Claire: FIrstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What is your 9-5? Any other details you’d like to share?
Julie: I’m from and live in Joburg. Currently I’m a user experience designer and I’ve been commuting to Cape Town every week for the last few months for a project there. Before this I worked as an associate lecturer in the philosophy department, while working on my PhD (which I have not yet completed).
Claire: What particular creative challenge have you completed? Please tell us a bit about it.
Julie: I played a new song (mostly covers but a few originals) on ukulele every day and recorded it to Instagram for 365 days.
Claire: What were some of the factors that led you to commit to the process? Why did you want to do this?
Julie: Before I started the project I had been playing ukulele for about 3-4 months. My boyfriend at the time had a ukulele group and he had been trying to get me to play with them for a few months, but I saw the ukulele as a bit of a toy and thought that if I was going to take the time to learn an instrument, I’d rather learn something substantial like guitar. He had an extra uke and one day he had his ukes and song book at my house and we tried to play ‘Eight Days a Week’ by the Beatles together. It was hilarious, and fun. He left his book and one of his ukes for me and I tried to play some other songs on my own. Before I knew it I was going through song after song (and sending some long-suffering friends whatsapp voice notes of my efforts), and learning the chords in the process. I taught myself to play from learning songs in those song books, and looking up songs I liked on the internet. I taught myself to read ukulele tab and to ‘chunk’ (a kind of percussive strum) by watching youtube tutorials and videos from ‘Ukulele Underground’, and reading stuff on ‘Ukulele Hunt’. About 4 months into this I decided I wanted to record the songs I had learnt so I could see if I improved over time. On a whim I decided it would be interesting to see if I could record one a day for a year. Not a lot of thought went into it at the time, to be honest! It wasn’t a serious commitment as much of an ‘I’d like to see if I can do this’ kind of thing.
'Prendre ta douleur' by Camille
Claire: What was your goal in undertaking this challenge?
Julie: The goal was to play 365 different songs. I did hope that there would be other things achieved in the process, like getting better at performing and songwriting, and maybe some kind of character building, but my initial goal was just to play 365 different songs. Importantly though, I wanted to be able to play them from memory, and not have to rely on reading chords. I played classical piano in high school but could never play without the sheet music, and I had lost faith in my memory. It used to frustrate me so much that if anyone asked me to play something on the piano, I couldn’t do it unless I had sheet music to help me.
Claire: How did you start? This is a bit of a technical question - did you have to sign up somewhere, enroll in a class, join a group?
Julie: I borrowed my boyfriend’s ukulele for about 8 months (after which I bought my own, an electric Ibanez) and I started a new instagram account called ‘Littlejulieandukulele’. I started out with no followers and now I have about 850. I used to balance my phone in all sorts of inventive ways until I realised my music stand was a good way to aim it at me. I had to train my pug, Plato, who grunts and breathes heavily all the time, to be okay with not being in the same room as me because at first I found him very distracting. He’s a bit of a spoilt only child and was not pleased about it, but eventually he got used to it. I started off in my bedroom and then moved to the couch in my lounge, and at that point Plato joined me and became part of my performance for a few months. I think quite a few of my followers only followed me for my pug! He’s a very good looking pug.
Claire: Was there any preparation you had to do before the challenge started? If so, what was it? This could be practical preparation (find a making space), time prep (make a schedule), emotional prep (sticky note pep talks on your mirror) - you get the idea!
Julie: By the point I started my project, I had been playing about 20 songs regularly so for the first month or so I had songs I had already prepared. I would work on a few at a time so that by the time I played a song I had been practising it for at least a few days. By the end I was learning a new song from scratch (and sometimes two) every day. At first it was very hard to remember songs because I struggled to keep their structure in my mind and because I wasn’t familiar enough with the chords. These days it’s very easy for me. I didn’t have a schedule - I just played when I got a chance in between the other things I was doing.
Claire: How would you describe your emotions on starting out?
Julie: I was feeling anxious about other things in my life when I was starting out, and suffering from bad nightmares that would sometimes leave me exhausted and depressed the following day. I found that the uke made me feel calm and I think that playing every day was what made the nightmares go away - I haven’t had one for at least 4 months now. The project distracted me from feeling down and gave me momentum. I would say I was mostly excited when I started out.
