You probably have noted something of a common theme in my rants on Got A Ukulele. They tend to react to the tripe that is touted around on social media mainly, the naysayers, the rule makers, the opinionated. Yet there is one myth that beats all the others and from which I think most of them are formed. The statement that the ukulele is 'easy'.
But here's the thing. The ukulele is not all that easy to learn and beginners will come across all sorts of barriers, hurdles and issues when starting out. I mean, it's not astro physics, but to say it is 'easy every damn time you write about it is really not true either. And that misconception then tends to lead to a few things happening. Firstly it can cause dejection or giving up. The: 'hang on, I was told it was easy, it must just be me, I can't do this' feelings kick in. You are told endlessly that this thing is a breeze to play but you just don't find it is working. What is wrong with you? In short, probably nothing at all.
The other common result is that people tend to go for the cheats that I have talked about on here before and avoid the difficult bits. This usually results in avoiding certain chords in songs altogether, and I think that is such a shame. Would you really consider yourself a piano player (or heaven forbid a trusted voice on the subject) if you only knew how to play with the white keys? My comment on cheats recently raised some hackles, and it really wasn't meant to be disparaging. It was really a rally against those who tell other beginners not to bother trying with more difficult stuff.
I suppose there is a third result of the 'it's easy' myth. Some people do develop quite quickly on the ukulele and, unlike any other instrument I know of, then take to social media after one month of playing and put themselves forward as a master of the instrument (with quite forceful opinions to boot). I've been playing ukulele for nearly ten years, and guitars for twenty before that and I don't consider myself to be a master (or anywhere near it). With this instrument though, a little knowledge can go too far.. And the 'this is how you 'must' play it brigade are born.
So, no. The ukulele is not super easy. And if you are just starting out and facing difficulties that is TOTALLY normal. The instrument doesn't owe you anything and all good skills require some effort. Unless you are some sort of prodigy (or have been playing strings for a lifetime) you will face challenges with the plucky little instrument that you were assured was a breeze to play.
One thing I will say before we examine some of the more obvious challenges is that the ukulele IS easier to pick up than many other instruments. It can have a more forgiving learning curve than, say, the guitar does for many people. But that doesn't mean you will master it in a fortnight either.
Aside from the initial challenges that beginners may face in even holding the thing steadily, the early stage difficulties come on two main areas. Surprise surprise - they are with the strumming hand and the fretting hand. Now, this blog post doesn't aim to give you all the answers - the Beginners Tips Page on this site is there for that if you want to go browsing, but it's here to let you know these issues are normal and nothing to worry about. An antidote to the usual media blurb extolling the easiness if you will.
With the strumming hand, beginners will face challenges with things like their fingers getting tangled in the strings (really - this will go away with practice as your hand learns to attack the right strings in the right way) and with maintaining a steady tempo. The latter is often not assisted by beginners wanting to learn complex strum patterns before they have learned basic timing. (I blogged about that HERE). My advice is simple - whilst learning - don't run before you can walk. Concentrate on clean and regular rhythms before getting more complex. Learning rhythm and tempo first is essential in most forms of music. If you don't learn to do the basics you will just end up with messy patterns further down the line. So I say, for beginners - keep this bit simple until you develop and you are totally comfortable with the strum.
With the fretting hand, the beginner will face all sorts of challenges. The sore fingertips are perhaps the first thing you have to contend with, as those strings DO dig in to fingertips of anyone who hasn't played strings before. Keep going, and it does get better. Hand cramps and aches are another common problem but this too is normal. Forming chord shapes means asking your fretting hand to form shapes that are not really natural in daily life and they can hurt. For some people they consider them impossible and try to find the cheats. Unless you have a medical condition that reduces mobility in the fretting hand (or are missing digits) they are not impossible.
And then, bear in mind that these issues and challenges have to come together. The ukulele isn't particularly useful without both the strumming / picking hand AND the fretting hand doing their thing at the same time. Add on top of that a layer of trying to hold and balance the instrument and... No, for a beginner these things are not easy.
So please, if you are trying to teach a newcomer, or encouraging someone to play, please be very careful how you throw the word 'easy' around. Most new players will have struggles and it's normal. The ukulele CAN be a serious instrument but pretending it's easy doesn't really help the cause. Like most skills in life the answers come with practice, practice, practice. A concept that seems to be alien to some would be advisors who have played for a month...
So if you are struggling, do keep at it. Things do get easier and before long you will look back at the advice you heard that it was all plain sailing and laugh. Just don't expect that to happen overnight...