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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."



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August 24, 2007 | Clear tone in between the dots

Listening to amazing players like Chris Thile, Evan Marshall, and Mike Marshall, it's always mind-boggling how they produce clear, bell-like tone in the upper frets of the mandolin. Not only can they play fast, each note is clean and rich with tone.

This is hard for beginners and even most intermediate players, getting a pleasant sound (let alone at high speed) requires a lot of dedication, and not everybody is willing to work at achieving it. We suggest taking advantage of a previous FFcP exercise for tackling this, the FFcP Chromatic Mastering. The concept is simple, you start with 1st FFcP on one fret, do the 2nd FFcP on the next fret up, the 3rd FFcP one up, and the 4th FFcP one more. Though we designed this to start on the 3rd fret (or 3rd position), if you really want to put it to use, start on the 7th fret, and play "between the dots" of the 7th and 10th frets. 1st finger on 7, 2nd finger on 8, 3rd on 9, and pinky on 10.

Start Slow. Play slowly, and continue to play slowly. (Did we mention you want to slow this down?) The goal here is tone. Work these starting on both the G and D courses and be conscious of this tone checklist:

Start cleanly. Each pick stroke should enjoy the fruits of a well-place fret finger. The sweet spot must be confident and secure. No fracking; each note must be the most beautiful note you've every played in your life.

Sustain forever. If you've done your job starting the note, this is exponentially easier, but you want to keep the tone alive as long as you can. A healthy pick stroke helps, but keep the fretting finger there as long as you can before the next note takes over.

Anticipate subsequent notes. This is a timing thing, but you want to be sure you are ready for the next note, meaning your hand needs be in position to roll or barre for the next clean, secure sound.

If you can do these at slow speeds, eventually you can handle it fast. The converse is simply not true. Plan on spending a few weeks on this. You'll be amazed at how much better your voice will be in this register of the fretboard.

Download: Chromatic Mastering PDF

Review Practice Tips: FFcP Chromatic Mastering.

Posted by Ted at 6:05 AM


August 16, 2007 | Learning from other instruments

A comment was published by a very prominent mandolinist about the best way to learn the instrument. The claim was that the only way to really understand the mandolin was to listen to Bill Monroe. The context of the discussion was a response to the idea of NOT approaching mandolin the same as one would a guitar. We know the player's emphasis on the music and playing of Bill Monroe was not meant to completely exclde other high profile mandolinists, nor likely completely overlooking other instruments. As much as we appreciate Big Mon's influence on the re-emergence and prestige of the instrument in the mid 20th century, we like to think there is much to playing beautiful music on our instrument that can come from other instrumentalists.

Site author Ted Eschliman has always weighed in on the significant impact of years of playing trombone in developing a lyrical voice on wood and string. Though air isn't vibrated the same way in a brass instrument, the mental concept of line and sustain is very much desired in pleasing tone. The same could be said of singing; the rise and fall of phrasing because of breath intensity is well worth imitating on the mandolin.

Guitar offers us basic concepts of melody and strumming, but ponder what the influence of Stephane Grappelli's sweet gypsy violining must have had developing the lyric voice of guitar innovator Django Rheinhardt. Arguably, some of the best jazz mandolin recording of recent has been Don Stiernberg's collaborations with guitarist John Carlini, the rich extended chord complexities not completely matured in Don's earlier recordings. Certainly this partnership helped broaden the jazz veteran's mandolin vocabulary in recent years.

Vibes players such as Gary Burton and Joe Locke offer a similar glimpse into mandolin chord potential. Consider the four-mallet technique of these phenoms; this is not unlike the four-voice capability of our fretboard. We could learn a lot listening to the magic harmonies they accomplish on their keyboards.

Speaking of keyboards, though we don't have the ten-finger voicing of great pianists like Bill Evans or Oscar Peterson, surely we could glean some insight into their harmonic creativity, albeit at some condensed level. The blistering light-speed notes of Bebop musicians like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker seem to elude the mandolin, until you listen to Paul Glasse. Granted, not all of us are capable of his fretboard pyrotechnics, but some attempt to emulate can climb us to higher musical ground.

A good jazz drummer knows how to appropriately "fill" and support. How much fun to listen to a big band and see how the drummer sets up band hits and climaxes. The art is not in being the "star," it's in how the rest of the band is made to sound good. Is this our approach to playing accompanying roles?

It's all music. We should let our eyes and ears gain insight into playing form as many musicians as we can.

We're going to go listen to some clarinet, now...

Posted by Ted at 1:55 PM


August 9, 2007 | Osmosis and Effective Practicing

Let's ponder learning styles, attempt to understand "understanding." To prescribe a single best possible way for a person to incorporate a new raw motor skill or intellectual concept is like saying everybody ought to wear size 32 waist pants. It's an absurd thought, but just as everybody's physical stature is different, so is mental capacity and the way thoughts and reflexes are wired into unique and individual brains.

That said, it is fair to say there remain generalities in how we absorb thought and performance, especially in regards to practice techniques. Some learn best by rote, some demand a printed page (visual), and many others seem to only learn through casual repetition. What we do have in common to some degree is the ability to get lost "in the now," only to fail in preparing for what is yet to come.

