Monday, 27 July 2015

The Joy Of CW


I receive a lot of e-mail from both hams and future hams that are struggling with CW. It seems there are a lot of hams that don't operate any CW simply because of their code skills. For myself, learning CW as a pre-teen, was a bit of a struggle, as I learned CW from flash cards ... definitely the wrong way. In my case, the code was learned in order to operate an Aldis lamp signalling system for my scouting activities. When eventually switching to a hand key and buzzer, I had to make the mental switch between the picture of the flash card and the sound of the code, taking me much longer to reach my goals than if I had learned just by sound.

If I were learning the code today, or if advising anyone struggling with CW, I would suggest several ways of making it easier.

1. Too many newcomers want to learn CW using a keyer. Put the keyer away and get yourself a hand key. It need not be fancy or expensive.

2. Use the hand key to practice sending similar-sounding letters (E, I, S, H etc) slowly and correctly. Don't be concerned about sending them fast but concentrate on getting a uniform spacing between each element of the letter. As you slowly learn the letters and how they sound, you will find your sending speeding-up, unconsciously, as you progress.

3. Combine your sending practice with receiving practice and try to do 10 minutes of each during each practice session. One session per day will guarantee success, if you stick with it. If you can't do it every day then try and commit to every other day.

4. For receiving practice, use a much higher speed than what you are sending at. Once again, in sets of similar-sounding letters, try and learn the letters when sent at a speed of at least 15WPM, but with wide spaces between each letter ... so they aren't coming at you as fast. This is the Farnsworth method of learning code. Learning what the letters sound like when sent at a fast speed will eliminate the dreaded 'learning plateaus' associated with learning at slower speeds, when you can get stuck at a lower speed for some length of time. I only wish that I had known of this method when I was a kid, but I don't think it had been thought of back then.

5. There are lots of websites that will help you in Step 4 and one that I have played with seems to work very well. You can set up a slow-speed spacing but have characters sent at 15WPM or faster (start with 15WPM). You can pick only the letters that you wish to practice (T,M,O,A,N etc) and then get a printout of what was actually sent to check your accuracy. The one I tested is by AA9PW and can be found here.

In addition, the ARRL's W1AW, provides nightly code practice on various frequencies and also provides archived CW practice sessions at various speeds via their website here.

Once you become somewhat competent in both sending and receiving, don't be afraid to get on the air and use your new skills. Don't be concerned about sending fast and be careful about sending faster than you can receive, an easy trap to fall into.

There are always several stations around 7.110-7.125 every afternoon and evening that seem very happy to communicate at comfortable speeds. If you don't get on-the-air, then make sure that you still do your daily 20 minutes of practice. You will be amazed at how quickly you can learn the code or increase your speed, with this daily routine. This short daily commitment to practice (on the air or otherwise) is the key to success.

If you aren't using CW, you are missing out on a lot of fun. To this day, CW is still my favorite mode and almost 100% of my on-air operating is on CW ... it's just plain fun! Knowing how to use CW will open up a lot of opportunities to enjoy it ... CW contesting, chasing DX, CW nets, staying in touch with friends etc ... CW will always get through better than phone under most conditions.


So ... if you have been struggling with the code, or putting it off, there's no time like the present to join the fun. Hopefully you will find these suggestions helpful.


Nikki said...

I'm a 13 year old girl studying for my General class amateur license. I taught myself International Morse code and I can now copy in excess of 30 wpm. Your article was pretty much spot on and I can only offer what I did and what worked or didn't work for me.

1. Getting Started.. This is the absolute hardest part.

2. Resolve. You have really want to accomplish this as a personal goal.

3. Patience!. Don't give up!

4. No solo. If at all possible involve a friend. You can help/motivate each other.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice - And practice some more. You can't improve unless you practice!

6. Get a Receiver - I listened to nothing but CW on my little home built 2 tube receiver. I found the plans on how to build it in an old 1947 radio handbook. I listened to commercial CW, I listened to ham CW, If it was CW I listened to it. Even when doing something different and not even trying to understand what was being sent I still had CW going on in the back ground. I believe this is the single most important thing I did to get it nailed down. I was constantly listening to CW and after a while your brain will begin to sort out the dit-dah chaos. Especially the regular ham QSO. They are repetitive and this repetitiveness will help you!

