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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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October 4, 2007 | Time Tested Art in an "American Idol" Culture

Tens of thousands audition for a chance at an appearance on Network TV's "American Idol" stage. (Even if you don't follow the show, you're probably at least aware of it; that is if you have a pulse.) The proportion of finalists (24 to 1) to single winner is overwhelming odds, let alone the astounding attention-hungry mob who audition for a chance at even appearing on TV as a candidate for finalist.

Ponder the audition process at the beginning "applicant" level. Even with a chance at face time with the judges, decisions are made in split seconds who get to even appear. An artist's best material has to be flashy, presented at optimal performance level, no margin of error and simply nothing less than stunning.

Faster, higher, more notes... Squeeze it into the front to cut through the pack.

The amazing thing is many of the so called "losers" at the "provincial" level will likely continue to impress friends and family at their local church, Karaoke bar, or community stage, despite the lack of American Idol success. Consider television likes to show the depth of "bad" for entertainment purposes, but those aren't who we are talking about.

Even the marginally good can enjoy success in their own world within their moderate goals. We daresay, most amateur musicians AREN'T motivated by the opportunity to impress others. Though this notion runs counter to an openly competitive sports and arts culture, we need to step back and look out how we play, how we impact our audience. Not to advocate mediocrity, let's look at how a simple performance can still be good, even in an "American Idol" environment.

Faster. The quest for speed permeates the multitude of musicians. We strive for it ourselves and are continually impressed by those who have it, either naturally, or by had work. Consider the rule of the working the "Three Worm Crowd." A youth pastor commented about his junior high group this way, "They love to see someone get up in front of a crowd and eat a worm. They'll even get a kick of him/her eating a second worm. By the third worm, they'll start to get a little bored, and you'll lose their attention fast."

Our ear loves lightning speed fretboard gymnastics. Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Hamilton de Holanda can perform compelling, heart-pounding speed on a mandolin us mortals can only dream of. Fortunately, they have the gift of discriminating musicianship too, but think about their performances. How long could you stand to listen to just blistering 64th notes? 15 minutes? 10 minutes? 5?

Think of the lovely ballad work of Don Stiernberg. Sure he's capable of some speed, but the beauty of his mandolin art is his sense of line, the long, delicious notes he chooses, the gorgeous phrasing. This is something that can be listened to for hours at a time.

Higher. The mandolin is capable of upper upper stratosphere fretting, but on most mandolins, this is very thin sounding area. Even played well, the ear can stand only so much playing in this register. Sure, high note super-human ability is impressive, but only used in contrast or as an aural "spice." Too much frosting and not enough cake.

More notes.
It isn't about the quantity of notes, it's the quality. Blistering pentatonic runs don't "say" anything harmonically; they don't propel the vertical harmonic cadence of the music. Carefully chosen gravity notes (4ths & 7ths), embellishing notes that point to the chord extension (+11,-9, +9) , and tonality-defining 3rds and roots tell harmonic stories to an audience that doesn't generally know what you are doing, just that is sounds "intentional."

Don't get seduced by rating your own performance on "American Idol" standards. You can be musical in your own way, and enjoy your playing by your own measure.

Posted by Ted at October 4, 2007 2:30 PM

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