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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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June 26, 2008 | Playing with a drummer

We frequently get inquiries from mandolinists who are new to playing in Pop/Rock ensembles, newly exploring how best to fit into a band that has a drummer and perhaps other rhythm players like electric guitar and synth. The acoustic demands change, but our instrument stays the same so the challenge is to take what the mandolin does well and fit it within context. This concern is especially common playing mandolin in praise team band in church; the novelty is not only confounding to the individual, it often baffles what the rest of the team expects.

Mandolins pack significant percussive potential because of the high string frequency and pick articulation. This bodes well in a traditional drummerless bluegrass band, but a fresh approach is required when playing in a fuller, high decibel Pop/Rock band with drums. Here are some ideas to make your contributions relevant.

Backbeat. Listen to the snare. Though striking on beats 2 and 4 can be some of the most tedious accompanying, locking with this energy is effective, and sometimes a nice departure from the flash of solo playing. Occasionally it's nice to just lay back and support.

Kick it. Listen to the bass drum. Watch the foot pedal, and you may find a clue to some tastey alternate rhythms. The bass drives at a fundamentally low frequency, by adding your higher spectrum to this in sync, you can add a subliminal energy.

Band hits. Watch the crash cymbals. A good drummer will be wired to listen to the dramatic rhythmic "band hits" on key dramatic points. Follow this and you add to the theater.

Subdivision. Listen to the closed hi hat. Often you'll hear a subdivided, low-volume rhythm here, and you can double time with cross-picking patterns to inject energy into the music. Playing 16ths while everyone else is quarter or eighth notes, this high-speed arpeggiation is something band and audience won't be able to put their finger on, but subconsciously they will hear an energy if you are accurate.

Posted by Ted at 09:22 AM


June 19, 2008 | An object in motion...

Did you ever try to move the steering wheel on a parked car? Even when the column is unlocked it's a struggle to turn, and it's a simple matter of physics. When you're cruising on the highway at 60 mph you can turn with your fingertips, because an object in motion is easier to steer than one standing still. You can do this with a bowling ball, lawn mower, or shopping cart; the physics are the same in that with the injection of forward motion, turning is effectively easier.

This principle is also a metaphor for much we tackle in life, including improvising. So many musicians are intimidated by the notion of playing freely in front of others, following the "proper" theoretical rules. This can be a barrier to an incredible aesthetic experience, so we encourage you to put yourself in non-threatening ensemble environments and experiment boldly.

Just blow!

Solo. Of course you can play alone, and this is generally the first setp to exploring improvisation. However, it pales in comparison to the musical commune experience of sharing ideas, the proverbial iron sharpening iron, and it's always better to actually hear the harmonic construction of the music in real time.

Jam Tracks. Technology is great and in the 70's we dug the "Music Minus One" series in school band and the Aebersold LPs. Following the evolution of technology, we played along with background tapes and CDs, and lately the MP3 format has opened a whole new convenient world of accompaniment resources. Even interactive software like Band in a Box or Groveland's Mando ModeExplorer with their additional alternatives in tempos and key changes at the click of a mouse can offer a whole new level of pedagogical experience.

Jam with a Buddy. Learning with someone of your own ability offers you both the benefit of interactivity without the intimidation of a glaring audience. It's something you share and grow together.

Jam with a Mentor. One musician said he has a rule of selecting to only play with musicians better than himself. It might be a tad unrealistic (especially if they are on the same quest--they won't play with you), but take advantage of those rare moments when you can intimately learn from a pro. It's gold.

The point is you can't learn to ride a bike until you get on the bike. Fracks and clams won't hurt you as badly as gravity, so make yourself vulnerable, and put yourself in one of the above situations to maximize your improvisation skill.

