Donna & Derek Farrell

What you missed at the weekend workshops!

A report from some happy uke players.

Donna & Derek Farrell as “Totally Insane” have created a series of workshops for Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced level players. Great fun was had at Zillmere last weekend as they presented back-to-back beginners and intermediate workshops.

Donna & Derek are well known BUMS as performers, set leaders and having conducted workshops before Ferny Grove jam pre-pandemic. They also teach and lead the CHUMS, a young at heart performing band of seniors who raise money for Dementia Research.

So You’ve Got A Uke…Now What?

Donna kicked off the afternoon with her workshop So You’ve Got A Uke…Now What? This workshop distilled all of her best tips and techniques for very new ukesters. There were smiles all around as our beginner players learnt the correct way to hold and tune their ukes…so essential!

Ably assisted by Derek and Alma, by the end of the session Donna soon had the work-shoppers strumming, getting more familiar with some most used chords and playing quite a few songs. It was a very hands on session with lots of personal attention. All participants received very generous handouts to make it easy to keep up all they had learnt and continue to play at home.

Strummin’ the Beat

Derek’s workshop was called “Strummin’ the Beat”. Derek should know cos he’s a veteran of strumming strings – guitar since he was knee high to a grasshopper, and for the last nine years, that instrument we all know and love – ukulele.

Derek’s concept is that we can play melody and accompaniment on ALL stringed instruments, but on most we can add percussion as well. Indeed, he adds that ‘all three tasks can be achieved simultaneously.’

Strumming Derek

Fascinating, tell us more. Well, for many players “it’s enough to learn a bunch of chords, sing your heart out and get stuck with only one or two strumming techniques. But whether you’re on your own or with a few friends, it’s nice to learn some more advanced strumming techniques to bring along that strumming element.”

Couldn’t agree more … but tell us how.

“There’s no subtlety in banging it loud” – you need to add “colour and interest to your music plus feel”. Here are some of the ways to do that.

Time signature.

Derek explained how a time signature assists in figuring out a good strumming pattern. His informal grid for each of our eight workshop songs showed its up/down beats, with the number of strings utilised in each bar, colour coded.

Anyone for Sting? He really knows oddball division – fitting 17 beats to the bar in some of his songs. Irish jigs commonly have 6 beats and many Beatle classics have unusual time sigs – Norwegian Wood for example. Derek’s all time fave is the Classic Dave Brubeck Take Five, (5/4 time) one of the first jazz songs to be written in a beat other than the standard 4/4 or waltz.

Strumming volume and number of strings.

Both aspects can be altered to add subtlety to your tune. And if you leave out a strum or two here or there, it alters further. Derek demonstrated with Morningtown Ride by eliminating a strum and replacing it with a pluck resulting in a gentler pluck/strum pattern. He next varied speed and pattern by using a strum/mute, with a rolling hand action.


Muting (or damping), by quickly placing your hand over all strings to miss a beat, also assists in changing a piece from a boringly normal up/down into “something that matches the song – a nice rollicking thing.” Yeah, Derek I see that light and shade emerging now.

Derek explained the secret technique that transforms A Horse with No Name into a distinctive tune. You mute on the downstroke, emphasising with oomph on the 2nd and 4th beats. This “separates out the drone though it .. it never changes.” More fascinating facts.

After Mr Bojangles and Lay Down Sally, he took us through reggae with I Shot the Sheriff and arpeggio with Three Little Birds. All reggae is written for 4/4 time and the emphasis is on the off beat. So, you play 1 AND 2 AND 3 AND 4 AND …, to emphasise that the beat is actually on the AND. It’s what makes the whole thing reggae!

Derek stressed that no matter what song you choose to play, nothing’s ever fixed in concrete. It’s always your choice how to produce the sound – you use different techniques to “find bits of song that work – a bit like taking a plain old cake recipe and spicing it up into something rich and fruity”.

We finished with The Carnival is Over, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was the beginning of a whole new way of studying songs and the approach to playing them. Thanks Derek.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to go shopping for some new ingredients (techniques), mix ‘em up (arrange) and produce a new tasty sound. Happy strumming to your own beat!

The Spectator

Derek Farrell showing the workshop how to strum the beat.