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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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February 26, 2009 | An approach that works...

LeRoy could hardly carry a tune in a bucket as they say, but he always wanted to be a bass player. On his 45th birthday, he decided to take the plunge, went into his local music store and purchased a used Vintage Sunburst Fender Precision Bass with hardshell case, and paid for two months of lessons. His first encounter with his new teacher Rufus, had him focusing on what the music veteran considered the two most important characteristics of bass playing, articulation and "attitude." Starting him with the D only, Rufus had LeRoy pluck the string hard in succession, "D. D. D. D. etc."

"D. D. D. D. D. D. D. D. etc."

"Work on that all week and in the next lesson, we'll add another string." LeRoy came back for lesson number two, finger raw from playing three hours a day; Rufus thought he was ready for the next pedagogical concept. "Now play the next open string down and alternate between the two, D. A. D. A. etc." and LeRoy spent the next week practicing four hours a day developing his calluses and was prime for his third lesson.

"D. A. D. A. D. A. D. A. etc."

"Now we're going to push down your first fingers of your other hand on the first fret and try the same exercise, Eb. Bb. Eb. Bb, etc." Rufus instructed. "And since you seem to be getting this down pretty darn fast, try moving you left fingers up frets and try E. B. E. B. etc. If you're really get ambitious keep going up with other combinations, 5th fret G. D. G. D, etc. You'll get the idea, but just stay playing on two strings at a time."

LeRoy missed his next lesson as well as the week after and Rufus was concerned, phoning him "What's up dude? You paid for two months of lessons and you've already missed your last two! You okay?"

LeRoy embarassed, answered. "Ah man. I'm soooo sorry, I would have called, but I've just been WAY too busy the past two weeks."

"All the gigs!"

If you're a connoisseur of bass player jokes, you'll note this is a classic, but hold on--there's a remnant of truth to it. One of our JazzMando staffers took to practicing two pages of 'ii v7 I' out of a piano book by Dan Haerle, "Jazz Improvisation For Keyboard Players" and was actually able to book gigs playing piano with some local players. He had the PA, and the audacity to ask the club owners in town for a chance to play, and actually developed a following, simply because of some rudimentary theory knowledge and some transposable fingerings. (All he need to do to be employed was to surround himself with really good players.)

Sound familiar? Well it should if you're into the FFcP approach to unraveling the easily transposable benefits of the mandolin fretboard. We're not claiming it's the ticket to more gigs, but it certainly could not hurt. Opening the doors to playing keys in Bb or Eb can get you playing in church, and if you're ever working with a Prima Dona coffee house singer that needs you to transpose, the FFcP is your ticket. If nothing else, just the versatility of moving up and down different fretboard zones, and intuitively, no less, is a remarkable ability to have.

Maybe you could get a gig with LeRoy!

FFcP Studies
ii V7 I Home Positions for Mandolin
How do they do that?; Transpositions
About our relationship

Posted by Ted at 12:23 PM

February 19, 2009 | Are you improving?

Two thoughts to approaching practicing, and they are somewhat in conflict with each other:
1.) Variety is the spice of life.
2.) One can be a jack of all trades, yet a master of none.

This issue came up in a water cooler discussion with one of our research assistants, Charlie Jones, while pondering self-improvement. Granted, there are many who just want to pick up a mandolin and play. God bless you if this is your only goal, just to play for the sake of enjoying a moment of music. Nothing wrong with that at all.

However, if one is to seek self-improvement, to invest in the achievement of superior ability in playing the mandolin, one must find that fine balance between well-rounded variety, and the honing of very specific skills. There are so many resources at your (literal) finger tips, printed material, discussion boards, videos & DVDs, and of course free online materials like we have here, but is it possible tackling too many projects at once can impose the Law of Diminishing Returns? The more variety, the less you learn?

It's so easy to look at a shelf of dusty materials, filled with books that looked so good at the time of purchase, computer print-outs of that great online exercise you found stimulating, magazine article drills and songs that never quite made it to the music stand, not because of a lack of plan, but a lack of follow-up. Variety is good, but if you keep moving from one project to the next, and never really finesse, you are denying yourself that perpetual improvement synonymous with individual mastery.

What's the answer besides the simple "one thing at a time?" Build into your practice time a minority percentage of "warm-up" time to get the fingers and brain going, but try to think of the rest of your practice as sequences of projects. Something like "Right Hand picking technique" or "Minor ii7b5 V7 I" chord progressions," "learn a new Choro," or "tremolo." Take that one concept and work it for three days. Work it, finish it, move on. You can always come back, recycle and work up the next level.

If you have enough time (say more than 30 minutes) you could try working three simultaneous concepts, but don't get carried away. The more you add to those three, the more it will detract from the healthy learning you can get from that focus. Over time of course, you can rotate in at out of all your minor goals, but work on intensity, mastery, rather than trying to do it all.

On Perfection
The Regressive Method
Practice Regime: A Balanced Diet
Stricken with Pickin'--Improving Pick Technique
Osmosis and Effective Practicing
Practicing with Limitations

Posted by Ted at 01:42 PM

February 12, 2009 | Swing Hard. Pick Well.

