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"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."
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From May 28, 2007: "How do I hold it?..."
We get inquiries through our contact form regarding holding angles, pick and hand gripping, neck angle, strap height, and all kinds of great questions about what is considered "standard" for posture and hand position. It's difficult to answer definitively, prescribing the right answers across the internet, and one could argue, even in person there will never be a single correct remedy or cure-all.
Like no two snowflakes are alike, we are different in height, body type, arm length, finger strength, bone & joint angles, and a myriad of physical variables. Watch Sam Bush swing his arms and elbows like a tennis racket and it's a miracle he can achieve his exacting and precise fluid picking technique. Who is going to tell HIM he's doing something wrong? Talk to Peter Mix, legendary mandolin historian, collector, developer and president of New-MAD mandolins about strap buttons, and he'll tell you he's never needed a strap to hold an instrument, even while standing. Talk to David Grisman about Left Hand grip and he'll allude to "squeezing golf balls," but Paul Glasse will describe the need to emphasize relaxation and fluidity in the same fingers. Talk to Evan Marshall about his full rich tone, and you'll wonder in amazement how he does it with .009 gauge E strings.
So who is right? Answer: they all are because their physiques, tonal requirements, and instruments are different. Their approaches are as well. Lest we say there are NO absolute answers, let's offer there are two seemingly overriding yet contradictory principles to bear in mind when developing appropriate finger, hand, and wrist position. Control and Comfort. Lack of wasted motion, and lack of tension.
Control (Lack of wasted motion)
We advocate fretting fingers stealth and low to the string as much as possible. No "Flying Fingers," but a better way to describe this is finger tips and pads "at the ready." Violinists don't struggle with this because without frets, early on they used their fingers as a virtual measuring stick, perpetually conscious of hugging the string for spatial reference. We mandolinists (mistakenly) think we can afford to be sloppy, and often are, especially if our styles are laced with hammer-ons and pull-offs. Still, wasted motion ultimately means reduced speed and/or control.
Squeeze the frets? Certainly but fret position is probably even more important. Where it lies in that illusive "sweet spot" will impact your tone just as much as squeezing pressure. Still, building finger strength and especially in the 3rd and 4th fingers will pay off big in your tone.
Pick angle is important, too. We recommend a slight turn of the pick to milk (not slap) the tone out of the string. As far as grip, hold the pick only firm enough so that it doesn't fly from your fingers. Any harder than that will run tension all the way up your wrist and elbow.
Comfort (lack of tension)
Picking and fretting are an endurance contest, a marathon and not a sprint. You absolutely have to be relaxed if you want to keep up speed for any length of time. Plus, if your fingers and wrists are tense, you will hear it in your playing. You won't sing phrases; you'll "cough" them. You won't blow music, you'll spit.
We advocate warm-ups. There's something unnatural about the skinniness of the mandolin neck, smaller than a guitar, and unlike a violin, more often than not, four notes at a time. Getting your hands acclimated in a warm-up routine 10-20 minutes gets the blood to the muscles and prepares the body. Focusing on tone for the same amount of time relaxes and sets the mind. Some might argue it prepares the spirit, as well.
Needless to say, if there is tension in the long muscles (shoulder, neck, & arms) it will work its way to the smaller ones (hands, fingers). However, fixating on them is the wrong approach. Tone production should start mentally at the string and pick and work its way back. What you need to accomplish at these contact points should be supported by the muscles, on up the hands, wrists, and elbows, with as much of a distance form tension as humanly possible.
These are very broad concepts, but then to be too specific would deny you your own exploration of what works for you. A pro tennis player doesn't obsessively worry about stance, grip, or swing at a tournament, he/she thinks, "BALL. Over there. Smack!" All the technique is subconscious at that point, as it should be in your practice and performance.
If your ear and hands are synaptically wired properly you get to the point where you "feel" tone, as much as hear it. This is when you've discovered the perfect balance between control and comfort.
