Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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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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January 10, 2008 | Polishing

Most players like to have an arsenal of tunes to play on a moment's notice, even if it's just a handful. The opportunity to fearlessly audition a foreign instrument at a festival or jam, the subconscious tune familiarity necessary to focus on an instrument's tone or playability rather than the music itself, or maybe you just want to have a song ready when Grandma's ready to hear what you're doing with those 8 strings. Sometimes we just want to sit on the front porch and pick for a little personal decompression time.

Playing isn't always about aiming to get better, perfecting our chops, but frankly, it's a ton more enjoyable when we can play with some finesse or competence. Still there are those moments when we let ourselves go; we can't be all work and no "play." (Pun intended.)

What do you do when you have a song you're working up and there's a section you just don't have in your fingers? Pick and pound, and nothing comes out right? Probably what most do, just breeze through it and play on through the rest of the tune. We want to challenge you to perfect these trouble spots, but do it in a way that's more strategic and methodical. Think three steps:

Isolate the hard stuff. This may seem a no-brainer, but unless you are identifying the troubling passages, you don't know what to work on. The first step in any "self-help" program is confession, admitting you have a problem, right? All you know is when you get to the rascally D section of "Nola," your fingers fall apart. Maybe it's more subtle and there are just two measures, or even eight notes that just never come out right. If you're working from a printed page, pencil these areas in with brackets so you know where the focus should be. Even if you're an aural player, there ought to be some mental trigger that allows you to tag these spots. In any case, allow no more "denial!"

Work without the distraction of the rest of the song. Listen to kids play a piece they've recently memorized. They find satisfaction in performing something "complete," even if isn't perfected. It's more important to get it done than get it right. Is your playing any different? Here's a challenge, next time you play the song, DON'T play the parts you already know well. At all! Work just the hard spots, and put a 24 hour space between what you've already mastered. This helps you to really woodshed what needs attention.

Give yourself time. The watermark of mastery is when you can play something 4 times straight without mistakes. If you can't do this, you are not there yet. This can take days, if not weeks to accomplish, so don't feel bad if it's not there immediately. Don't move on!

Keep in mind, when you've perfected one phrase, every other phrase that contains the same challenge ALSO will come easier. Everytime you go through this discipline, you increase your level of ability just that much more. It's not just about this one section or this one piece of music.

We build our musical self esteem in the woodshed.

Posted by Ted at January 10, 2008 1:57 PM

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