Harriet Holland tells her tale of her Play Ukulele holiday at Newfield Hall, Malhamdale.
In reality the ukulele is a challenging instrument capable of some of the most beautiful, rhythmic and sweet music around.
Even I managed to come home feeling accomplished having learnt 5 chords and 3 different types of strum and an enthusiasm for an instrument that I’d never had before.
The holiday offers a relaxed approach to teaching the ukulele. I noticed that there was a wide skill spectrum in the group and I thought I might hold back the group but it turned out I wasn’t the only absolute beginner which was reassuring.
When the holiday details say “No previous experience is required”, they really mean it. When I left I felt like maybe I could even give the advanced holiday a try, which may have been down to Robin’s endless enthusiasm and compliments.
A fellow guest who had never played anything before, had been given a ukulele, when he turned 60 – apparently his wife plays the fiddle and grew frustrated that he couldn’t play anything which is why he was on this holiday. Even by the end of the first evening session he had mastered the art of tuning the ukulele – something that is required frequently during practice sessions and performances as the strings are constantly being stretched as you play.
“We tune because we care”
is repeated endlessly by our optimistic and encouraging leader Robin. He teaches us that a new ukulele can require tuning every 10 minutes because the strings have not been stretched before.
For me, the first evening session was daunting. I didn’t realise quite how deep I was throwing myself in as I walked into the room with 14 other learner-ukulele players who all look poised and ready to absorb the lessons about to be imparted to us.
My inhibitions soon disappeared as it became apparent that they were just as clueless as me. They had just had a few more minutes to compose themselves beforehand.
Robin started us off with a quick tutorial on how to tune the ukulele.
If you are contemplating trying it make sure you get a digital tuner, the tuner-pipes may be cheaper but they are nowhere near as accurate or quick as a digital tuner. They operate on the vibrations of the strings so it doesn’t matter if the person next to you is tuning as well – very handy to know beforehand.
Robin went round the semi-circle asking us to individually strum our ukuleles and sorted out any faults – very helpful because even though my ears were the youngest in the room, it turns out I still couldn’t work out if it was in tune.
Once in tune the 4-strings could play the ditty “My dog has fleas” (the simple way of knowing your instrument is in tune) and at this point I felt like I had accomplished a massive feat. After we had all achieved in-tune status the real challenge could begin – chords.
The neck of the ukulele is approximately 3 inches wide which is wider than the average adult finger width. The 4 strings require 4 fingers; however fitting these fingers onto the narrow neck is not the biggest challenge.
The real challenge arises in keeping the chord positions without putting too much pressure on the strings. I didn’t quite manage this and despite a major sense of accomplishment, I left the session with very sore finger tips, but I was assured this would go away with practice.
As the ukulele tutor is a trained HF Holidays’ walking leader, the opportunity to do a short walk in the magnificent surrounding dales is a refreshing break and allows your brain and fingers to recover. This is entirely optional and guests have the chance to do as much, or as little, as they wish.
There is another short reminder session before diner and another more relaxed session after dinner which some guests skipped as they were satisfied from the tremendous 3-course dinner we all enjoyed.
As the week progressed the strumming types got more complex – I failed to learn the “country-strum” which followed a down, down, down, up strum (in a 4 beat-bar). This was too complex for my non-musical mind but I managed to hide my inability to master this skill.
There were 11 songs in the ukulele packs we were provided with, mostly old folk songs that I didn’t recognise by name. I showed my age when we played ‘The Wild Rover’ and it turned out to be the song from the Clover butter advert.
When a holiday claims a group of adults can “learn together, laugh together, encourage each other and have a lot of fun” most people would be sceptical and assume it sounds too good to be true, especially in a group where the age range varies between 22 and 70+, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time learning the ukulele and didn’t feel at all like I was holding the group back.
A personal moment of glory was when I was asked how long I had been playing for. Apparently nobody had noticed my lack of skill – it just goes to show you how far enthusiasm will take you.
One of my favourite moments was when a fellow guest explained his reason for coming was “a foolish decision once I’d failed at the spoons”, but even he managed to keep up during the faster songs. He was a rebel in that he couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, hold the ukulele in the right position but he kept the group from becoming too serious – Robin even admitted that the ukulele cannot be taken too seriously because “where’s the fun in that.”
The ukulele has had frequent waves of popularity spanning back to when Hawaii became part of the USA and at certain times of the year it can be difficult to buy a ukulele, as they were sold out in most of the stores he looked at; perhaps we are looking at a new wave of ukulele popularity.
I would definitely recommend this adorable instrument, challenging but entirely rewarding at the same time.”