June 23, 2011 | Best of JM: Opening Opportunity in Accompaniment Mandolin
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From June 11, 2007: "Opening Opportunity in Accompaniment Mandolin"
Playing a treble instrument, we have to consider our limitations in the role of accompaniment. Think of an elementary or middle school chorus; the pianist often must fill the role of orchestral accompaniment. Thundering string bass and timpani in the left hand, brass and cellos somewhere in the middle, and 1st violins and woodwinds doubling up on the melody in the right hand as the little tikes sing their parts. It's not unusual for her to pound out concerto-like support through all the registers of the piano, simply because she can. She has the equipment, wood, frame and strings; the instrument is capable of a variety of register and resounding dynamic qualities throughout its 88 keys.
A guitar may not be quite as powerful, but it lends itself well to smaller assemblies of instrument and voice, and is popular in this role for that very reason. High to low, percussive and melodic, its portability has additional incentive and made it a centuries-long choice in accompaniment, especially for the folk musician.
Enter the mandolin. Strident and clear in its plectral treble voicing, it can be dynamically slammed and picked like a time-keeping hi-hat cymbal or snare backbeat, but four pair of strings, it also lacks the necessary harmonic defining or bass in anything more than solo or duo playing.
That doesn't mean our 8-string wonder is a weak instrument, we just need to consider its proper role within these limitations.
Think of what you do to the treble knob on a radio when listening to talking or speech. If words aren't clear and articulated, boosting the treble knob higher (or bass lower) will help you hear your weather report or favorite talk show host's latest social indictments midst the audible crush of traffic in your care, restricting unnecessary audible "mud."
Treble gives clarity, but you really can get too much of a good thing, and that's why a mandolin is often confined to supporting role as a percussion instrument and occasional solo, but only when the other instrumentalists grant it.
Drawing tone out of the mandolin with attention to sustain can give you the benefit of both projection and melodic "completeness." Avoiding a clanky, tinny sound (you've no doubt heard players cursed with this) will likely invite more soloing in improvisational environments. It's simply more fun for the audience and other band members to listen to.
There are opportunities in smaller acoustic settings to use sustain to enhance the harmony-defining role of the mandolin. Three- (and two-) note chords in your lowest (thickest) strings can go miles in establishing the band's harmonic progressions. Side-stepping the percussive "chop" or Bluegrass accompaniment by allowing a little more ring to the string can be a fresh textural change, if the other band members lay back. (More on this in our 'ii V7 I' page.)
You can also vary the duration and aim for a Freddie Green rhythmic "pulse" instead of punch. Let the string ring after each quarter note punch, but lift off with the fretting finger right before the next attack and you'll get this sound. Again, this is more effective in your lowest strings, even just using G and D courses properly. You might not voice a b13 chord, but playing 3rds and 7ths of the chord is sufficient. (See our page on Chord Economics)
All this has to be explored by personal experimentation. Listen for opportunity. You simply can't do these subtleties within the context of some chaotic free-for-all acoustic impromptu cluster-pluck jam. You need to be working with sensitive, unselfish musicians who are willing to give you the sonic space.
When you are granted this privilege by responsible players, it can be some of the most pleasant playing experiences in your search for musical self-fulfillment.
June 16, 2011 | Best of JM: Improvisation; I hate music theory (Part 1)
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From May 15, 2008: "I hate music theory (Part 1)"
"I asked a guy what time it is, and the jerk spent five minutes telling me how to build a watch."
There's a small but often vocal contingency of musicians that loathe the intellectual side of music, the cerebrally intense analytical approach to understanding the "guts" of music. Often it's out of a personal insecurity; a bad experience with the jazz cats who banter terms about like "Tritone Subs," "TwoFiveOnes," or "Rhythm Changes" often at the risk of intimidating the newbie, especially when it's delivered like some sort of private security code or fraternity handshake.
There's no reason to experience intimidation in these environments. While we grant many unschooled musicians have created great music without an advance degree in the terminology and jazz verbiage, the greats still comprehend if nothing else, subliminally what makes a chord or tone resolve to the next, what linear choices of "right" notes goes appropriately with the vertical. What we are talking about in learning music theory is not an initiation process, it's simply shortcuts. It's learning both simple nuggets and broad concepts that exponentially increase musical vocabulary around 12 simple Western tones.
