Ukulele Lady

I’m a singer, and all my life, I’ve wanted to play the guitar so that I could accompany myself. I did pick up a guitar once in a while and try it, but I always hated the pain from the strings cutting into my fingers. Despite people assuring me that I would build up calluses after a while, I never pursued it.

I’ve recently begun singing with a bluegrass jam group. When I first joined, everyone in the group played a string instrument except for me. I loved the music, so I was content to just listen if it wasn’t my turn to lead a song. Eventually I came upon a washboard and started bringing it along so that I could have a more active part in the music making. It was fun to play, but still, it didn’t quite fulfill my desire to create music.

For the past two summers, I have attended the Grey Fox bluegrass festival in the northern Catskills with Jon and the kids. I loved listening to the talented bands that they showcase, but I felt left out of a crucial part of the experience, which is to participate in open jam sessions. Because I didn’t have an instrument in tow, I didn’t have the proverbial ticket in.

On the second evening of the festival, I saw a band called Mountain Heart, which features a banjo player named Barry Abernathy. Barry, according to an article on, “was born with a deformity of his left hand, and has no fingers – only a thumb and several partial digits. [He] developed a technique that was within his reach, playing over the top of the neck rather than wrapping the hand around from below.”

Watching Barry play with such finesse and talent, I realized just how ridiculous my own reasons were for not learning to play the guitar. Fingers hurt by the strings? At least I HAD fingers! If Barry could do that, then so could I. Suddenly, what had seemed impossible to me became something that was possible as soon as I got into committed action.

As so often happens with the universe, once I got committed, the pieces started falling into place. I discovered that a friend of mine played the ukulele. I shared my vision with him, and before I knew it, he had given me one of his ukuleles to practice on. He taught me the first 5 chords and showed me how I could learn more.

Within 2 weeks, I was able to play about 50% of the bluegrass songs that I already knew. Ok, I wasn’t doing “solo breaks”, but since most songs consist of 3 to 5 chords, I was able to be a part of the music. Just as all my friends had promised, calluses have formed on my fingertips and it no longer hurts to play. Really, it only took a couple of weeks.

I marvel at how quickly I was willing to give up before. Now that I’m on the other side, I realize that the pain was never the point anyway. It was my fear. I let my lack of confidence about acquiring this new skill hold me back from something I wholeheartedly desired. I’ve already bought my own ukulele and suddenly, the sky is the limit.


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