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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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December 27, 2007 | The Joy of Mandolinning

We seem to like our gratification fast. In an era of microwave cooking, fast food franchises, jet planes, and 24-hour a day cable news coverage we seek satisfying mind and body in the shortest of routes. All you have to do is look at the huge popularity of Wii and Playstation III and you'll recognize a culture that wants its thrills immediately. Recently, we've seen the surface rewards of music participaton in the latest game software incarnations of "Guitar Hero", and the just released, "Rock Band."

Is the phenomenon something to be excited about? Arguably, it's not for the arts community. This aesthetic "placebo" is a thinly veiled, non-nutritive substitute for the true creative process. Slinging an instrument shaped object and reacting to dots on a screen is a pale surrogate for the seasoning process of learning and developing skills over months (let alone years) of physical and mental capability extracted from learning a musical instrument.

Is your mandolinning simply a reaction to dots on a screen? Playing notes from either standard notation or tablature is only a small part of the deeply spiritual elements of playing. Even listening to and playing back simple melodies in call and response is scratching the surface of the aesthetic experience. For one to enjoy playing mandolin to its fullest, one must integrate many facets of learning.

Calisthenics
Practicing should involve something resembling regular exercising in the daily regimen. Even if it's only 10 minutes, incorporating something involving stretching or rote note familiarity when done over long periods of time instill a much deeper ability and profound understanding of the instrument. Of course we recommend the FFcP drills (see FFcP Roundup), but really anything involving scales, arpeggios, and extended drills will not only warm you up, it yields long term residual benefits. Countless times we've received feedback from players who after 3 or 4 months of working these drills, reported starting to reap physical and aesthetic rewards.

Print
Whether it's standard notation, TAB, or simply chord patterns from a lead sheet, you can vastly increase your playing capabilities by reading through Fiddle Tunes, Bach, Realbook charts, anything from a printed page. The visual reinforcement is another neural pathways to a broader understanding to a wide variety of music. Spend some time learning some new music and some diverse styles. (TAB addicts? Read our review of Debora Chen's amazing book...)

Listening
It goes without saying, the more music you listen to, the more extensive your understanding of music can develop, even in the music you already know. Comparing other styles is like visiting another country. You start to comprehend your own geography in vastly insightful ways. Listening to other mandolin players is great, but don't limit yourself to just that instrument. The way a clarinet player breathes lines can influence your own linear concepts; yes, it's reeds making the vibration instead of string, but try applying breathing concepts to your own picking technique.

Playing with others.
No man (or woman) is an island. Practicing in solitaire is imperative, but there is nothing more challenging or stimulating than playing in a duet or ensemble. Iron sharpens iron, and again, you never know when you're going to pick up some new concept from another player.

The common theme to all these are investment "longevity" and balance. None of these by themselves gets you to greater, and none without a commitment of time. That said, the gestalt of all them integrated will make your playing intensely more satisfying to you as well as those who listen to you. In the course of a week, look back to see how you balanced your playing by going down a mental checklist of the above components.

Posted by Ted at 04:07 PM


December 20, 2007 | Judging builders

We consider it a great privilege, auditioning instruments for our Builder's Spotlight, a number of pro-active premium builders (17 as of today). If you haven't read some of our thoughts, now might be a good time to glance over some of the names listed; if they aren't familiar already, you can trust even the up and coming will be broadly known, their products in high demand. Most of them have a waiting list 12-24 months out.

Before putting pen to paper and passing an instrument out to staff, local focus group players and repair techs, we have some guidelines not only on what gets reviewed, but procedures and peripheral considerations. We covered these basics of Time, Adjustables, Environment, Opening Up, Aesthetics, and Specifics in a recent Tips and Tricks article, The Basics of Auditioning Instruments. We also mentioned some of the pitfalls of decision "thin slicing" in our decision making process in our entry on Variables. First (and granted few have this luxury), we think a good evaluation will take at minimum a week because of the acclimation of instrument and player. You probably will not have more than 48 hours approval yourself, but understand, as a purchaser you've probably already done your homework, and have sifted out the specifics of the instrument prior to plucking the first chord. "Disapproval" period is more technically correct, or you're wasting your own time, and that of the seller.

Understand, the instruments we review are generally jazz oriented. We're looking for maximum sustain (over percussiveness) and ease of playing. "Chop" or "Bark" will never impress us, and that bias should be factored into your own conclusions of what you read here. Though nothing is wrong with them, we steer clear of F5 copies even though many will work great for jazz (think Gibson "Goldrush"), simply because they have garnered enough market attention elsewhere.

Wake up...
Back to the trial agenda, you'll need to keep in mind when an instrument has been shipped or even dangling in stasis on a music store showroom hook, it's highly in need of crucial "opening up" time. It's hard to quantify the factors causing this near "mystical" phenomenon, but a mandolin that hasn't been played for a while, recently has been restrung, or left rigid in a case (let alone brand spanking new) needs time for elements to settle. Bridge needs to acclimate and sit flush and proper, neck and fingerboard have to lock in, tuners and strings need to stabilize, top, back, and sides need to get to know each other. There's probably some credence in the notion that energy from string vibration alters the very cells of the wood more effectively over time. Whatever it is, most instruments make a rapid change in about 20 minutes of playing, another leap happens after 3 or 4 hours logged, and a similar change occurs in another 5-7 days. (Look for several more "wake up" steps at 3 months or seasonal change, and a couple years.)

Some of this should be attributed to the player getting use to another radius or fingerboard width, the way the instrument balances on the strap, proximity to player's abdomen, the feel of new(er) strings... all these factors can impair and improperly rush a conclusion.

