Strumming • More about memory
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What strum pattern should I use?

Ukulele players often ask this question when: learning a song in a group, to make sure everyone’s on the same page; if a rhythmically complex song is drawing a blank in their mental strum pattern library; or they’re playing for their own enjoyment, but not enjoying it so much because it doesn’t sound like the song they thought it was.

The usual solution is to present a written and/or demonstrated, list of downs and ups…no problem, just learn that and you’ll be right! This seems like the simple solution to a straightforward request, but for those who find strum patterns a challenge, it can be a bandaid - treating the symptoms and not the cause. Some players pick up strum patterns almost immediately whereas others have a lengthy struggle to learn and consistently apply them.

Although players new to ukulele are often heard to remark ‘I don’t have any sense of rhythm’ this condition, known as beat deafness, is estimated to only affect 4% of people. A study at McGill University in Canada found that people with beat deafness could still tap out a rhythm in the absence of other sounds, but their biological rhythms (which include rhythms in the brain and nervous system as well as heartbeat, walking, clapping and speaking) could not adapt to, or couple with sounds such as music, to maintain a beat.

So the no-sense-of-rhythm defence is statistically unlikely. I watched a video recently of a large group I know performing, most having played ukulele for fewer than five years, and as they strummed, they were jigging, swaying and tapping a toe here and there, in perfect unison and timing. But I bet they weren’t thinking about that and may not have even realised they were doing it. This is one of the great things about playing in a large group, and probably goes some way to alleviating, or at least disguising strum-itis.

So why do some people find it easy and others don’t? Belgian music psychology resarcher Marc Leman is active in an area called Embodied Music Cognition. Before you run away screaming, simply put, this begins with the premise that the human body is a biological conduit between the mind and the outside environment. Leman notes that humans consider music in terms of beliefs, intentions, interpretations, experiences, evaluations, and significations. In other words our thoughts and feelings, which lead to the physical form - playing music - greatly influence the outcome.

Fairly obvious, and if those thoughts or feelings are ‘What’s the pattern and I’ll play it’, great, but if they also incorporate ‘I have trouble with strumming’, or ‘I feel uncomfortable allowing myself to move to the beat and translating it into a strum,’ then inhibition starts to limit your abilities. Putting a few steps into practice can help you alleviate inhibition and move toward your strumming goals.

Step 1 - be kind to and forgiving of yourself. Experimentation just means starting off with stuff you don't necessarily want to eventually get to the stuff you do want.
Step 2 - Strum experiments in the absence of judgement, your own or anyone else's, can often be achieved in a vacant room in the house or in front of a favourite song on youtube while zedding!
Step 3 - Trying things out as well as watching, asking, discussing and sharing ideas and techniques in the arms of a supportive ukulele group is part of the reason uke groups exist.

Never forget we have access to the world! Canadian uke teacher Guido Heistek has some great strum learning techniques, check out these from his site. 
More about memory
As a carry over from National Science Week, on Tuesday I heard a young man on the radio speaking about memory skills. Turns out he is Daniel Kilov, an Australian memory athlete, mentored by three time Australian memory champion Tansel Ali. Daniel is an entertaining speaker and went through a highly effective exercise for the listeners on how to remember five Spanish words (for non-Spanish speakers) in the space of about two minutes and it worked, I now know them!

The great thing is these men aren't the nerdy geniuses you might expect. Prior to their achievements, both had what they thought were poor memories which were affecting their everyday life. What changed for both was their discovery of memory techniques which are available to anyone and have their origins in Ancient Greece. There's even a Greek goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, which is where the word mnemonic comes from.

After wondering how I was going to use my four Spanish words, I started exploring how these techniques could be used for remembering how to play songs on ukulele. There's certainly potential, and it could have similarities to remembering a whole pack of shuffled cards (as these memory athletes do, regularly), but the multiple variables in singing and playing make it an interesting puzzle. I've contacted Daniel Kilov via his blog and will let you know what the response is.
The link below is to his TEDx talk at Macquarie University in which he runs another great exercise, admittedly unrelated to ukulele, but it might inspire your own technique... or you could make a song out of it!

Strum, diddley um.
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