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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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December 27, 2007 | The Joy of Mandolinning

We seem to like our gratification fast. In an era of microwave cooking, fast food franchises, jet planes, and 24-hour a day cable news coverage we seek satisfying mind and body in the shortest of routes. All you have to do is look at the huge popularity of Wii and Playstation III and you'll recognize a culture that wants its thrills immediately. Recently, we've seen the surface rewards of music participaton in the latest game software incarnations of "Guitar Hero", and the just released, "Rock Band."

Is the phenomenon something to be excited about? Arguably, it's not for the arts community. This aesthetic "placebo" is a thinly veiled, non-nutritive substitute for the true creative process. Slinging an instrument shaped object and reacting to dots on a screen is a pale surrogate for the seasoning process of learning and developing skills over months (let alone years) of physical and mental capability extracted from learning a musical instrument.

Is your mandolinning simply a reaction to dots on a screen? Playing notes from either standard notation or tablature is only a small part of the deeply spiritual elements of playing. Even listening to and playing back simple melodies in call and response is scratching the surface of the aesthetic experience. For one to enjoy playing mandolin to its fullest, one must integrate many facets of learning.

Practicing should involve something resembling regular exercising in the daily regimen. Even if it's only 10 minutes, incorporating something involving stretching or rote note familiarity when done over long periods of time instill a much deeper ability and profound understanding of the instrument. Of course we recommend the FFcP drills (see FFcP Roundup), but really anything involving scales, arpeggios, and extended drills will not only warm you up, it yields long term residual benefits. Countless times we've received feedback from players who after 3 or 4 months of working these drills, reported starting to reap physical and aesthetic rewards.

Whether it's standard notation, TAB, or simply chord patterns from a lead sheet, you can vastly increase your playing capabilities by reading through Fiddle Tunes, Bach, Realbook charts, anything from a printed page. The visual reinforcement is another neural pathways to a broader understanding to a wide variety of music. Spend some time learning some new music and some diverse styles. (TAB addicts? Read our review of Debora Chen's amazing book...)

It goes without saying, the more music you listen to, the more extensive your understanding of music can develop, even in the music you already know. Comparing other styles is like visiting another country. You start to comprehend your own geography in vastly insightful ways. Listening to other mandolin players is great, but don't limit yourself to just that instrument. The way a clarinet player breathes lines can influence your own linear concepts; yes, it's reeds making the vibration instead of string, but try applying breathing concepts to your own picking technique.

Playing with others.
No man (or woman) is an island. Practicing in solitaire is imperative, but there is nothing more challenging or stimulating than playing in a duet or ensemble. Iron sharpens iron, and again, you never know when you're going to pick up some new concept from another player.

The common theme to all these are investment "longevity" and balance. None of these by themselves gets you to greater, and none without a commitment of time. That said, the gestalt of all them integrated will make your playing intensely more satisfying to you as well as those who listen to you. In the course of a week, look back to see how you balanced your playing by going down a mental checklist of the above components.

Posted by Ted at December 27, 2007 4:07 PM

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