I began my five days of the online New Year, New Uke ukulele camp, hosted by Virginia singer/songwriter Caroline Scruggs, like most everybody else did — with a quick, little video explaining who I was to the rest of the Facebook group and describing what I hoped to accomplish.
That part was pretty easy. I watched what the other 30 or 40 incoming “campers” did and then grabbed my borrowed ukulele and introduced myself.
I explained I was a newspaper writer spending a month trying to learn an instrument, but I hoped to make it more permanent. My goals were not nearly as ambitious as others in the group.
Some of the folks who’d signed up were already musicians of one kind or another. A few even had a working knowledge of the ukulele to begin with and were really there for the community or the opportunity to write songs and share with the group.
Me sharing a song I wrote filled me with utter dread.
Coming up with lyrics didn’t bother me. I write and I know how to put words to music. I do that all the time when I’m driving around in my car. An old pop song I don’t particularly like will come on the radio and instead of just changing the station like a normal person, I’ll “improve” the words.
Like, “Shot through the heart and you’re to blame. You give love a bad name” becomes “Shot through the rump and you’re so lame. You give dogs some bad mange ...”
I didn’t say the lyrics were good, just improved. My apologies to Bon Jovi.
Putting lyrics to music I produced on my own, however, was something I hadn’t even considered. I was still getting the hang of strumming up and down without it sounding like I had the paws of a polar bear.
Tunelessly singing poorly thought-out lyrics while mangling the strings of the instrument for a tune I created was going to take longer than a month. That could take a lifetime.
All I wanted out of ukulele camp was to feel a little more comfortable with playing, pick up a few more tips on how to make my fingers squeeze into those awkward positions on the tiny neck of the ukulele and maybe feel confident enough to learn a song.
I thought Caroline might teach us one, which I hoped would be cooler than “Mary had a little lamb.” My tastes run closer to something like “Karma Police” by Radiohead.
I dreaded making a music video and sharing a new song, too.
One day, when the pandemic is over, people will return to poorly lit rooms to listen to earnest artists use words and music to connect us to universal themes like love and loss.
I am never going to be one of them.
Taking the ukulele out for a spin at the local coffee shop to play cover tunes, let alone my own, original, bad songs never even crossed my mind.
At best, I thought I might one day bring out my ukulele in front of a couple of eye-rolling friends who’d undoubtedly be humoring me while hoping I’d hurry up and just offer them a beer.
Just the same, I came to ukulele camp for the experience and if that somehow turned me into Bob Dylan, I guess I was OK with that.
We met on Facebook at noon beginning New Year’s Day — or several hours later. The camp sessions with her were streamed live but recorded for those of us who might have been otherwise occupied.
I didn’t get to the first session until after dark.
Each session with Caroline lasted about half an hour. She talked a little about the ukulele and the creative process. She was unfailingly positive, encouraging and called us a community. She celebrated us for taking a chance on something new, maybe.
Caroline kept it light and each day showed us a new chord progression. These were written down on a board behind her. We could copy the notes down, take them with us, mess around with the chords and, hopefully, come up with our own songs.
I gave it a shot but moving from chord to chord was/is hard. The best I could come up with was to awkwardly plod through the different chords while looking back and forth between the instructions and my laminated ukulele chord chart.
My fingers got better at holding down the strings and falling into place, but memorizing the individual chords didn’t come quickly. Off the top of my head, I was able to remember the C chord, which was the first chord Andrew Winter showed me and was easy to play, and I could remember the D chord.
D was hard. I did not like twisting my hand into a D chord.
With the D chord, you had to press your fingers on your right hand into an unnatural position between the second and third fret from the neck of the ukulele. You press down on the top three strings. Your second finger is supposed to be on the top string. The pointer should be at the second string and your ring finger goes on the third string.
Caroline described the handhold to being similar to the scout salute.
In my hand, it looked like arthritis.
This might not be that big of a deal if the D chord wasn’t used much, but according to the notes on my chart, it was a common chord.
Not only was D hard for me to get into, but it was hard for me to go from D to a different chord — not that I knew precisely where I was supposed to go.
I kept at it, staggered from chord to chord and stumbled through.
Eventually, I gave up and relaxed.
Sitting in my bedroom, pillows propping up behind my back, I strummed and played around with different strokes, using what Caroline had shown us. I didn’t worry about speed.
My right hand glided downward, my fingernails brushing the strings. My thumb swept over the strings on the way up.
It wasn’t a perfect tone, but it wasn’t terrible.
I watched the classes again. I tried again. I got a little better, though not good enough yet to string together some chords to make a real song.
I put on the radio, tried strumming along and singing.
“I’m wanted ... wanted ... dead or alive.”
No, I wasn’t ready for that either, but the ukulele is forgiving.
I switched off the radio, picked strings and strummed. I got a pleasant sound, anyway. It wasn’t exactly music, but it wasn’t noise.
At least, it didn’t scare off my little dog, snoozing at my feet.