We received a great question last week about the accompaniment CD to "Getting Into Jazz Mandolin." The reader asked "Why are some of the demos performed with straight rhythms and some with dotted or "swing?" Very good question and the answer is quite arbitrary. We suggest mixing up rhythmic division and styles playing all the exercises, no particular schedule, just make sure you do a variety over a period of time.

Swing interpretation is a recurring topic in the website (see the "Further" at the bottom), and it can be a hard one to grasp if you've not engaged in a proper amount of listening to jazz. Not to pick on mandolin orchestras (love them!), but those from a more classical background can really struggle to get an authentic swing feel in that environment without the proper rhythm section background (let alone jazz immersion). It can really be painful listening to someone try to swing that really has no concept. (Especially when they're wearing a tux.)

This unfamiliarity is NOT insurmountable though. Listening, and lots of it is the first place to start, digging up classic jazz CDs, or even the bountiful free resources on YouTube, but then you have to get the physical mechanics of it into your fingers, as well. There is certainly a cerebral understanding of swing, but ultimately it's going to be an aesthetic, a "feel" thing. That isn't to say you can't practice it, and we highly recommend incorporating it into the "drill" part of your practice routine.

We mentioned in a March2005 Tips article It don't mean a thing, if it ain't..., about three somewhat measurable components of swing shuffle, articulation, and drag, and if you missed it these are good to understand. If this really is a struggle for you, start basically by just tapping along with some music to get the swing feel. The next step is to inject this rhythm into your FFcP and scale exercises by alternating between double and triple divisions. Play it in eighths for a while, play it in triplets for a while. After that you'll want to experiment with the "in-between" divisions, various shuffle feels.

Practice (always) with a metronome. When this gets comfortable, try dragging the notes. In other words, play a tad behind the beat, but consistently attack the notes at the same metric distance. Try setting your metronome to click on beats 2 and 4. If you have a metronome that can do measures, try setting it so that it does offbeats AND the 1st measure downbeat. This is a good exercise for working without the benefit of a rhythm section, and like all metronomes do, keeps you honest.

It don't mean a thing, if it ain't...
It's a drag...
"On the Up and Up: Jazz articulations.
Hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin' daddies

Posted by Ted at 01:04 PM

February 05, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 4, play with maximum tone

In our final installation of the "Playing Musically" series, we explore a perpetually recurring theme of tone production. It's really amazing how for many musicians, good tone is an afterthought. Maybe it's there between passages of furious intentional playing, but it's not the pervading goal and purpose of their performing. We maintain playing musically STARTS with deliberately good tone.

You can search the archives here for previous thoughts on tone, and we've even put links down at the bottom of the article, but we just can't emphasize enough how much of a favor you do your listener when tone becomes your first mission and priority. Speed is nothing without tone, fretboard facility is nothing without tone, knowledge of a ton of songs is nothing without tone. You might as well be playing a pair of maracas than a mandolin if you can't produce consistently good tone. Three areas to focus on, speed, connection, and phrasing.

Speed. Even good players will forget they are playing an instrument of melody when they attempt to play faster, more complex passages. It's so easy to "go for the notes" and not for the "music." Attempts to play lots of them can end up in an indefinite clicking of the pick, half-fretted pinching, and indistinct subsections of phrases. This is not enjoyable to listen to and it really loses the audience to the aesthetic message of your playing. Always be sure your notes are distinct, clear, and intentional. If you can't do this slowly, you'll never do it fast!

Connection. A favorite JazzMando quote, "Good tone is all about what goes on between the notes--that magical intersection of the release of one note and the attack of the second" ought to be written on the top of your music stand where you can see it every time you practice or rehearse. You simply can't ignore the end of a note and its relationship to the start of the following one. The ability to bond notes into something sonically cohesive is not always intuitive, and you have to work at this at slow tempos. The FFcP system is a great one for throwing all the possible finger combinations at you in order to develop this skill in your literature and improvising. Timing the pick stroke with this is another component, but focus on not dropping the pressure on the fretting finger until the next note starts.

Phrasing. Try to phrase your playing like you speak sentences. You don't. Break. Up your thoughts by. Punctuating or dropping the intensity of. The line in inappropriate places. Good music is about finishing your thought, before you start the next. Start, line, stop. Analyze where these are in the music and communicate this way. You don't have the containment of breath like a wind instrumentalist or vocalist does, so you have to work harder to phrase consciously.

We hope you've enjoyed our series on playing musically. Think the lyrics, play the chords, play with direction, and play with maximum tone. Get these down and you'll be much more convincing as a musician.

Thinking Good Tone Part 1: What the Pros say about Good Tone.
Thinking Good Tone Part 2: Using the picking hand to start Good Tone.
Drilling for tone
Components of Tone
Grisman on Tone
Mind the Gap
Thinking bad tone
Clean Sweep...

Posted by Ted at 01:05 PM

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