Lists of ups and downs are a good start, but really 'feeling' the music and experimenting will start you on the path of making your own strum
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 band aid - 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 researcher 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.