Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
Tips & Tricks Mel Bay Mandolin Sessions

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Sage Wisdom

"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

The Regressive Method
(Learning it backwards...)

Playing difficult music can be a frustration, if not an exercise in futility. You play the song over and over, but just can't get it right! No matter how many times, it seems just outside your grasp, and certain passages just don't get better...

Understanding the system in which our brain absorbs information, we can unlock an effective technique in practicing and devouring new literature. Good old fashioned "woodshedding" need not be painful if we take a smart, efficient technique I like to call "The Regressive Method..."

Music can be absorbed with a similar approach. Our brains tend to "fry," the neural wirings get "crossed" with informational overload when we come across long, complicated passages, so we have to not only break them into "bite-size" chunks, but eventually reorder them back into context again, back to their original setting.

When encountering new a long, more complex section, first thing you have to do is outline the tough patterns. Somehow, be it marking parentheses in pencil, highlighting, whatever, you have to distinguish the hard from the simple. The idea being to spend more time on the hard, not wasting precious time on what you already know, though it is quite human to want to play what we can play well already. Unfortunately, that just burns up the time you could be "perfecting."

Isolate the hard parts, and start with a digestible piece, a couple sixteenth notes, a four note arpeggio, but start with the LAST nugget. Beat it, work it, pound it into submission, and don't leave it until you have it down. Next, go to the PRECEDING chunk. Same idea, work it until you have it inside. Add it to the first you perfected. Move another preceding chunk into the chain; now you have three to play in sequence. Continue working backwards, adding chunks until you have the whole passage.

What will amaze you with this approach is how much faster you can master music this way. It's all about being efficient, and capturing information in a way your brain wants to learn.

Tackle each portion until becomes subconscious, until it goes from cognition (thinking) to tactile (fingering). Don't engage in the next until it has become "involuntary" or intuitive.

Let's take a look at a brisk up-tempo, rhythmic jazz tongue-twister, Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." Bless you if already have this syncopated standard down, but if you don't, and you're like me, it takes some tactical mastery...

Find a copy of the song in leadsheet form in a Fakebook. Flounder through the whole song to discover its AABA form. The tune is typical of many Bebop standards, based on what's called "Rhythm" changes, the chord progression from the Gershwin "I've got Rhythm." (If you're ever in a jam session, some happens to call "Rhythm Changes," THIS is what they mean. The Bebop equivalent to the 12 Bar Blues, commonly played in the original key of Bb.) We're going to do a little study on the A section as a demonstration of this learning technique.

Click to enlarge thumbnail

Start your "evisceration" in the first ending:

I'd work from the pickup to the third beat through the end, and play these five notes 5 to 8 times, until my fingers are on "autopilot," eventually adding the first note of the measure.

Next, add the preceding measure:

Your brain is comprehending the "new" measure, but your fingers already have a tactile "grip" (pun intended) on the situation. Same process, drill both measures 5 to 8 times, until it becomes intuitive.

Understanding the system in which our brain absorbs information, we can unlock an effective technique in practicing and devouring new literature.

Next, woodshed the measure before, by itself:

Tackle each portion until becomes subconscious, until it goes from thinking to tactile (fingering). Don't engage in the next until it has become "involuntary" or intuitive.

Another 5 to 8 times in succession, when you have it down your ready for all three of the last measures:

Notice how you are not even "thinking" the last measure, because by now, it's so burned into your synapses. Keep adding preceding measures in this method, one motif at a time.

Measure 3 introduces a rhythm unlike the rest of the section, so spend some time on just it:

Again, play it 5 to 8 times, until it's performed with your fingers and not your brain. Then, continue on through the rest of the section. By now, the "struggle" is gone, and you're able to actually think ahead to the next section (while performing the current section!), which is critical in jazz performance. You should be ready for the whole A section now!

This approach works well in very technical jazz pieces, and I've found it critical to reading classical literature. It's so tempting to just "blow" through music, never stopping to perfect the hard parts. Using "The Regressive Method" strategy will decrease your frustration level when trying to tackle new pieces, and enable you to perform with precision and finesse!

"BEE-yah!" my 18 month old daughter used to consistently squeal when excited. I was baffled, thinking it was only gibberish, until I heard several of her same-age daycare friends repeat the identical nonsensical phrase, as if some sort of secret toddler code. It would be months later that I would discover not only the meaning of her utterance, but a key approach to resourceful practicing. It dawned on me-- the children were audiblizing something very close to what they were hearing, the word "Yippee!" They were just repeating it backwards, because at this stage of language development, their memory retained what they heard LAST.

What I noticed later as her speech patterns matured over the succeeding months, was that she could learn multi-syllable words much faster if we taught her the last syllable first, and worked our way forward, "Community:" (Cum-mun-da-ditty...)

Tee. (Tee)
Nih-Tee (Nih-Tee)
U-Nih-Tee (U-Nih-Tee)
Cum-U-Nih-Tee (Cum-U-Nih-Tee)

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