The process of grasping music theory can be described as three dimensional upward spiral. For the Folk/Bluegrass musician, it can go something like this:
My song has three chords I play (Aural/Physical), G, C, and D7. I enjoy these immensely but want to learn more songs, and note a similarity even though the chords are different. A, D, E7. I understand chords are based on notes of the scale (Theory). It's explained these are 4, 5 and 1 or written in Roman Numerals, IV, V7, and I.
I notice in Pop and Jazz music a G, Am7, and D7 have a similar sort of system of "direction" (Aural/Physical). The G is like "home," the D7 pulls home, and the Am7 sets up the D7 quite often. Someone points out the similarity of the Am7 and C chord (same notes almost). Pointing out the (Roman) numbers of the chords these are based on, we get ii7 for Am7, or ii7 because someone says minor chords commonly use small case letters, so instead of IV, V7 I, we get ii7, V7, I. (Theory) Now the obscure TwoFiveOne reference by the Jazz Eggheads nags at my subconscious, and starts to make sense.
I notice there are 12 keys. When I use numbers in a song with A, D, E7, or A, Bm7, E7, (Aural/Physical), I notice even though the chords are different, they still interact in the same way. My trumpet playing friend has me play in one of those weird flat keys, lots of Eb, Fm7, Bb7, and my brain registers this (Theory) as I, ii7, V7 chords, and for some reason, I'm able to pick these up, without even having to read the chords on the page. My ear tells me where the I (home) chord Eb is, and where the other two Fm7 and Bb7, because I'm listening to their function in context, rather than chords.
I'm playing a Jazz tune, Satin Doll, and I notice in the 3rd measure the second chord is outside the key of C. I've been working on Dm7 G7 fingerings (Aural/Physical), as well as Em7 A7, and it dawns on me that there is a similar relationship (ii7 V7) in these two chords, but observe these are from the key of D (even though there are no sharps and flats in the key signature). I listen to other songs that leave the main key, but only temporarily. It's like a key within a key, a "tonal center" if you will, and some of these jazz standards that seemed very complex, when broken down in this way, are now opened up for much deeper understanding. (Theory)
I'm getting a better understanding of what works in these uncovered tonal centers, and I'm able to play with many other great musicians in keys I never dreamed possible. I've learned what groups of notes work best within these centers, but because I've driven modes and scales (Aural/Physical) into my fingers in my regular practicing, it seems the fingers are generating my improvisation rather than my brain.
June 2, 2011 | Best of JM: Improvisation: Ensemble Hatching
Enjoy the popular archive material below. From January 27, 2011: "Improvisation: Ensemble Hatching"
We frequently discuss the ingredients of improvisation at the personal or individual level. The mechanics of scales and arpeggios, rhythmic variation, story arc, and harmonic propriety, but in the last seven years, we've not explored improvisation within the context of the ensemble. What we do to listen to and build off other players in our group is crucial to the aesthetic impact we create for our audience. "Playing well with others" is all about how we listen and respond. Improvisation is creativity, but even more so, when firing on all cylinders, it's adaptation.
Nature creates. We merely adapt.
Comedian/actress Michelle James recently gave a talk at a TED conference and elaborates on this profoundly. Strangely enough, the context is of her presentation is using improvisational techniques of her comedy troupe and plugging these strategies into government and the corporate. Still her principles serve the jazz ensemble well, too.
As you listen to her video embedded below, grasp her three points:
Yes, and... (Accept everything and build of the positive aspects of the suggestion.) Someone plays a sequence of note, and nothing is wrong. All is merely a starting point for someone to build from.
Make everyone else look good. (Everything is considered an "offer." Justify. State why it's awesome.) Make effort to restate an idea from the previous improviser, adjust dynamics while accompanying to make the soloist sound good, and for heaven's sake, don't noodle or be a distraction.
Serve the good of the whole. (Not just sacrificing, but giving for the benefit of everyone.) You have your "moment," but there's no bigger turnoff than arrogant self-indulgence. Don't show off at the expense of the rest of the group. If the other players aren't as good as you are, dazzle the audience with your humility. Don't grandstand.
In all three of these principles, you have to be "present," aware of what everyone else is doing.
And finally, in setting the stage; make it safe. Create an environment in which the unknown is your new best friend.