at a Time,” I attempted to learn percussion for Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto with the intention of performing with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
I had a good teacher, WVSO timpanist Scott Christian.
Over several weeks, Scott and I went over castanets, the snare drum, the bass drum, the triangle and cymbals.
I was a hopeless mess at all of them, not competent enough to follow along with “Row Row Your Boat,” let alone a 25-minute musical minefield by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century.
In the end, I played the cymbals during a very (very, very) rare performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” before the actual symphony concert began. All I really had to do was crash the cymbals together after Scott whacked the side of the bass drum.
I got through it and it went so well that I joked that Scott and I were going to take the act out to open mics, maybe develop an entire half-hour set for bass drum and cymbal. Maybe we could get a Live on the Levee gig opening for The Company Stores.
It never worked out. I didn’t get to keep the cymbals anyway.
A few years later, I studied violin at John Adams Middle School. I wasn’t particularly bad. I was almost as good as your average 6th grader, but I never got up to playing an actual song.
Thanks to a month (and more) spent with the Kanawha Kordsmen barbershop chorus, I did sort of learn to sing — or “lean,” as they call it in barbershop circles. Leaning is where you blend your voice in with stronger voices. You don’t stand out, but you still add to the body of sound in a group. You contribute.
But I never became confident enough to sing on my own in public or even sing within a small group — and that was after a couple of years.
Thirty days just wasn’t enough time to make a lot of progress with music — at least, it wasn’t enough time for me to make enough progress to satisfy me.
But then I read “The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help” by Amanda Palmer. I got it as an audiobook from Kanawha County Public Library’s Libby app in the spring.
Palmer is a singer/songwriter and leader of the indie band The Desden Dolls. She was also a performance artist, a blogger and an early adopter of social media as a way to build a community with her fans.
The book was about her career and life (she’s married to fantasy author Neil Gaiman), a little about her artistic process, and also about how she raised a bunch of money through crowdfunding.
I listened to the book three times, became a fan and got interested in learning to play the ukulele.
Palmer has championed the ukulele and encouraged her fans (or anyone) to take it up — just for the heck of it. She’s a ukulele believer.
For fun more than for financial gain, Palmer released a cover record of ukulele versions of the rock band Radiohead’s music, which is both beautiful and bizarre.
My intentions had nothing to do with commercial success or even artistic expression. I just wanted to start off 2021 with a challenge that might also be fun and set the tone for the rest of the year.
Last year was a struggle. I kicked off 2020 with several weeks of cold showers, intermittent fasts, Bible studies and a virtual ban on the use of electronic devices, except for business.
I don’t regret beginning with that project, but then the rest of the year felt like an Old Testament plague.
Beginning 2021 with learning to play the ukulele, a fun-sounding, allegedly easy-to-learn instrument, seemed perfect for whiling away some of those remaining winter hours of COVID-influenced isolation while ushering in a happier, less-anxious season.
Besides, I was getting really tired of watching television.
I thought I could try to teach myself — all I needed was a ukulele and internet access.
Getting a ukulele was easy.
I borrowed one from my friend, the photographer Perry Bennett. This was only temporary. If I could play the instrument, enjoyed playing it, I would buy one of my own from Folklore Music Exchange on Charleston’s West Side.
This was a goal to strive for — to be good enough at it to want to buy my own instrument.
I was a little excited at the prospect of becoming a legitimate musician and shopping at a real music store. Also, FolkLore Music Exchange is local and they carry a fine selection of Mothman-related merchandise.
This matters to me.
When I finally opened the case and gingerly picked up the small, wooden instrument, I was surprised at how delicate the thing was. It weighed next to nothing. I worried about crushing it in my clunky paws or wrenching it to pieces just practicing.
I took a deep breath. It was only a ukulele. It wasn’t a guitar or a piano. I could handle this.
Stashed away in a compartment inside the case, I found a helpful, hand-drawn chart for what appeared to be chords.
This looked promising.
I tried to press my fingers on the neck of the instrument, matching up as best I could with the chart. Then I strummed and made a sound similar to an old shoestring being plucked.
I tried a different chord but couldn’t get my fingers to match up with the chart. I didn’t even know if I was holding the ukulele correctly. Odds are, I wasn’t. I didn’t even know if it was in tune, but before I dove into the frustration of trying to follow along with a YouTube video, I decided to ask for help.
I contacted Grant Jacobs.
Grant plays bass in a couple of different musical outfits, but he’s also a music educator. His name came up because he was music director for Children’s Theatre of Charleston’s holiday show, which included some kids playing ukulele.
I sort of assumed he knew about the ukulele, but that didn’t mean he actually taught it or even liked the instrument very much.
At this writing, I’m not even a hundred percent sure if Grant knows how to play, though I imagine if he doesn’t, he could probably pick it up in about half an hour.
Regardless, Grant was great. He was willing to work with me and he also directed me to a free, online ukulele camp, which was pretty much what I was looking for to begin with.
Meanwhile, a friend told me to reach out to Andrew Winter, a music educator with a love of the ukulele. He agreed to help right off.
To start, I had a ukulele, two mentors and an online camp. All I needed now was a little talent.