The third quarter...
You're playing a concert. You thought you had everything mastered but about two-thirds into the performance your mind wanders and you start to screw things up. You end everything well, but that later middle part just wasn't up to snuff.

This is all so very common; you start a performance with an abundance of adrenalin. You're nervous and in a "heightened" state of mind. As you play, the nerves calm, but at the expense of concentration. The mind naturally wanders, you miss notes you never thought you would. Ending a performance, the endorphins start to kick in again and your synapses are back in the game.

What does this mean to you? Make sure the "middle" of your songlist is polished best. Also, make sure the middle sections of your music are tight, as this is a microcosm of an entire recital. It's just as easy to mentally wander in the middle of one song, for the same reasons.

The last shall be first...
Along the same lines, mental doldrums can also appear at the end of a long complicated section of a song. A good trick in learning a long passage is to isolate and practice the back end first, making the end automatic and reflexive before the front. Start with the last measure, master it, move to the preceding measure and master, then the next before, and on to the beginning.

The goal is to internalize, and if you're still thinking about the front and middle of the passage, you'll lose full concentration toward the end. You want that back end somewhere between "easy" and "autopilot" so you can process the whole phrase.

More on this in Learning Backward.

Also: How We Learn


Posted by Ted at 11:36 AM


August 2, 2007 | Fourthness and Purple

Music can be such a subjective thing. The combination of art and science blends worlds of aesthetic intangibles with harsh concrete science, bringing listener and performer together in ways neither can control, predict, or imagine. The way the sense of hearing engages the mind is not unlike the other four senses; based on cumulative personal experience and familiarity, sometimes studied, more often subconscious.

Consider the antiseptic smell of a hospital. Most folks are conditioned to be uncomfortable around this, past unpleasant experiences condition the nose to warn the brain of potential discomfort, yet to a rescued jungle wanderer, this smell of civilization might instill an emotional state of sanctuary. The sound of a thunderstrom can be terrifying to a Sheltie puppy, but to a drought-stricken farmer, it's the voice of angels. Commercial graphic artists tell us a smooth Reflex Blue will induce calm to the reader, Cardinal Red will stimulate both attention and alarm. The senses respond culturally in somewhat predictable ways, but as individuals, often based on past experiences out of extremely personal histories.

Music and sound for the studied musician may mean significantly more than to the novice. Knowledge of theory involves the brick and mortar of harmonic and melodic structure, but this is mere intellect. How the aesthetic, the intuitive responds is every much as significant, and we can't afford to be eggheads about our theory. Ultimately, it's still a tool to not only deeper understanding, but a path to a higher level artistic experience. If done properly, in performances it can bring our audience along with us.

Chicago multi-instrumentalist and jazz mandolin pioneer, Don Stiernberg tells of his emotional response to chords and modes. Each chord extension may have a mood-inducing impact, a happy sound, a sad, an invigorating, and in his own mind, he experiences the music more passionately so. Certainly, he knows the theory, but that doesn't distract him from the aesthetic experience.

Berklee Professor John McGann quips, "Theory only seems like rocket science when you don't know it. Once you understand it, it's more like plumbing!" The truth is, we don't need to know plumbing just to enjoy a cool glass of tap water, but it's sure nice to have some basic knowledge of water pressure when maintaining a lawn or fixing a noisy toilet. His point is well-taken in that rocket science isn't something we all have access to, but plumbing is something we use (and enjoy) everyday; it's this experience that makes it relevant.

Have you ever pondered your own emotions stimulated by certain chords? Certainly, most will hear the stability of an open 5th or an octave. A three note major triad (C E G) is likely a "happier" sound than minor triad (C Eb G). Pondering more complex chords like major 7ths, impressions will be more subjective and individual. Certainly this harmonic vocabulary is more "peaceful" to the 21st century ear than use in past history. The contemprary blues musician will argue there is nothing more exciting than a flatted 5th note; a Medieval Gregorian monk would go out of his way to avoid this interval for fear of spiritual heresy.

It's all about context.

Let's offer some suggestions, but bear in mind, this is YOUR personal journey. We've talked about the "pull" of 4ths and 7ths. In practicing the FFcP scales think not only about which finger plays the 4th note of the scale, but add this interactive dimension of perception as you drill. In 1st FFcP, the 4th note is in the 4th finger, momentarily stopped in time does your ear (and finger) sense the restlessness? Do you experience the "fourthness? As you hit the 3rd note with your 3rd finger, is their a defining sensibility of majorness or minornesss? Do you enjoy a state of "thirdness." Can you duplicate this in 2nd FFcP and the other two fingerings?

In the early days of discovering the mandolin, when your playing was built on open strings as your home base, did these notes imbibe a feeling of stability, physically and aurally? How about emotionally? There's no reason you can' carry this sensation or experience into the other fingers AND expand characters and personalities to the other fingers. You really get beyond the mechanics of playing when you do this and experience true art even just running through scales and exercises.

What does that major 6th interval do for you? Is it happy, precocious, restless? How about the minor 7th? Is it consonant, rebellious... dare we get existential and say "purple?" There is no one single answer, and only YOUR answer as a unique artist and musician.

Experience in your practice routine, the art in the little things like this, and as you grow more deeply, the complex aspects of playing will become an even greater personal aesthetic journey.

Posted by Ted at 1:37 PM



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