UD#78 How Do I Hold This Thing?

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UD#78 How Do I Hold This Thing?

from Ukulele in the Dark with Guido Heistek

 

I use to suffer from tendonitis in my left wrist from playing guitar. It was particularly bad in university. I was once unable to play my instrument for a year right in the middle of my music degree! I remember seeking lots of advice about how to “hold” my left hand: where the thumb should be, and how the wrist should be. I would understand the advice but, it seemed that when I went to play guitar, I would always revert to my habits. I found it really hard to implement these new ideas. Also, I made myself even more tense trying to FORCE myself to make the correct shape with my left hand.

 

These days, I make a large part of my living playing and teaching guitar and uke, and have no trouble with tendonitis. I believe what helped me overcome my tendonitis was the Alexander Technique, which I started studying almost 20 years ago. And, I have been a CANSTAT qualified teacher for almost 10 years now. The principles of the technique inform most aspects of my music teaching and playing. I won’t get it into all the principles of the Alexander Technique, but I’ll give one example of an Alexander Technique inspired procedure.

I like to demonstrate left-hand position to my students with a book. A book? It might seem a little strange doing this without a uke, but it can be handy to put the uke away to focus on this simple movement. The instrument provides such a strong stimulus to use our bodies in a familiar way that it can be more productive to practice with something else first, and then bring the movement to the instrument.

 

Here is the procedure:

NOTE: It can be very helpful to practice the following procedure with a mirror. Very often, we are not doing what we think we are doing! Better yet, take a video of yourself doing it!

1. Hold the left hand (fretting hand) palm up in a neutral position and bring a book down towards the palm.

 

2. Gently take hold of the book between the thumb and fingers, leaving the wrist more or less undisturbed.

 

That’s it!

What do I mean by leaving the wrist more or less undisturbed?

Try to avoid bending the wrist excessively to bring the fingers to the book. Here is a photo of what that might look like.

 

WHAT’S NEXT?

Once we’ve practiced with a book for some time we can bring the same movement to the uke. Let’s fret a note on the uke like this:

1. Bring the neck of the uke down towards your palm.

 

2. Gently take the neck of the uke between your thumb and finger to fret a note. Again, try to leave the wrist undisturbed.

 

Looks pretty good!

This is not meant to be a rigid position that needs to be maintained. Playing uke requires us to make all kinds of reaches, bends and shapes with our hands. Of course, we do need to bend the wrist to play certain things. So, you don’t need to try to keep your wrist straight at all times. PLEASE DON’T. The above procedure is meant to build up a kind of “home base” that we can always be returning to while playing. That way we can avoid being in a position of strain for a prolonged period of time.

 

REACHING WITH THE WRIST?

We talked about this movement earlier in the article. I often notice my students (and me too!)  bending the wrist in order to get the fingers to the fret board. Also, there seems to be an impulse to drive the hand forward to get the fingers to the fret board, as if the fingers don’t have the movement necessary to get the job done. Here is one example of what it looks like.


Looks a little tough on the wrist!

 

Here is what it looks like when we let the fingers do the work, and leave the wrist in a more neutral position. Notice that the fingers are not pushed forward of the neck of the uke.

Not perfect but definitely less strain.

 

IN PRAISE OF STRAPS

We are getting near the end of this article but, I just wanted to quickly mention straps. Playing without a strap forces your left and right hands into a double role of both supporting the uke and playing the uke. I’ve come to consider playing without a strap to be counter-productive for myself and my students. It leads to all kinds of extra gripping and clenching. Also, the neck of the uke tends to fall into the palm of the fretting hand making it difficult to switch between chords and notes with ease. “How do I hold this thing!” If this sounds like you, I recommend getting a strap. Most of my students find it makes a big difference. Just a thought.

If you would like to put a strap on your uke, you will need to have some strap buttons installed. A local guitar repair person can help you with this. Many people are understandably worried that this will affect the sound of the instrument. However, the buttons are installed in areas that do not affect the sound of the uke. More on this later. BTW, both my vintage Martin ukuleles have strap buttons installed on them! I even found some really nice wooden buttons that match the tone of the wood. Andrew Smith at Ruby’s Ukes was a big help with this.

 

Okay that’s all for this week. I hope you found this article useful. If you are interested in Alexander Technique here are a couple of sites you can take a look at:

CANSTAT:   https://www.canstat.ca/
AMSAT:  http://www.amsatonline.org/

Also, better yet, have a few lessons with a local Alexander Technique teacher. If you are in the Vancouver area, I would be happy to have you in for a lesson any time. Also, if you’d like to check in about your uke technique from anywhere in the world, I am available for consults via Skype.

Here is my e-mail: moc.kradehtnielelukunull@ofni

All for now,

Guido

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