First rehearsal for my first ukulele gig: dealing with anxiety

It’s now officially two months since I started learning to play ukulele. It’s hard to believe, but two months ago, I was still struggling to play three chords: I could play C, of course, but had trouble with G7, and had even worse trouble with F: I had no finger strength or dexterity and could not arch my fingers and everything was a painful buzz, and I could spend only five minutes a day practicing because of the pain on my uncalloused fingers.

And after just over a month of playing, and joining the Steel City Ukuleles, I had volunteered to perform in a gig for Ecofest in Regent Square, as a way to force myself to maintain momentum.

And this week, just in time, I got my brand new concert-sized ukulele.

First Ecofest rehearsal

The gig is in just over a week. I attended my first rehearsal with extreme anxiety. I was even thinking about bailing out instead of attending. Here’s why.

New music for me

I went into rehearsal with basically none of the songs we were going to perform. So it was basically a sight reading and singing session for me.

One reason is that I was waiting to get the official bound compilation of performance songs that we were to receive at the first rehearsal, which we did. I had not requested to get one ahead of time, because I was too busy all week anyway to make good use of it if I had possessed it.

Also, it turns out that many of these songs are already familiar and played by most of the other members of the performance group; they are part of the general repertoire, for previous years’ Ecofests as well as for other gigs.

New performance group for me

I know that breaking into a performance group for the first time always involves an initial learning curve because there are those who already know everything inside and out. I still have very vivid memories of other times in my life when I have entered a performance group and felt lost for a while.

I was briefly in marching band, during the 9th grade in high school. As a new freshman, I was unfamiliar with the repertoire, the choreography, etc. It was a tricky experience for all us freshmen, of course, amidst the 10th, 11th, and 12th graders.

Similarly, over a decade ago, for a couple of years I was a member of the Carnegie Mellon University ballroom dance club, and I was on both the competition team as well as the formation team. I’d made ballroom dancing the main focus of my life, throwing myself into lessons and competition and being in performances with the formation team while still a beginner. I improved my dancing significantly and quickly as a result of jumping in.

And more recently, I have been performing in a small recorder quartet/quintet at winter holiday time. Practicing so that I wouldn’t totally flub everything always took a huge amount of work for me, but the side effect was that I really improved my recorder playing and musicianship.

So I know firsthand the benefits of just jumping in and being around very experienced team members who are inspirational to emulate and learn from, and to exert some healthy pressure on myself not to let the team down!

Listening, watching

A lot of what I did during rehearsal was listening and watching, while doing what I could to keep up and go and make dozens of mistakes everywhere. (It’s particularly important to boldly make those mistakes and write down what to work on for homework.)

There was no way I was going to be able to play everything at first sight. In fact, that’s not even the right way to think about the situation. This isn’t classical music where you really do “sight read”. This is music where almost everything is transmitted by ear. Not knowing the melodies, and not having an actual score, I have to listen and figure out where the melodic lines roughly are, and where the chord changes are. I have to learn what the prevailing strum rhythms and breaks and mood the group has largely decided on. The goal is to learn how to blend in and contribute.

I didn’t do much extended singing during this rehearsal. But we have two more rehearsals after this one, so it was not necessary to get everything down right away. I would, of course, be doing my own homework, looking up YouTube videos, in between official rehearsals.

For consistency, I found it very useful to focus my listening on one person at a time to emulate. Usually that person was Sunny, because she is leading us. Sometimes that was Adam, because I was sitting near him and because as a strong male voice, I could follow him especially in songs where we had male and female voices split.

The fact that there were over a dozen of us in the group for this gig was very helpful to me, because it meant that there was much less pressure on me to get everything right. I don’t always have to sing, or sing everything. I don’t always have to play the tricky chord progressions that I’m not ready yet to get right. I can leave stuff out judiciously.

Half the songs

In two hours, we covered half the songs we planned to play at Ecofest. I felt there was still a huge amount of work for me to do in order to really contribute to the group, but no longer felt helpless.

The cost of excellence

I still think it’s a little crazy that I jumped into committing to performing when still a beginner at ukulele, but in the past couple of years, I have learned that shorter, tighter learning and creating cycles considerably speed up the improvement process, provided that one actually puts in the hard work on a daily basis.

There’s been a huge cost, unfortunately. I have let some things slide while focusing on ukulele in the past two months. For example, I have been playing chess very poorly. Last week, I drew a game that I should have won. And just two days ago, disaster struck: in my fatigue, I lost a game I should have won. If I had known I was going to have ukulele take over my life outside of work, I would have chosen not to play in the current chess tournament.

Now as in the past couple of years, I have chosen to sacrifice my chess performance when other things come up. This is why I rarely play chess tournaments any more: I hate playing worse than I am actually capable of playing. As I mentioned two weeks ago, I had anticipated becoming busy in November, but I had not anticipated being so busy now already, in September!


Sunny led a great rehearsal for our Ecofest gig coming up. I really like some of these songs we’re working on, and left feeling that after more work, we can sound really good and have a lot of fun at the gig!

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