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Tips & Tricks Mel Bay Mandolin Sessions








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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June 26, 2007 | How we learn

You're probably aware of popular thinking on "learning" or assimilating theories, particularly the "visual vs. aural" approach. The basic idea, some feed their brains more effectively through visual input (eyes, reading symbols) and others gather information aurally (ears, hearing, sounds). Some are slave to the printed page, not only because of traditional schooling but because they require a visual map for time & spatial reference.

Others succeed more quickly imitating something they hear. A recording, someone dictating (hearing by rote), these folks can "order" internally through sound. This is not an issue of sight-reading proficiency; it's about how individual brains process information.

Another look at learning is what we hold to as "Fingers. Ear, Brain." The basic premise is after we've gained tactile access (touch, patterns internalized through drilling and feel) by playing, we begin hearing things, from there our brains are able to assimilate higher concepts of order and music theory, but more effectively through the fingers than just cerebral concepts.

We were recently challenged by another well-respected teacher that this way only leads to developing the technician first, instead of the musician. Players who stress scales and physical patterns will sound like they're play, well... scales and patterns. While this may be true if some larger sense of theory isn't interjected, you can't speak eloquently meaningful messages if you aren't equipped with the basic words. Knowledge of words (ask any crossword puzzle junkie) is essential and you can't get to the side of the river if you don't know how to row, let alone how to grasp an oar.

Another proof in the effectiveness of learning through motion (fingering) and movement (scales and arpeggio tracks) can be found in elementary music pedagogy, through Kodaly and Orff teaching techniques. Young children learn songs in class by swinging their arms in rhythm and walking to the beat. You can't deny the "primal" in leaning. How many times have you counted off the number of people in a room by silently pointing your finger (1, 2, 3, 4, etc) to each person, establishing a "physical" or kinetic grasp of the number as well as the cerebral.

We certainly don't advocate stopping at the patterns, but once concepts like FFcP are reasonably mastered through physical drilling, the brain has something to hang on to later for higher mental activity.

If you learned chords by strumming them out in simple progression, C, G, D, etc, later you learned chord relationships and now you could transpose them by using their function with the key, IV, I, V. This opened up a whole new world for you, (You could play "three chord rock or blues" in more than one key!) but you had to master the tactile attributes of the chord first, how they fit your fingers and the physical transition from one to the next.

Fingers, Ears, Brain. It's not the only approach to mastering mandolin, but we think it's a good one.

Drill. Listen. Assimilate intellectually. Works for toddlers. It still works for the adult.

Posted by Ted at 5:34 AM

June 18, 2007 | The sweet spot; getting what you pay for.

Drumsets come in all price ranges. You can find the $199 "disposable" five-piece drumkits in department stores and some of the bigbox music chains, a $7000 set-up in a boutique drum store, and everything in between. What makes one more expensive than the other will be the hardware and stands that hold the drums up, quality metal and ergonomic set-up options, but the biggest difference will be found in the drum shells and the way a head mounts to them.

Drums are like mandolins; they are constructed of quality hardwoods for resonance. Mahogany shells can give warmth and bass, Birch and Beech yield projection, Maple and Ash qualities of either (and hard to pigeon-hole into words); all are considered by cost and desired tonal effect of the drummer. Poplar and plywood are cheap to make, and give a player something to beat on, resembling a real drum. You also have options of the way the head is suspended over the bearing edge. Different mounting hardware, angle and craftsmanship in cutting and sanding the bearing edge--all will effect the over all quality of the drums sound.

There is an interesting phenomenon even the non-drummer can experience while listening to the difference between a cheap drum and expensive. When you tune a drum, it yields a "sweet spot," an area where the drum is at its optimum tone-producing pitch. Head vibrates clearly and in synchronicity with the shell. You can hear this when you tighten the drum as you tune to appropriate pitch; when you go above it, the drum starts loosing it's resonance and character (high enough, you can break the head). Staying below it, the drum is flabby and bears no projection.

What is amazing is the tonal range between cheap drum and high-priced professional one. You start to understand why they fetch their high price when you see how much wider the tuning tension range is on a pro kit. There is so much more capability of sound and a discreet ear will notice this immediately. Drum salespeople joke that if a high-end pro drum is good enough, it will still sound fantastic even if it's poorly tuned!

