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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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November 20, 2008 | A common mistake. Clacky, clacky...

Question: How do you get two piccolo players to play in unison and in tune?

Shoot one of them...

It's an old band director joke, and it illustrates an important acoustic principle. Two tubas playing slightly out of tune or rhythm will not be nearly as offensive to the ear as the higher pitch instruments, and this all has to do with register. High pitches are more directional, distinguished easier; microphones designed for speaking rely on presence and highs simply because the ear can distinguish words and enunciation in the upper timbres. This phenomenon is just important to recognize for mandolinists.

In general, when integrating a mandolin into a group of folk/pop music musicians or church praise band, most newbies tend to approach the mandolin as they would a guitar. Certainly, the tiny mandolin can be played quietly, but because of its relatively higher register, it can also be brutally percussive in impact when struck hard. A heavy picking style in the right instrument can penetrate the ensemble like a cowbell, and even at medium volumes, muddy the sound of a guitar playing the same "clacky, clacky" rhythm accompaniment.

If mandolin and guitar are playing the same rhythmic pattern, they have to be exactly synchronized, or the resulting sloppy, conflicting clash will be blamed on the mandolin. High sounds are more easily identified, and the deeper timbre of the lower strings can cover up bad technique much easier on a guitar. This is compounded when you have multiple strumming instruments pounding out a simultaneous subdivided background drone.

You will greatly free up your playing (let alone open up the sound of the ensemble) when you put space in your accompanying. This is why the "chop" sound is so closely associated with the mandolin; it functions so well as a the accent of the band, imitating a hi-hat in jazz, or a cowbell in rock and roll (not a pair of maracas or shaker). You are also well-served listening to the drummer (if you don't have one, you ARE the drummer!), accenting the same band hits, not just on the backbeats, but critical accents in the music.

You don't have to do this all the time, best when you can trade off rhythmic support duties with other members of the band. It will be more enriching for your mental state, and it freshens its sound when going from verse to chorus to bridge, and back.

Posted by Ted at November 20, 2008 6:08 AM

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