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"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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April 26, 2012 | Posthumous tips from John McGann

We were saddened by the recent loss of John McGann, Boston educator/philosopher and talented multi-instrumentalist. A consolation though, many of his tips and ideas remain in his books and on his personal website, a terrific resource for any fretted musician. He also shared generously some of his concepts on a frequent basis on the Mandolin Cafe forum, one from six years ago detailed his personal journey, and ultimately victory over what he considered a debilitating playing weakness, entitled "How My Life Was Changed."

At first glance, the heading appeared melodramatic, but anyone who has pursued a disciplined struggle to get better tone and technique will agree energy invested in correcting these weaknesses pays long term dividends royally. With the undeniably great results of John's mastery, you have the proof! We found it encouraging, and wanted to share it with you. The text below is a complete reprint.

John, we miss you...

John McGann 1959-2012

"Back around 1980 I graduated from Berklee, where my main focus was on learning theory and composition. I could play OK but my tone and technique were "not happening", and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get a sound approaching that of my heros. So, I decided to call Andy Statman and arrange a lesson.

That was the only lesson I ever took on mandolin. Andy got me thinking VERY seriously about my right hand. I was clenching my fingers in, which was limiting my movement. He showed me and got me thinking of ways to get gravity working for me, to make the act of playing much easier than the struggle I was going through.

My left hand was the "flying fingers" syndrome- rather than keeping the fingers down as I ascend the string, I would lift each finger under the new note on the string. As the link below details, this makes about 80% more work for yourself .

I have detailed a bunch of right and left hand technique ideas collected from my experiences both with Andy and from casual "picking the brains" of other great players here.

After the lesson, I went to a hardware store and bought a long vertical mirror. I put it in my practice room so I could watch my hands. I took me three months, practicing untold hours, to get the new techniques to become automatic. During this period, I was playing bluegrass 2 to 4 nights a week in bars- where, of course, in an effort to keep up with the fast tempos, the new techniques would fall to shreds and I'd be back hacking away.

After the 3rd month, I began to be able to deal with the new way of playing on the gig as well (lots of metronome practice!). From here, I went on to winning regional mando contests and eventually Winfield.

The point of my post is to say that if you are willing to work hard at the right stuff, you can really change your musical life. The first point is that you need to feel unsatisfied with your playing (I still do and hope I always will- that's how you keep growing!).

The second step is to find a great teacher who is a great player. The combination is rare.

The third thing is to enjoy the ride. You'll probably be looking at long hours of dedicated practice- but you will get results in a relatively short time (I could do three months in prison if it made me a better player!)

I hope this post may be of some help to folks who get down on themselves for "lack of talent". I consider myself the product of hard work much more than talent.

10 Questions for John McGann
Recommended exercise: Lydian DUDU
Berklee Faculty Profile
Fiddling with Flying Fingers
Fear of Flying

Posted by Ted at April 26, 2012 9:19 AM

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