String 'em up...
We generally will not change strings within the first three days, partly because of the settling going on, but more this just adds yet another confusing "variable" of the instrument's tone and performance. Even a bridge adjustment is probably better AFTER several hours of playing, just to see where the strings (and player) settle. Playing in rooms you are familiar with, "A/B" testing with other instruments can also give you a measuring stick of capability. A red fabric can seem "redder" when you put it next to a maroon cloth; instrument tone can be analyzed the same comparative way.

Gets along with others...
A huge acoustic "environment" factor is how the instrument interacts with others in an ensemble situation. Few people will only own an instrument for just porch picking, so it’s a good idea to see how well an instrument fit playing in a group setting. You may find it doesn't cut enough, or it's too bright, even though it's completely satisfying on its own.

Finally, understand the aesthetics of an instrument are almost always personal. You have to live with the way it looks and no one can fault you for your own preferences. On the same token, don't write off another player's instrument just because you don't think it cuts it. One man's junk is another's treasure.

Keep in mind the Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome (MAS) is chronic; few ever legitimately find a cure, but there's a heckuva lot of fun in going through therapy.

Posted by Ted at 02:32 PM


December 13, 2007 | The Cold Facts

Winter has officially registered its presence at JazzMando Heaquarters in the Midwestern US with a multi-state power-line destroying ice storm and the first weeklong subfreezing stretch. We hear of concerns of mandolin shippers and recipients, and wish to extend a message of comfort and assurance. Music retailers and luthiers have been dealing with harsh inclement shipping weather for years. What do you think a music store does for income during the months of December, January, and February?

If you are planning on shipping an instrument (or receiving) in a harsh winter climate, there are simple precautions you must take to assure a safe journey. Wood and strings are remarkably resilient to extremes of temperature, but not quickly. In other words, your mandolin can survive quite well in subzero, but it won't tolerate a rapid transition back to room temperature.

Generally, if your instrument is packed well enough to endure the harshness of a Yuletide UPS Brown Temporary, it's probably already got the cushion to make temperature changes slowly, but only if you allow enough time for that change. We recommend anything received in temperatures below 30 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 C), allow 24 hours to acclimate before opening. This means you let the package padding do the slow conversion for you. Don't unseal the box, certainly, don't cut a slit in the box to feel how cold it is.

It's tough to not be cavalier about it, but if you do open the box, the finish and the wood acclimate at two different rates. That's where the infamous crackling or "checking" occurs. It's probably not so good on the joints either, but most of the irreparable damage will be the outside cosmetics. Do yourself a big favor and resist temptation to open a box prematurely.

Suggestions for packing:

Never pack too tightly. Small air pockets allow not only a balance between moderate temperature "breathing" and stability, but act as shock absorbers during the rigors and stress of transport. Packing peanuts, bubble wrap, or loose newspaper balls will work, but find the balance between settling or nesting the instrument without complete stasis where all the box jarring is transferred from the outside to the instrument itself. Also, we suggest placing instrument and case in a tall kitchen trashbag prior of packing, partly because of sealing the air, but more because you'll keep the outside of the case lint and static free. It's a royal pain brushing off newspaper shreds or broken Styrofoam off of a mildly electrostatic-charged case exterior; this simple preventive measure introduces a simple cure.

Posted by Ted at 09:27 AM


December 06, 2007 | What's a mandolin sound like?

Mandolinists often joke about how misunderstood we are. Carrying our cases around we get questions like, "Is that a little guitar," or "Is that a violin?" Even when they see us play, it's "how long have you been playing that ukulele," or a personal favorite, "what happened to the rest of that guitar?"

The mandolin is not like a guitar. In "top of mind" pop culture, we don't have those grand moments of exposure. Think of Paul McCartney playing "Yesterdays" with guitar accompaniment back on the Ed Sullivan show in the 60's. No question what an acoustic guitar sounds like. The Boots Randolph hit "Yakity Sax" (okay, theme from England's "Benny Hill" show), no question about what a sax is. The haunting Toots Thilemons harmonica of Billy Joel's "Leave a tender Moment alone," or the Deep Purple "Smoke on the Water" electric guitar riff; these are all indelible aesthetic stamps of what these instruments are about. Joe Public gets this, but on average, doesn't get the mandolin.

Whether this is good or bad is insignificant, but as players, WE need to know what the instrument does. "Theme from the Godfather" at a wedding? Sure, why not. Bluegrass chop on a Monroe standard? Yup. Maybe one is cultured enough to recognize the mandolin in a Vivaldi concerto, but we need to deeply explore the mandolin's wide open potential.

Chris Thile is a living legend in mandolin circles. His superhuman skills as player precede him globally. In domestic pop music culture, his reputation as a world class player in the Nickel Creek trio has probably garnered him even more widespread attention, but most of us don't understand what it is that REALLY makes him a mando-superstar.

Sure he can play with blazing speed, sing like a bird, memorize Bach Violin Concertos, hang with any brilliant premier soloist, but we offer, his most amazing talent is his ability to fit. Listen to any Nickel Creek album and you'll hear this. It's not (just) the amazing solos he takes, it's the way he fits the mandolin around everybody else.

You can learn more about playing the mandolin, what its broad potential can be by listening to Thiles's accompaniment. He doesn't just chop, he functions like a piano. He supports and complements the other instrumentalists brilliantly, chord, solo line, obligato, it's simply brilliant, but you have to listen for it. Get around the melody and listen to what he does on the mandolin in the background, it's dazzling.

What's a mandolin sound like?

Chris Thile.

Posted by Ted at 03:03 PM



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