Claire: Were you worried at all about not having the commitment to stick to the challenge and see it through? If so, how did you deal with that?
Julie: Not really, which is interesting because there are many other projects that I would feel worried about not finishing. Towards the end I was taking a bit of strain because I was travelling a lot and got sick with bronchitis. I was also starting to feel like I wasn’t improving as much as I could by focusing on quantity of output rather than mastering new things over a few days, and that affected my motivation a little.
Claire: Was there anything you did for ‘accountability’ sake - something to help you stick to your plan?
Julie: Instagram helped a lot in making me accountable. People were very encouraging and could see if I missed a day and often they told me how inspired they were by my project. Sometimes complete strangers (who weren’t followers) would just send a direct message and say how much they liked my account and my project. The engagement of my followers was motivating both in making me feel appreciated and in putting pressure on me not to let them down.
Claire: Tell us a bit about the challenge on a daily level. What did it entail? What did it look like for you? What was it that you did every day, and how did that process feel on a daily basis?
Julie: Every day I would look at my list of songs and pick one or two to work on, which would involve listening to the music video and sometimes listening to other ukulele covers on youtube or instagram, and finding chords, or towards the end of the project working the chords out myself. One thing I did about 4 months in was incorporate drums and harmonies through the use of split screens which took a bit of time to figure out (there is a pic below of one of these). I would use gaps in my day to try to learn the song, or think about how to put together the different parts, if I used a split screen. Sometimes I had to play through something many times before I remembered it, especially in the beginning. Sometimes I had to record quite a few takes and a few times that involved stubbing my toe while getting from my phone to push ‘record’ and back to my drum kit. At times it drove my pug mad - he would sigh heavily when I had to re-record over and over. It was satisfying proving to myself what I could do, and fun working out how to do things. Sometimes I probably went out less than I otherwise would have, but I loved playing uke so it didn’t feel like I was missing out.
Julie: I had a running list of covers, and asked for requests from followers, friends and amused colleagues, so I never ran out of song ideas. Even after I had finished I had about 30 still on the list. Slightly more challenging though was when I tried to write songs. About two thirds of the way through the project I did a songwriting challenge that one of my friends set up, which involved writing 15 songs in 30 days. I procrastinated on that and that meant squeezing 2 songs into one day sometimes.
Claire: So procrastination was a bit of a struggle, then?
Julie: Mostly for songwriting. There were some days I just couldn’t record a song, such as when I was without signal, or very sick, etc., so I would do two in one day to make up for the lost day. But I decided that that was okay and that I made the rules. As long as I had done 365 songs by the time a year had passed, that was okay. Having that leeway didn’t encourage procrastination though. I think I didn’t procrastinate because I was so in the habit of working on a song whenever I got the chance.
Claire: Was there any sort of community aspect to your challenge - an online forum for people to share their experience and progress etc? A meet up? If so, how did that impact on your progress (or not)?
Julie: Uploading my videos to Instagram meant my project essentially involved a community, and it definitely helped. There is quite a large ukulele community on instagram, and many of my followers are fellow uke fanatics. I made friends with quite a few people I met through instagram, and I still chat with some of them or send them videos I think they will like. Only one or two were there from the beginning. Some people would last for about 4 months and then disappear - I’m sure they got bored! Losing followers and seeing videos of others who were much better than me was humbling and I think ended up giving me a healthy sense of perspective - it made me realise that I fell somewhere on the spectrum of expertise, and that was strangely comforting. It took away some of the urge to measure myself against impossible standards (which i find myself doing in other areas of my life sometimes) and just strive to play as well as I could.
Claire: How much did you choose to share with your family and friends about this challenge? How did they respond to your involvement in this challenge?
Julie: I told my parents and sent them videos from time to time (usually of songs I knew they would like) because neither liked instagram even though both joined in order to follow me. I told some friends but didn’t put anything about it up on Facebook until the last day because despite it being so public, I felt a bit shy about it. Some friends clearly thought it was a bit of a dumb idea, and others liked every video and encouraged me often. For my birthday, about halfway through my project, I played a gig and many of my friends and my parents and brother came to watch, and some of my musician friends played with me, and that was awesome. I also played a gig to celebrate finishing and some of the same and some different friends came to watch that.
