Learning how to learn Morse Code – My experiences with CWops Level 1,2,3

How quickly can I learn CW and when will I know I’m there?

That is an ever-present thought of mine that would not go away even after a year of taking CWops Level 1, 2 and 3. Truth is I did learn a lot about CW and I feel more confident regardless of my speed. More importantly, I learned how to learn Morse Code, and that is the most valuable lesson I found for myself in this journey. it’s like playing an instrument; there can be no end of practice along the way until you master it and that may take years, and then you feel the desire to continue improving.

Bruce Pea interviewed me on his DitDit.Fm show and asked why I took all CWops course one after the other. I made it clear during the interview that I did not start out with the intention of racing through the classes. That never occurred to me until he asked me why I did it. I simply decided I would dedicate my spare time, such as it was, to focus solely on CW and my original plan was to complete CWOps 1. I had very little experience as a Ham operator and knew absolutely nothing about Morse code.

After CWops 1 I was told the classes fill up so I signed up for CWops 2 thinking I would not have the time or guts to move on. I could just cancel.  I had a two-month break over the summer, so I just kept at my practice as time permitted. Luckily at the time, I was in between work projects, so I just rolled into CWop3 with some trepidation. I still have a lot to learn with regards to headcopy. Just going through the courses was more about walking through a valley of fear for me.  I moved forward with intrigue for learning the code and the process of learning something entirely different in my life. I like communicating with people and connecting with people around the world with code fascinated me.

Unlike the vast majority of the people I met during the CWOp classes, I had not been on the air with my CW paddles to try and complete a QSO. I made a few weak attempts, but I was too worried about flubbing up. Also, I was confused by the protocol to initialize and respond to CW. Who calls first, what do I say, what do all those abbreviations mean, what if I make a mistake?

So I continued to practice, but I wasn’t even sure how best to approach it. I used LCWO.net and various iPhone apps all of which seemed to help with my recognition of speed of single letters and the numbers. But man I would get bored with those after a while. I did a lot stopping and starting and thrashing around with my process of learning.

Let me step back and set the stage here for you regarding my entry into learning process and motivations. I’m a newbie to amateur radio, and I’m in my early 60’s. I have a degree in electrical engineering, and like most, I’m a gadget guy. I’ve also produced some 1300 podcasts and done quite a bit of video editing and production. I did not know a single person that into radios much less CW. Like many people, I think I assumed the hobby was dead. Goodness was I wrong about that.

After I earned my Technician license in 2016, I found Oak Hill Amateur Radio Club – N50AK.org. Those guys changed my world and swooped in to help me solve what I call the 101 problem set. Meaning I did not know which end was up with my radio or antenna from a practical perspective. I had more questions than answers. Their generosity in spirit and patience got me on the air on HF SSB and VHF/UHF SSB bands. So a big shout out to them. I admire their progressive use of SLACK as a club communication tool to keep the community members informed and most of all their friendship.

Thanks to the N5OAK members urging I went ahead and took the General and Extra in 2016. It was a strange feeling completing those without having much on-air experience. I soon realized those licenses were a doorway to a world amazing people and fun gear. That was a gift and motivation to dig in. Of course, once you get into the amateur radio, you realize there are possibly a 100 other hobbies to explore. I found myself trying to do too much given the limited time I had in the evenings.

For some reason which I don’t think I’ll ever really fully understand, I found myself listening to Morse code transmission on the HF bands. I felt transfixed at times wondering what it all meant. I began a journey of reading articles and listening to every CW-oriented podcast I could I could find. After some personal wrestling with my time priorities at home, I pulled away from nearly all SSB operation and even took the Yaesu VHF/UHF radio out of the car. I decided to focus solely on learning Morse code and get to a point where I felt I understood how to communicate with it. I had to focus.

So back to the CWops journey, The CWops organization has pulled together volunteer advisors that have years of experience. It seemed each time I had a new instructor they would start with explaining how they learned CW decades ago the wrong way. Their goal is to help each person learn a new way based on a great deal of collective experience.

CWops 1 is exactly as you would expect, you learn the letters and numbers. I enjoyed the approach of learning a few vowels and a couple of consonants to start forming simple words right away. The goal is to get you away from concentrating on letters or the dits and dahs. I heard that key point stressed in all three CWOps advisors. Focus on the sound pattern of the entire word.  At the end of CWops 1 I started doing some back and forth CW on the air and on over Skype with students in the class but I could tell I had a lot more learning to do.

CWops 2 came along in the fall of 2017. I was even more nervous with this class than the last. One comforting thing I noticed, even the most advanced students in each class had difficulty at times even with an exercise they nailed earlier. Knowing this was a bonding experience or at least a reminder that we’re all human and learning Morse code takes time. Some days are better than others. That’s just how it is.

Still, I was nervous and holding back, and I felt stiff. Honestly, I just wanted to quit. What kept me going was the camaraderie of the class members. The class members would call and email me and encourage me to keep going. They would get on HF with me and help me practice regardless of how bad I felt I was at the time. So onward I went.

CWops 2 started right out with learning the two-letter abbreviations for the USA states at 15 WPM. The goal was to listen and say them out loud, quickly.  Sometimes we use a paddle to send it back, but if we were not getting ourselves up to say 12-15 wpm with near instant recognition, we would drop the sending speed. This became a central them for me in CWOps 2.

The focus of CWops 2 was to beging learning headcopy of two, three and four-letter words and abbreviations. It was tough going for me. I kept trying to write my response or use a keyboard since I can touch type quickly. The problem is that process was interfering with my ability to headcopy, and the advisor told me that multiple times but I would not listen. I realized this halfway through the course and started over by practicing the USA states from the first day of class and the instructor slowed down for until I started experiencing success again. That was a humbling experience  I also eased back on my practice to make it more about headcopy and not worry about anything else for 10 minutes. I would take a short break breath then a second 10 minutes.

