“Do you still play?” asked Steve Einhorn, my former ukulele teacher. He was in town with his wife Kate Power, back before the pandemic, and we were catching up a bit before their concert began.
“Oh yes,” I said. “I love my uke. But I don’t think I’ve made any progress since you last heard me. I just strum some easy chords while I sing, that sort of thing.”
“If you’re still playing, you’ve made progress,” he said firmly. The words startled me and nestled deep, like true + timely words can do.
In some ways, my progress assessment was spot on. Just as I did a few years ago, I struggle with the B minor chord, lose track of complex strumming patterns, and can’t pluck a melody line with any kind of speed. All I really do, still, is play easy chords while I sing.
But you know what? Back when I first picked up the ukelele, my hands used to tremble just knowing someone, anyone, was listening to me play. I practiced even the simplest songs many times in private, starting over whenever I lost my place. I was so busy thinking about my fingers that I couldn’t put much emotion into my voice.
A lot had changed since those early lessons. Now I play my handful of chords with confidence and sing with deep feeling. I’ll cheerfully try out a new song on the spot in front of whoever’s around—so long as the chords are B-minor-free. If I mess up, I keep right on singing, not losing my smile. That bone-deep ease is absolutely a form of progress, the kind of gentle growth that’s hard to see in yourself– unless someone jars you into noticing.
When we grow a little every day, it’s hard to see change. Steve likes to tell his students that even one minute of practice a day will help you get better. He’s a wise man. Also a sneaky one– as he points out, after one minute, most ukulele players are having so much fun they keep right on going.
Showing up matters. It’s also really just the foundation for artistic growth. I work diligently on my writing, taking risks and struggling mightily and building craft and taking classes– always pushing at the ever-moving edge of what I know how to do. My writing practice is mindful and rigorous, though certainly fun as well. I’m always learning and lovingly pushing myself. And there are other areas of my life where I have this kind of joyful striving, where showing up is just the beginning.
But I rarely think about whether I’m getting better at the ukulele. I just pick it up and sing… you know, for fun. And in the act of simply showing up, apparently I still get a bit better: a sweet bonus on top of the joy I take in my music.
So, do you still play? (Or write, or sing, or paint?) Whether you are striving to improve or simply showing up or anywhere in between, I have some good news. The odds are good that you are making progress.