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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."

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February 25, 2007 | Developing Your Voice

In preparations for upcoming article for Mel Bay's, we had the privilege of interviewing eleven of some of the best mandolinists in the world on the subject of tone, including Evan Marshall, Will Patton, Paul Glasse, John Reischman, David Grisman, and many other masters of tone. We used our "Tips and Tricks" submission on Cataloging Bad Tone as a starting point, by the way. An interesting tangent we got off on was the subject of "voice."

Scott Tichenor, MandolinCafe Website Administrator and premier mandolinist in his own right offered this rather poignant observation, "Everyone at some point should make a point of working on developing good tone. Unfortunately, in the desire to develop rapidly, too many students focus all of their energy on learning tunes, licks and chords, often at the expense of developing a good "voice."

This is rather profound. We invest much time learning to play a "lot of notes," be it scales, chords, arpeggios, literature, but are we really conscious of developing our instrument's voice? Note, we aren't necessarily addressing the topic of individuality here. Nothing wrong with trying to sound like your favorite player. Ultimately it's a physical impossibility, not only are our instruments different, our fingers, our touch, our size, our mental capabilities and experiences make us as unique and individual as a snowflake.

That said, if you've been playing awhile, it might be time to do a little aesthetic inventory of the current state of your (hopefully evolving) voice. We offer several areas to consider and explore while on your personal journey into playing perfection.

Influence of Style. That you are on this website betrays at very least a mild interest in playing jazz. This means you're likely curious and eventually less fearful of the "chromatic" aspects of playing. This may direct you to explore more closed position alternate fingerings, or at least less dependency on open string droning a Celtic musician thrives on. Blistering speed might be your desire, but not near as much of the pyrotechnic skills a festival-winning Bluegrass competitor invests in honing. Your personal preferences in musical styles will influence your sound and your voice.

Articulations. A good tremolo might be a huge concern for you. If so, plan on spending plenty of time on it as it really doesn't come natural for most players. (Nothing worse than bad tremolo!) A good healthy downstroke is a major voice component of the Monroe-style picker, as well as the Django jazz enthusiast. This proficiency should require a huge portion of your daily warm-up and practice regimen.

Sense of Line. Do you play "lotso' notes" or play musical phrases? Is your melodic construction a string of "words" or comprehensive sentences? Filling out the line means good Left Hand sustain and practicing long held notes is a discipline. Right Hand/Left Hand coordination also falls into this realm. Only with both hands working together can this be a part of your voice.

Accuracy. What's your "acceptance continuum" in regards to imperfections in your playing? Say you've got ten notes to play; is nine out of ten played perfectly enough for you? How about seven notes perfect but two cut short and one plucked a micro-second late?

The best musicians don't just play over and over until they get it right, they play until they can't get it wrong! Do you hear Mike Marshall or John Reischman "flam" in a performance? Their standard of perfection is a critical but subconsciously noticeable part of their voice.

Improvisation and Harmonic Content. Listening to the jazz greats like John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, and Michael Brecker, even though they play the same instrument, you can distinguish their distinctive sax persona by their harmonic content when they solo. The modes you study and practice, the chord substitutions you hear in your head will all be a recognizable part of your improvisation. If all you play is pentatonics or blues scales, this will be your voice. If you like to play "outside" using Alternate Scales, or just temporarily improvising in a key a half-step out of the tonal center, this becomes recognizable as "you."

Personality or Mood. Far less tangible is the element of personality. Do you communicate Miles Davis' distant cool aggression or Kenny G sentimental saccharin? Do you caress strings and pick in Don Stiernberg charm or spank them in Andy Statman intensity? Certainly you are entitled to a wide range of mood (at least we hope so), but have you ever listened to recordings of your playing within this perspective, outside of the notes?

If you want to make your voice heard, it's a good idea to know what it is in the first place. You know the notes of your mandolin; now start working on its voice...

Read more Tips and Tricks.

Posted by Ted at February 25, 2007 12:35 PM

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