Recently, I moved from California to Hong Kong to start a new job at a performing arts center. Since Hong Kong is notorious for its tight real estate market, I knew it was unlikely that I would be able to fit a piano -- the instrument I’ve been playing since I was young -- in my apartment. While I knew that I could probably get a keyboard up the stairs, a part of me cringed inside about the thought of trading in the beautiful 6-foot grands I’d been practicing on at Scripps to a sad, nondescript, and unweighted keyboard. (Of course, in the middle of writing this, I opened a new tab to asiaxpat.com. Just browsing, I’m telling myself...) It’s fair to say that I’ll be psyched if Music Traveler chooses to launch into Hong Kong, and I can practice in a safe environment without distracting the neighbors.
Instead of forfeiting practicing altogether, I did what anyone else would do: I bought a ukulele.
Okay, it’s possible that not everyone else would have bought a ukulele. I could’ve opted for something equally portable, like a flute, piccolo, viola, violin, or even tried a classic Chinese instrument, like the erhu or pipa. But the ukulele promised a stronger appeal: perhaps it was the adorable size (it doesn’t take up too much room, even in my 250-square foot apartment), and the mellower, happier sound (I imagine the neighbors would not appreciate a bludgeoning piccolo student).
The reaction to my ukulele purchase has been mixed. When I told one of my most talented, dedicated pianist friends about it, she said, “You know, I can play a D chord, G chord, F chord and C chord on the ukulele.”
“Great!” I told her. “And…?”
“I learned it in an hour. You need something more difficult. More technical,” she responded. “The ukulele is just… too easy. Too light.”
Another friend of mine -- not a musician, to be fair -- was even less enthusiastic. “You’re not going to become one of those ukulele-playing Manic Pixie Dream Girls, are you?” he scoffed.
And finally, one of my closest friends from high school on the subject: “Don’t be one of those girls going around playing the ukulele. Everyone plays the ukulele.”
Interestingly, I don’t think that anyone feels this strongly about another popular instrument from the same family, the guitar. There’s something visceral about the cheerful Hawaiian stringed instrument. Despite warnings about the “lightness” of the ukulele, I’ve had fun with it, in part because the expectations around the instrument are so much lower than they are with the piano. That letting go of expectations -- expectations of technical prowess, amount of time practiced, and performance -- has made me truly enjoy playing and singing. Until I can find a consistent piano to practice on, I’ll stick to my uke to get my musical fix.
What do you think? Have you tried picking up a new instrument lately?
Written by Melia Wong