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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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September 25, 2007 | Connectivity, Basic & Advanced

At JazzMando, we stress smoothness and attention to full "linear" technique for the mandolin. We've mentioned this isn't as natural to a plectrum as it is a wind or bowed instrument, so a player really has to be conscious of the precondition.

Admittedly, Celtic and Bluegrass players can get away with murder when it comes to sustain; with drone strings, crosspicking, and the "motorboat" picking styling, the listener doesn't always aurally register the fragmenting gaps in the melody. In Jazz and Classical though, you don't have these to mask bad phrasing.

It's relatively elementary for intermediate mandolinists to keep the tone going on melodic fragments lingering on one string, playing notes and just adding a finger up and down the fretboard for different pitches requires modest Right Hand/Left Hand coordination. As long as you start with the pitch before the fretting finger pressure is released, you've got the rudimentary sustain.

There are two areas we can be vulnerable in, and we need attention in our practice regimen to overcome this; string crossings and what we'll call 3rd and 4th Finger Virtual Double Stops.

The first, string crossing, can be a challenge when alternating strokes. The "rules" of Gypsy Guitiar picking actually call for downstrokes on EVERY string crossing for maximum melodic projection. This may be a little extreme for basic jazz, so we're just going to say watch that you hold the last note as long as you can before starting the next. (Don't worry about deviating from alternating strokes.) This means having the next finger already set, and not lifting off too soon on the preceding finger.

The toughest crossings, however, are when we cross from 3rd finger to 3rd or 4th finger to 4th on adjacent strings. You really need a Virtual Doublestop to maintain the sound between the notes, not lifting off prematurely so as to yield maximum note connectivity.

We ran into this problem wih an exercise a couple of years ago in an article written for Mel Bay's Mandolin Sessions, "Three Four Pull:Foregoing the Fourth Finger Frack." We were barraged with protest emails howling "Do you really expect us to hold the pinky and crossover to the next string if its also played with the pinky?"

Answer: "Yes, of course."

No it's not easy but it is something you can work to develop, and over time, it will come. The trick is a comfortable hand position, a kind of re-centering your grip, again anticipating the crossing by having your 3rd or 4th finger already set for the second note of the pair while you play the first.

It's not a complete, static doublestop, but the "roll' of your palm into the next note is pretty darn close. Go back and review the exercise and spend a few minutes on it every day for a month or two. You'll be surprised at what your hands and fingers will be capable of.

Print Exercise PDF: Three, Four, Pull

Posted by Ted at 5:37 AM

September 17, 2007 | Fleet of (Firm) Foot

"If you chose to pick hard with your right hand it doesn't mean you have to bear down hard with the fingers of your left hand--though that's more often the first instinct. Regardless of volume, try to keep the left hand fingering light. You'll sound more fluid."
Paul Glasse 1/07

"Real Musicians must 'squeeze some golf balls,' develop enough hard strength to make those strings fill the room."
David Grisman 11/06

Two seemingly contradictory statements on tone production by two of the greatest mandolinists alive; one emphasizes fluidity, the other emphasizing strength. So who's right?

We think they both are...

First of all, at slow speeds, there's little question that a firm grip is crucial to milking the sweetspot between the frets. A good, robust pick stroke will never develop maximum volume, let alone round tone without a secure fretting finger grip. When you pick up the tempo (pun intended), you still deliver with "security" in the left fingers; we never give that up if we want note definition and rich phrasing.

In Paul's way of mentally framing tone, the idea is "just enough" pressure to make the sound, but David's concept of squeezing through the fretboard is still the solution to many players' puny sound even at high speeds. Both hands need to be concerned with pressure, a confident, accurate pick stroke, and enough finger force to sing, but often we sacrifice way too much of the latter to play entire through the phrase. A wind instrumentalist or singer exposes poor technique immediately when the breath support goes down, and you have to understand it's no different with finger support on a fretboard.

How does one develop this? Definitely, we start with slow, well-connected long tone scales. If you can't do it slow, it's not going to get any better when you accelerate. Play long tones, half notes and think about how the notes connect, the aural "glue" between each pitch. Try to get that same feel as you get faster.

Certainly, you CAN squeeze too hard. If you're bending your courses so the string pairs are out of tune with each other, that's too hard, but it's probably more because you're squeezing laterally rather than downward. Don't think of pressure as being converse to fluidity, however.

Also, strength does not necessarily have to mean tension. You can be firm in the hands and fingers without locking up the wrist or forearms; this is probably why Paul's sound IS so fluid. He plays with very little observable larger muscle stress.