When I felt ready for some practice I would cleare my desk and computer screen, so NOTHING was distracting me. When using LCWO.net or RufzXP (more on this later), I would hear the code and say it out loud quickly for reinforcement THEN I would type it to test for correctness. Many thanks to my CWops instructor for his incredible patience in helping me past this block.

CWops 2 also included headcopy for two and three short words or abbreviations together that made sense like CAT IS HERE., RED CAT, DAD GO NOW.  I began to feel some success, slowly.

During CWOps 2 I attempted some simple QSO’s on the air and tried my hand at a copy of CW contests. There truly are some patient hams out there in radio land. I was messing up all over the place but I kept at it.  I have repeatedly heard the best way to learn is just get on the air. However, that wasn’t so easy for me given I was all butterfingers with my radio and logging software. Geesh, logging software, that’s another story in itself. I would burn up way too many hours screwing around with it and giving up for a while. I should have been practicing my code, and this became a distraction. For the Ham who has been in the hobby for years often decades, this likely all sounds like a lot of fuss, but for me, everything I did was a new milestone on the journey and pushing hard didn’t make it go faster.

The beautiful thing about CWOps 2 was learning the correct way to use RufzXP and Morse Runner as a beginner. I tried to use those in the past, but my results were feeble at best. It turns out you can add your training files to RufzXP in the subfolder called PRS. I ’ll provide instructions on how to do this later. That little program changed my life. I put nearly all my CWops coursework in RufzXP (for single words) and used the testing feature to monitor my progress. This was a breakthrough for me to have more fun.

The main lesson I learned in CWops 2 was realizing I was hacking at my practicing sessions trying to go too quickly and never really feeling like I was making much progress both in headcopy and in sending. What the CWops 2 advisor finally got through my head was correct practice in short stints is better than just brute force practice over and over. Go for the win of correct practice. Speed comes in time.

For example, I put the 50 state abbreviation file into RufzXP and cranked the speed down and started listening, saying it, then typing. I would NOT GO FASTER until I get get 95-100% accuracy  for a run of 20 random words. The key point is to relish for a moment my victory of learning at that speed with no errors. BAM, nailed it. Then do it again and nail it. After a couple of times of reinforcing that inner experience of correct practice, move the speed up. If for some reason I cranked it up too fast and more than say 5 – 6 errors came up I would ease back.

There is a dance with that entire process of pushing forward and working through the experience of nailing the practice and then inching up the speed. After a couple of attempts at the higher speed if I did not show any progress (nearly 100% correct), I would crank it back just a little until I felt that NAILED IT experience. I call it working the edge. I hope this make sense. This one training concept changed my entire perspective in learning Morse Code and gave me confidence that I could continue and improve over time with less frustration. And I could return and start over with confidence that I would regain my speed with less frustration. I just needed patience.

CWop3 – the final class.

I had applied with trepidation. Though I could tell I made progress in CWop 2 I was not happy with my overall results. I just wanted to quit and give this all a rest.  Right after I completed CWOp2 an email arrived about my enrollment in the next class. Like before, I agonized over this decision and called the advisor. He gently walked me back from the ledge of dropping out. He was just so reassuring and supportive I decided, ok, I’ll press on.  He understood I was struggling.

CWops 3 was actually the most fun I had of the three. I realized there was nothing I could change about being the new guy on the block and as before all the others in the class brought me along like a teammate. With a group of guys (yes all guys this time) I was the newbie. Everyone had been doing amateur radio for decades and most already knew CW very well. They were there to get improve their speed. I expected that so I just soldered on and decided I would relax some. That attitude helped.

One reason I enjoyed CWOps 3 was the heavy emphasis on sending. Being a drummer all my life there is something about sending I enjoy and felt more confident. The CWOps advisor heavily stressed sending. Sending will improve your headcopy. He was right about that.

I used the same insight on sending as I did with headcopy.  Focus on correct practicing. Stopping and hacking away at each missed letter in words from “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” was fruitless. I had to slow it down and then speed up with constant practice until I had it letter perfect. It’s all about reinforcing that sense of feeling of success and trusting little wins will add up.

I still make errors like everyone else. In fact, now I realize EVERYONE makes errors. Knowing how to improve my sending as I was doing with learning headcopy has helped me feel more self-confident.

The other area I gained some confidence along the way in this journey was jumping into some contest. Getting up to speed on N1MM was tricky, but once I could limp along in Search and Pounce mode with N1MM during various CW contest, I started enjoying the rush of each QSO.

Yes, I refer to a CW decoder at times. But my goal is to keep improving my headcopy and learning how to write down only what I need, the essence. Most importantly I’m keeping an eye on enjoying what I’m doing. It’s a hobby, not a job.

Finishing CWops 3 was felt like my last class at TAMU in electrical engineering. I was ready to get on with my life. So I’ve started doing some SSB again in particular DX. Overall I  enjoy both contesting and rag chewing with Morse Code, As I said, I am transfixed when listening to CW on the HF bands.

So how quickly did I learn CW? The answer, I’m still learning because that’s just how it is in life. Learning is what we do. When will I know I have arrived? I guess I will know when I know. More practice on the air for sure. If you read this far, thank you and I hope we can meet on the air.

Special Thanks to:

Al Dewy K0AD – CWops Level 1
Mark Tyler K5GQ – CWops Level 2
Joseph Spencer KK5NA – CWops Level 3