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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 15, 2009 | Playing musically: Part 1, play the lyrics

We're starting a multi-part series on "Playing Musically," hoping to stir up some playing sensitivities and sensibilities on making your mandolin performing more expressive and more aesthetically pleasing. The first installment deals with the issue of lyrics. As instrumentalists, we can easily get by without thinking the words of a song, but let's explore what lyric content can do for melodic interpretation and execution.

Bop tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon has gone on record as an advocate for understanding the words of a song and their instrumental impact. His practice was to never blow the note of a new song until he'd memorized its lyrics. Think about what the message of the words would do to the impact of the way a song is interpreted melodically:

The Days of Wine and Roses (Henry Mancini - Johnny Mercer)

The days of wine and roses laugh and run away like a child at play
Through a meadow land toward a closing door
A door marked "nevermore" that wasn't there before

The lonely night discloses just a passing breeze filled with memories
Of the golden smile that introduced me to
The days of wine and roses and you.

Ponder the above lyrics, and consider how Gordon's tenor sax would blow through the intellectual content, musically. How can you put into Fs As, and Cs, articulations, dotted quarter notes, eighths, all the mechanics of delivery? Thoughts of lonely nights, days running away, laughing like playing children, these call for a completely different approach to the mechanics than if we were "blowing" a song like Rocky Top on the mandolin:

Rocky Top (Boudleaux Bryant - Felice Bryant)

Wish that I was on old Rocky Top
Down in the Tennessee hills
Ain't no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top
Ain't no telephone bills.

Once I had a girl on Rocky Top
Half bear the other half cat
Wild as a mink but sweet as soda pop
I still dream about that.

Rocky Top you'll always be
Home sweet home to me
Good ole Rocky Top, Rocky Top, Tennessee
Rocky Top, Tennessee.

Both songs communicate a "pondering," but you have a different geography, culture, (arguably) sophistication, and attitude. One might call for differences in sustain, melodic punctuation, even the harmonic implications themselves in order to be more consistent with the song's integrity requires a different delivery, but if you never saw the lyrics and only notes or TAB on the page, you couldn't communicate the aesthetics of the song, the deeper meaning.

Check out the lyrics of the next song you play on the mandolin. What kind of musical pictures can you paint with your phrasing, your intensity of energy, the manner in which you plunge your pick into the strings and grip the frets, the overall "busy-ness" of the music? You'd be surprised at what you can do when you just put your mind to it.

The real beauty in the art of making music--there is no one single interpretation. No "right" answer.

Still it remains, knowing the lyrics will take you into a much deeper aesthetic level of playing and enjoyment of the song for you and your audience.

Posted by Ted at January 15, 2009 6:08 AM

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