So what does this have to do with mandolin? We talk about the sweet spot between the frets, where the proper tension and placement of finger yields the most amount of sound through the rest of the instrument. A cheap plywood mandolin will have very limited tonal capability even when the illusive sweet spot is covered. Zero in on the fret of a more expensive instrument, and you'll notice the ease at which the sweet spot can be arrived (and heard). Certainly, a good fret job and bridge will contribute, but nonetheless, the rest of the instrument resonates through quality top back and sides the tonal character, and projects the player's intent.

The instrument doesn't necessarily have to have a high price tag, but you have to understand you get what you pay for. Better builders have taken generations of skill and advice to achieve this quality, and it's never an accident. If they can do it better than the next one, they are simply worthy of a higher price tag.

Hitting a drum with a stick to listen for a sweet spot is a good metaphor for your own search for the cure in Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome. Playing fast notes won't reveal an instrument's tonal character; it's not just about how an instrument feels, often frets can be adjusted. Slow, sustained plucks, like spanking a drum will tell you much more about a mandolin's character when you audition its sound capability. Listen for how long a single struck note can hold its character over time.

If an instrument has good tone, you get to play that good tone faster when you speed up. If it has bad tone, all you're left with is a bad instrument that sounds bad, only faster.

Posted by Ted at 4:33 AM

June 11, 2007 | Opening Opportunity in Accompaniment Mandolin

Playing a treble instrument, we have to consider our limitations in the role of accompaniment. Think of an elementary or middle school chorus; the pianist often must fill the role of orchestral accompaniment. Thundering string bass and timpani in the left hand, brass and cellos somewhere in the middle, and 1st violins and woodwinds doubling up on the melody in the right hand as the little tikes sing their parts. It's not unusual for her to pound out concerto-like support through all the registers of the piano, simply because she can. She has the equipment, wood, frame and strings; the instrument is capable of a variety of register and resounding dynamic qualities throughout its 88 keys.

A guitar may not be quite as powerful, but it lends itself well to smaller assemblies of instrument and voice, and is popular in this role for that very reason. High to low, percussive and melodic, its portability has additional incentive and made it a centuries-long choice in accompaniment, especially for the folk musician.

Enter the mandolin. Strident and clear in its plectral treble voicing, it can be dynamically slammed and picked like a time-keeping hi-hat cymbal or snare backbeat, but four pair of strings, it also lacks the necessary harmonic defining or bass in anything more than solo or duo playing.

That doesn't mean our 8-string wonder is a weak instrument, we just need to consider its proper role within these limitations.

Think of what you do to the treble knob on a radio when listening to talking or speech. If words aren't clear and articulated, boosting the treble knob higher (or bass lower) will help you hear your weather report or favorite talk show host's latest social indictments midst the audible crush of traffic in your care, restricting unnecessary audible "mud."

Treble gives clarity, but you really can get too much of a good thing, and that's why a mandolin is often confined to supporting role as a percussion instrument and occasional solo, but only when the other instrumentalists grant it.

Drawing tone out of the mandolin with attention to sustain can give you the benefit of both projection and melodic "completeness." Avoiding a clanky, tinny sound (you've no doubt heard players cursed with this) will likely invite more soloing in improvisational environments. It's simply more fun for the audience and other band members to listen to.

There are opportunities in smaller acoustic settings to use sustain to enhance the harmony-defining role of the mandolin. Three- (and two-) note chords in your lowest (thickest) strings can go miles in establishing the band's harmonic progressions. Side-stepping the percussive "chop" or Bluegrass accompaniment by allowing a little more ring to the string can be a fresh textural change, if the other band members lay back. (More on this in our 'ii V7 I' page.)

You can also vary the duration and aim for a Freddie Green rhythmic "pulse" instead of punch. Let the string ring after each quarter note punch, but lift off with the fretting finger right before the next attack and you'll get this sound. Again, this is more effective in your lowest strings, even just using G and D courses properly. You might not voice a b13 chord, but playing 3rds and 7ths of the chord is sufficient. (See our page on Chord Economics)

All this has to be explored by personal experimentation. Listen for opportunity. You simply can't do these subtleties within the context of some chaotic free-for-all acoustic impromptu cluster-pluck jam. You need to be working with sensitive, unselfish musicians who are willing to give you the sonic space.

When you are granted this privilege by responsible players, it can be some of the most pleasant playing experiences in your search for musical self-fulfillment.

Posted by Ted at 5:39 AM

June 6, 2007 | A little review

Since Site Author Ted Eschliman is away for the week, now might be an opportune time to look through some of the "Tips and Tricks" archives.

For a list categorized by subject, check out the Tips and other past submissions you may have missed:

Talk amongst yourselves...

Posted by Ted at 11:10 AM

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