Five Ways Transcribing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony Has Made Me a Better ‘Ukulele Player

We’re into the home stretch of the ‘Ukulele transcription of the first movement of Beethoven’s Pastorale Symphony! Here’s a video of pages 16 and 17 of the symphony:

Being so close to a big milestone like this gives me a chance to pause and reflect on how taking on this project has made me a better player. Here are five things that come to mind:

1. A stronger awareness that the ‘Ukulele is up to almost any musical task!

This is not exactly a revelation for those of us who love this tiny instrument, but perhaps comes as a surprise to folks who consider the ‘Uke a toy only suitable for strumming accompaniments to Hawaiian songs, novelty tunes or pop covers by the latest YouTube teen sensation. (Speaking of which, here’s a blast from the past.)

‘Ukuleles are indeed capable of “holding their own” in any style of music, including a solo transcription of an entire Beethoven symphony!

2. Note reading on the ‘Ukulele has become MUCH easier.

To be fair, my background as a classical guitarist means that I am very familiar with reading notes. However, when I first started playing the ‘Ukulele, I found myself “translating” the ‘Ukulele’s notes from what I knew about guitar. In other words, I was treating the ‘Ukulele as a small transposing guitar rather than an instrument in its own right with its own unique tuning.

After spending several months mapping Beethoven’s notes onto the ‘Ukulele fingerboard, I have crossed over into thinking in “native ‘Ukulele” rather than converting from guitar. There is a level of familiarity with the entire ‘Ukulele fingerboard (all 19 frets of it on my concert ‘Uke) which simply didn’t exist for me eight months ago.

3. A new, more comprehensive understanding of chord shapes and chord forms.

Closely related to a better understanding of note reading is a much better grasp of the chord shapes, or chord voicings, for major, minor, 7th and diminished chords and where they are found on the ‘Uke. I am much more comfortable with the inversions of these chords up and down the fingerboard. For a little more detailed discussion about how you might apply this, see my post about movable triads.

This skill has spilled over into other arrangements I create. Being familiar with the chord shapes has allowed me to create chord-melody arrangements much faster, sometimes instantly!

4. Scales, scales and more scales

The Pastorale symphony is full of scale passages, so there is the opportunity to practice playing melodies in several different ways:

I’m much more comfortable with these three approaches, and can switch between them without a lot of effort, thanks to the work I did with the Beethoven!

5. A Free, Agile, Coordinated Thumb

I made the decision to use my thumb exclusively to play the Pastorale.

Could I have used my fingers as well? Of course. If you decide to play the transcription you might consider employing the fingers along with the thumb. Heck, it might even be easier.

Even though it was a challenge, I think there are several benefits to a “thumb-only” approach, including:

  • Greater control over the volume of my thumb. It is much easier now to use the thumb to play at ANY volume level.
  • More agility when crossing strings.
  • A warmer tone (because I use the pad of my thumb) with the option to change to a “nail” sound with a sharper attack.
  • No complications or indecision arising from the many possible options available when playing with the thumb and the fingers.
  • No need to use a strap. On my concert Uke it is easy to support the instrument with the right-hand fingers while the thumb plays. You can see this in any of the videos where I am standing while I play.

In addition to becoming a better ‘Ukulele player, there are a lot of LIFE benefits I’ve gained so far from this project. I will talk about them a little more in the next installment of this blog.

In the meantime, I love to hear from you, so drop me a line with any questions or just to say hi!

And…If you would like to work with me and take your playing to the next level, you can find out more about lessons online via Zoom or Skype (or in person, if you happen to be in Denver) by visiting my lessons page.

Thanks so much for joining me on this adventure!

all the best to you!


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