Claire: What was the most exciting part of this process for you?
Julie: Realising that my memory is actually quite good. Finding new music. Learning to enjoy the attention I got from performing and not be paralysed by nerves. Figuring out songs from scratch without chords. Learning to use a looper pedal. Sewing new dresses for performances.
Claire: What was the most daunting or challenging aspect of the process?
Julie: The fact that my videos (including the bad ones) could be seen by anyone, and be judged and the fear that I was actually a terrible musician.
Claire: What was the most surprising part of the process?
Julie: How easy it was and how much I loved it and how motivated I stayed even towards the end.
Claire: What was the most rewarding part of the process?
Julie: Getting fan art from instagram followers (which included one of my friends designing and sending in the mail some ‘little julie and ukulele’ stickers), complements from people I admire, getting strong - being able to play guitar now without it hurting my fingers. But more generally just the regular solace of playing music: it is a great way to manage a bad mood, or dark thoughts. Also, now if someone asks me to play something, there are at least 30 songs I can play confidently from memory.
Claire: What, if anything, did you learn about yourself through this process?
Julie: That I learn and grow as a musician most when I really focus - going through the motions can be pointless if you are not conscious and listening carefully. But I also learned that I am most likely to get things done if I am committed to starting to getting something done, as opposed to striving for perfection.
Claire: Do you feel this challenge changed you in any way? If so, how?
Julie: I think I am more comfortable about being looked at and heard - I have become desensitised to the nerves and self-consciousness I used to feel. I like to think I am better now at getting started and not allowing unrealistic expectations to paralyse me.
Claire: What was the end product? And how did/do you feel toward it?
Claire: 365 videos and a gig where I performed some of my favourite songs. I felt a little anxious towards the end because I wasn’t sure what I would do next and because it had become part of my identity to some extent. I felt proud at times but I had moments of doubt when I wondered if it had all just been a bit silly because maybe I wasn’t really a musician at all but I was presenting myself as one by putting so many videos of myself up - I felt a bit mortified about the me me me-ness of it all at times. But I think on the whole I feel proud.
Julie: Since you finished this challenge, what has happened with your art/creativity? Did it stop there, did you start a new challenge, have you moved onto other things?
Claire: The project finished just over 2 weeks ago. It has been a relief not to have to play every day, but I have found myself playing most days anyway. I started playing guitar about a week ago and I am probably learning faster than I would have without having learnt to play uke. Yesterday I decided to start a new challenge of working on my thesis every day for 365 days - I will start that soon. I started a blog on wordpress to record that process - again as a way of using the accountability of public engagement as a motivation, and to make sure I don’t get distracted and forget to work on it for days at a time. I hope my ukulele project was good preparation for that.
Claire: What would you say to someone who wanted to sign up for a creative challenge?
Julie: Yes! Do it! But be realistic. To do something every day, you have to think about what is possible - you have to be realistic, and that can be very useful in making you productive. You might not produce something brilliant every day because of the time limitations and because we are not always firing on all cylinders all days, but you might often find yourself surprising yourself and you will definitely make much more than you would have otherwise. And I think that cultivating the habit of not aiming for perfection, but still aiming to be aware and focused when you create, can do wonders for your abilities.
Claire: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Julie: I worry that these kinds of projects can become a way to be selfish, to develop a focus on yourself rather than more important things in the world. That made me uneasy sometimes: this idea of a ‘journey’ that you place so much importance on at the cost of noticing other things. I try not to take myself too seriously to counterbalance that and just see the project as a way to stay focused rather some super profound thing I am doing. You probably always have to sacrifice certain things in completing a project like this, and realising this has a way of making you realise what is important to you, which is good. As I said, I think it’s important to be realistic and factor in a little leeway: if it’s too hard you will give up, and your confidence in yourself will be knocked. You need to think about how much leeway you want to give yourself when the universe conspires against you, but also guard against letting that turn into excuses. Starting from scratch is very intimidating - deciding on a theme or some way to focus your energies helps a lot. One thing I have definitely come away with is how quickly a year can go by.
Doing these kinds of projects is one way to make sure you are spending time on the thing/s that you love and that are most important to you, and to see what you are capable of if you really give yourself a chance.