Posted by Ted at 08:36 AM


June 12, 2008 | Thinking in motion; chord combinations

There are a lot of analogies between learning language and internalizing new chord vocabulary to uncover. Consider how a toddler learns to speak, random syllables become words, which eventually become connected in strings to become sentences. In the very early stages, the emphasis is on the words themselves, "apple," "red," "blanket," just getting the mouth to form the vowels and consonants to match the oral with the aural is a challenge. Later, the child will make these sounds subconsciously and go to the next step of stringing them into thoughts, "red apple," and once an adequate collection is internalized, speed of progress in speaking and communicating is increased exponentially.

They can get tripped up on difficult words, hard to pronounce syllables, but the desire to communicate a context trumps the fear of making a mistake or physical frustration or not knowing more than they do. Learning chords on a mandolin is similar, except as adults, sometimes the irritation of our inabilities will thwart forward motion. The other bigger issue is context. Trying to learn a second language as an adult can be an exercise in futility when we do learn a laundry list of foreign words, when they aren't drilled in context; we can easily forget more new words than we learn if they aren't used over and over in time in real life.

We're big on learning chords two or three at a time, and in a context. Learning a ii7 AND a V7 in different combination affords the added experience of tactile motion, plus context. Just the feel of moving that one finger (out of three) to its next position gives both brain and hands a sense of purpose, a multidimensional and more profound sensory experience.

When you do encounter a new and unfamiliar chord, try to look at the one that follows in addition to the preceding chord. Think about what individual notes are the same, what are different. If you are trying to minimize motion for better voice leading, this also helps your brain digest the combination for future use in other songs. You'll learn the chord that much more deeply.

Looking for 'ii V7 I' combinations? Check out our Major and Minor stock chord patterns. Also relevant, the latest MandolinSessions article on Fresh Compin'.

Posted by Ted at 06:44 AM


June 05, 2008 | What makes a jazz mandolin?

Sustained Chop...

A recent topic of discussion has been the notion of the specifics of a 'Jazz' mandolin, the instrument itself. What has been eye-opening is how varied the preconceptions are. We maintain the basic components are linear, melodic strength, rich and full but not something bright and penetrating enough to kill banjos.

We were surprised to find a school of thought that dry percussiveness was something desired in accompaniment, punchy, jangley chords, but that's such a minor role in the mandolin's potential in the jazz arena. In soloing, you absolutely have to have a sustained sound that propels line, bleeds notes into each other. Tremolo is certainly a matter of personal taste, but around here we plays a less predominant role in driving line; it's far more important for string and fingers to be able effectively keep the tone active.

We can't deny this is a complex animal. It's the metaphorical blind men's elephant. You know the story, the three blind men describing their individual tactile experience with a huge pachyderm, one observes a long thin snakelike feature (tail), one describes the endless breadth and width (abodomen), and yet another is infatuated by the floppy fleshiness (ears); all are basing opinions on a small part of a larger whole.

Crispness is great for comping, but accompanying is not the tiny mandolin's greatest strength. Closed fingered sustain is absolutely critical in tackling music that wanders through rapid chromatic tonal center changes, so you need an instrument with wood that vibrates a long time when open strings are not a regular participant in sonic production.

It's hard to describe four-dimensional qualities with three-dimensional words, but describing the attack/sustain/decay chain of sound, many overlook that middle part as time develops the sound. Throw in the elements of timber, brightness vs. darkness, and it gets even more complex. While we don't advocate "darkness" necessarily, you certainly need more fundamental expressed in the string, and that makes penetrating brightness less a priority. If nothing else, a present "twangy" quality is the last thing you'd want to produce.

Some would argue it's all in the players' fingers. Yes, this is true to a certain extent, but you can't have a carpenter building a house with a painter's brush, and you can't do brain surgery with a lumberjack's ax. Certain tools are prerequisite for the job at hand, even though these tools can be used in other arenas.

Extra Credit: Re-read Mandolinsessions articles on tone:
Thinking Good Tone Part 1: What the Pros say about Good Tone.
Thinking Good Tone Part 2: What the Pros say about Good Tone.

Posted by Ted at 07:54 AM



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