Brian Hefferan is a cracker-jack ukulele player from Lansing, Michigan. His many musical endeavors include being one-half of The Fabulous Heftones, a founding member of The Heftone Banjo Orchestra, solo recording artist, and prolific YouTube contributor of many fine ukulele instrumentals.
1. What’s your advice on learning to play beyond the first position?
Keep the left hand relaxed. It takes very little finger pressure to hold the strings down, but most anyone learning something new naturally clamps down way too hard, which is uncomfortable and impedes movement. When it feels awkward, see how little finger pressure you can get away with. Sometimes the best practice is practice keeping it relaxed and enjoyable. Tickle and caress the strings like a pet or a sweetheart.
2. How do you go about memorizing a tune?
I memorize one phrase (a few seconds) at a time. I learn a new phrase and then go back and play the tune from the start through that phrase without looking at printed music. I re-memorize any spot where I made a mistake. When I can get all the way through what I’ve learned so far without messing up and without looking at the music, I memorize the next phrase, and then play through again from the start, and soon. It’s slow going, but it’s enjoyable because I pick tunes that I love and really want to learn.
I memorize the words to songs the same way: I learn a phrase, then sing from the top without looking at the words. If I get stuck and forget a word I’ll look at the music, then sing from the start until I can do it without a mistake and without looking, then learn the next phrase, sing from the top, and so on until I have the whole song. After I make it through the whole song or tune, I try it again the next day without looking at the music and brush up on the spots I missed until I can get through the whole song again. By the time I can sing a song without messing up several days in a row, the song is pretty well stuck in long-term memory for recall weeks or months later.
3. You play some pretty complicated arrangements. How do you go about arranging a tune?
The main problem is finding left-hand fingerings that sound good and are easy enough to play. It is like solving a maze. What usually works for me on fast passages is to find a way where I don’t have to play the same string or right-hand finger twice in a row, but instead play the next note on another string. This allows the pretty notes to keep ringing and harmonize with each other and helps the arrangement sound smooth when played up-to-speed.
It still amazes me how many different possible ways there are to finger a given passage. I’ll often try a bunch of possibilities before I settle on one that pleases me best. Sometimes the best fingerings seem awkward at first because the fingers need to learn to move in a new way, but the learning effort pays back every time the tune is played. I used to do all my arrangements by ear, but I now prefer to learn the rags from the piano score. There always seem to be some notes or harmonies in the score that I’d miss if I just tried by ear, and I suppose learning those helps my ear improve.