Finger strength is rarely natural; it's something you work up and nurture over time. Commit time in your practicing to develop this and the rewards to your mandolin tone will be bountiful. Master it slow first, and it will follow you into higher speeds as your playing develops over the months.

Posted by Ted at 8:29 PM

September 9, 2007 | Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 2

We mentioned living in two worlds when it comes to music analysis, the trivia of notes and chords versus the larger pictures of phrase and overall form. We can glean much information about the progression of a music architecture from individual accidentals or seemingly unorthodox chord changes, but we must always be willing to frame our conclusions within the context of larger points of the whole song.

Let's look at some very basic road signs of change; we'll call them "Accidental Indicators." If you're reading standard notation print music, these are excellent visual clues to important changes. Even aurally when a note strays out of the diatonic scale, there's a good chance of an imminent change in tonal center. Let's look at some very basic tricks.

Raised Note. (Sharp, natural in a flat key)
If a sharp sign indicates more than a chromatic passing tone, there's a strong chance you have more than a melodic or vertical embellishment. This could very well be a "leading economic indicator" of impending harmonic change. If it's a note outside the scale, it may very well be the Leading Tone or 7th scale degree of a new tonal center.

Example: Playing nicely in the key of G major, a C# appears. Since C natural is part of the G scale, this alteration could be the 7th scale degree of the key of D, a 4th up from the home key of G.

Another possibility if a G# is not far away, these two notes are setting up for the key of A major (think three sharp key signature), but again, the G# is also a candidate for Leading Tone. The new tonal center moves from D up a whole step. We used joke in High School about calling this a "Barry Manilow Modulation," a trick the popular songwriter frequently used in his hits in the 70's and 80's.

Lowered Note. (Flat, natural in a sharp key)
This half step departure from the home key could be setting you up for a tonal center a 5th down. It becomes the 4th scale degree of the new key (resolving to the new 3rd). Take our key of G again; if we see an F natural, it could very well be the sign of a transition to the key of C. In this context, the F is a powerful pulling tone, being the defining 7th note of a Dominant G7 chord.

In the same manner, if you see a lowered F and a lowered B to Bb, you could be setting up for tonal center of F Major, a whole step down from our original key of G.

This is very obvious in the song, "How High the Moon." Starting in the key of G, the third measure introduces a Bb, and the tonal center moves into the key of F. (Note the Gm7 chord is not the key of G minor, it functions as ii minor chord of the new key). This is repeated by introducing an Ab, everything shifts down another whole step to a temporary tonal center of Eb major. (Fm7 is iim7 of Eb)

Accidental Indicators are a terribly simple clue to change. What you need to do is see how they change the music and come up with your own conclusions and patterns of where they direct the harmonic progression. If you can develop your own personalized subset of harmonic protocol, you'll be able to reflexively define these tonal centers and improvise effectively in the appropriate keys.

Posted by Ted at 7:47 PM

September 4, 2007 | Analysis: Macroscopes and Microscopes Part 1

Great art, whether music, painting, or architecture is always a combination of the intellectual and the aesthetic, intuitive and the cognitive. It's always a tricky proposition looking "under the hood" of a musical composition or performance, the creative process is as complex as the artist him or herself, multiplied by the listener's personal reaction to the music.

That said, picking apart an artist or composer's music indulges insights into our own playing development and proficiencies. It can be as simple as a few licks or musical nuggets, or as complex as two semesters of college studying how to replicate the advance progression of a Bach Fugue. We all do it to some extent, and in understanding what others do, we enable ourselves to internalize aspects of our favorite artists and composers, integrating into our own playing and improvising.

The ability to analyze is as much a skill as playing. It takes a good ear and a knowledge base of music fundamentals, but above all it takes an open mind, one able to concede multiple snapshots and perspectives of the same bit of musical information.

The end of a phrase can be the start of another. A tonic 7th chord (in blues) can be the key center of a measure but also a dominant 7th leading to a new temporary tonic. An accidental can be a benign passing tone or a "blue note," or more radically, an indication of a crucial key changing agent.

Or all of them...

We've witnessed college level music students totally frustrated in theory class, trying to pigeon-hole a composer's singular structural intention, only to discover three or four possible conclusions. Often music is not black and white, but that's what great art is all about.

We want to look at some specific tricks in musical analysis to help you with your own playing and understanding of songs in Part 2. For now let's just leave you with the thought that as you listen to music and try to unwrap the present, consider you'll need two perspectives, larger sense of form and context, as well as intricate sensibilities of chord and tone function. Both work with each other, even when they seemingly contradict on paper.

Ultimately, it's the ear that will be the final judge.

Posted by Ted at 5:50 AM

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