7. Don't set unrealistic goals. Be patient with yourself. Each persons learning curve is different. Push yourself yes. But don't allow yourself to get discouraged, but instead focus on what you accomplished. Believe me, once you start studying you will accomplish more than you realize so go easy on yourself.

8. You don't need a key and practice osc in order to practice. I used to make up songs that used the word dah for dash and dit for dot. Just whistling repetitions of things like CQ or QTH or 73s help. It may sound silly but it is exercising your mind when you do this during the day at school, work or where ever.

9. At some point you will learn the entire alphabet, numbers and punctuation. I made a mistake early on by writing down the characters on paper. This was bad because I had not taught myself how to copy it in my head. At a point early on I realized my mistake and almost had to start over unlearning the necessity of writing down the characters and instead forming words in my head.

10. I learned cw that was sent at a rate of 13 - 20 wpm that was spaced at 5wpm. This is good. Doing it the other way I had extreme trouble because the 'dahs' were so long I could not distinguish them from a 'dit' which when sent at 5 wpm, the character speed was too horribly long. But when sent at anywhere from 13 to 20 wpm with longer spaces between the characters will help you focus on the sound of the entire character and not just the individual 'dits' and 'dahs' This is important. As your speed skills increase you will start to identify whole words by sound instead of individual characters. Seen #9 above.

11. Accept setbacks as a part of life. Don't let them set you back, rather keep on going. Even an inch at a time. I had lightning blow up my receiver and now I'm diving into the world of homebrew circuits. Its hard. Frustrating. But I know if I can accomplish climbing the code mountain then I can also overcome the receiver mountain. Its difficult to find anyone who will take a person my age seriously. Maybe it's because I am a girl. Don't know. I wish I had a mentor but I don't so like climbing the code mountain I will prevail on this too.

Steve McDonald said...

Nikki - thanks so much for your wonderful advice and suggestions. They are all spot-on! I really can't imagine anyone not taking you seriously. Your comments are so well thought out and expressed that it is hard to believe that you are so young. They sound more like sage advice from someone who has been in the hobby for decades!

All of your points are excellent, especially #9, about not writing things down, which I should have included. I too made the very same mistake, which also lengthened my learning curve. By all means, one should try and copy things in their head as, once mastered aurally, writing it down will come with ease, should that be required.

Point #2 is also so important ..."You have to really want to accomplish this as a personal goal." When I set my goal of learning CW, at age 11, it was my main focus at that point in my life!

Anyone setting out to learn the code or to improve their code speed should definitely follow your wise advice!

Thanks again and hope we can have a CW QSO sometime!

Nikki said...

Mr. McDonald you are too kind with your praise. I am home schooled. See, my mom (who is also a Nikki) is highly educated and as I understand it, she graduated summa cum laude. When I broke the news to her that I did not want to be a Physicist or a research scientist, but rather an engineer I think I broke her heart, but I do believe she is over it now. I Think.

Anyway being home schooled has certain advantages but when it comes to my education she is as hard as nails. For example our next door neighbours daughter Daniela is 15 and goes to public school. Daniela never heard of a derivative,integral or even a complex conjugate, only speaks one language, and according to my mom couldn't spell potentiometer if her life depended on it and has never taken a single chemistry course. Yet I envy her because she is a normal kid. If my mom had her way I'd be going to a prep school some place in Europe. Luckily my dad won't hear of it and says she's better than any prep school and he's right! I say I'm just a young one who cannot leave her mother. Ha. When I told my mom I wanted to participate in All Star Cheerleading to my surprise she said O.K. without blinking an eye. I think it was because being home schooled I didn't have a lot of friends but now I have a lot of friends and am having a lot of fun. My mom was a cheerleader too and I'm sure that factors in somehow. Actually my mom and to a limited degree my dad is involved in it too and so we get to do a lot of things together which is really awesome! Plus my mom is starting to lighten up a little bit and I really really like that a lot :-) The trials and tribulations of a home schooled teen. Topic of my first book? Sorry mom. Kids should be kids and leave all the brokering of lucrative book deals to the grown ups :-).

Soon I will be taking my amateur tests. I'm still looking and trying to decide what I'm going to build for my ham station. I've decided it will be 100% homebrew but time is running out and soon I will be busy with my studies and cheerleading competitions. That said, I will definitely catch you 30m or 40m CW one of these days I promise! I mean it! Until then this YL,[future call sign goes here] says 73's & CUL OM DE Nikki KN