Clark JM Jazz Mandolin
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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February 28, 2008 | Tips for shipping mandolins

If you suffer from chronic MAS (Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome) and subscribe to a prudent "catch and release" strategy of "one comes in, one must go," shipping instruments is a very real issue for you. With the luxury of internet (global) communication and a vast array of shipping company resources, it's never been easier to move your former pride and joy across the continent (or ocean!) to be someone else's new pride and joy.

Having shipped over three dozen instruments over the past few years, we can give you some valuable tips on how to pack these treasures, and assure safe arrival. It's no secret; the chain of labor handling your cargo along the way won't have even a fraction of the emotional investment, and to protect yourself, you'll need to go the extra mile in the way you pack your container.

Detuning: Even the builders themselves will differ on how necessary it is to lessen the tension on an instrument's top. We've received mandolins completely tuned to pitch, and some with the bridge and strings completely removed. Lean to something in the middle here. The instrument's is designed for tension (and it's a hassle for a customer intonating a bridge), so taking it off isn't the greatest idea. If you do, put masking tape where the bridge is supposed go. Not everyone knows how to adjust this. It probably doesn't hurt to detune the instrument a few notes.

Budge: You want to pack well, but not so well that there is no "give" to the surrounding packing. Wedged in too tight, you run the risk of energy from outside jarring and dropping transfering directly to the instrument. Allow for a very slight bit of "bounce" so the packing absorbs these inevitable blows.

Shifting: On the same note, like a cereal box and airline overhead compartment, some shifting of contents will occur. If the instrument shifts its way in transit completely to the boxes edge inside, the packing material is doing no good. A good idea is to wrap bubble wrap around the case before surrounding it with other packing (peanuts, paper, bubble pillows).

Temperature: The Northern Hemisphere is coming out of winter, but consider the destination's climate. A healthy rule to live by is subfreezing weather requires a 24-hour acclimation prior to opening the box. Demand from your buyer this period of time before unpacking (add to your trial period!), as neither of you want to see the finish checking that occurs when a frozen instrument's wood warms at a different rate than its finish. (You only have to see this happen once, and you'll never allow it to happen again...) Err on the side of caution.

Lock down: Watch what you have inside the case. If you have accessories, don't allow them to scratch the instrument in transit. If you have room inside for the instrument to move around the case, you'll want to stabilize the instrument with some packing material using the principles we've already suggested.

Timing: Some advocate paying premium shipping to reduce transit time. If you ship at the beginning of the week, your chances of arriving at a destination with no weekend stay are greatly increased. Our suggestion is to put your money and effort into the way you pack more than the service itself.

Measurement: Of course, you want a box with sufficient room for maximum padding, but if you are shipping an international package through the US Postal Service, check the dimensions of the box and subsequent pricing. Postage is calculated by adding girth and length; mandolin boxes are a funny size where a 1/2" difference in the length of the box can double the shipping price (maximum girth plus length total=108 inches). Find out what your dimensions are; you may save enormous shipping costs by scoring the inside of the box and folding the container to a smaller dimension. Check the USPS website for more information on international shipping.

Posted by Ted at 9:32 AM

February 21, 2008 | Another look at Flying Fingers

We mentioned the benefits of "stealth" fretting fingers in a previous Tips article, Fear of Flying. Of course, economy of motion is the strongest force in the logic of keeping fingers at or near frets 1,3, 5, 7, or 2, 4, 6, 8 (or 3, 5, 7, 9 if you're into 3rd position playing). Barbara Shultz, mandolinist for Central Iowa's Flatland Ramblers points out that leaving fingers "at the ready" is much like defensive driving. The goal for a good driver is the mindset of looking ahead, not to just the driving conditions and drivers immediately in front of you, but keeping a perpetual eye out way down the street for what's coming up.

What's fascinating is another twist on this, a look at violin pedagogy. Young violinists are taught from day one that after the 1st finger goes down, when the 2nd goes down next to it, the 1st stays down. When the 3rd goes down, the 2nd stays down (& on to 3rd & 4th). This necessity escapes the fretted player, because we know where F# and G is on a D string; we have the 4th and 5th fret to see and feel. Violinists don't have this luxury, and outside of zeroing in with the ear, that spatial reference has to be effectively felt in relation to each finger.

There is a constant eye and ear finger validation going on with violin (viola, cello, & bass, too!), and they derive the benefit of stealth playing as a by-product, not as a goal. The defensive driving metaphor remains a good lesson nonetheless in why it's important to keep the tactile sense, the note "reference" ever at the ready.

Review exercise, Lydian DUDU for practice!

Posted by Ted at 12:53 PM

February 14, 2008 | Putting on the Squeeze

Fretboard finger pressure is an interesting thing. Too little can cause your sound to be muddy or worse, buzzy. Too much can cost you fluidity and in extreme cases, muscle fatigue to the point of permanent injury. Stress is NEVER good, but like any athletic activity, performing is all about using strength correctly and effectively. Golfers, bowlers, dart throwers, and anyone who uses their hands for a living spend an entire lifetime honing the fine line between control and too much pressure.

We advocate paying a lot of attention to clear tone brought on by applying only enough pressure in the left hand to not only start the note, but finish it into the next. One of the other dangers in going overboard with pushing hard enough is that you lose vertical thrust and start to bend the strings out of line and ultimately, out of tune.

This is especially a concern in instrument set up with low action, light strings (which we strongly advocate!); this vulnerability is even more compounded in closed position playing of the upper frets. What cause this is not only excessive downward pressure on the strings, it's fingers forcing the string sideways. While this can be an interesting "novelty" effect, it's not very pleasant when it causes the double course of unison strings to play intermittently out of tune with each other.

That's the impression on the listener--"this mandolinist doesn't know how to play in tune."

This is not insurmountable, however; when this happens, you need to slow things down and pay special attention to your finger control. Slow it down and watch for side-to-side finger motion perpendicular to the strings. If you're bending pitches (and don't mean too), you need to concentrate on keeping the proper mount of pressure to force downward, not squeezing the whole neck.

Don't let the "pressure of the moment" get you so excited that you lose good intonation

Posted by Ted at 7:06 PM

February 7, 2008 | The road to harmonic sophistication

Time for a little philosophy here. We're going to go out on a limb and suggest the most effective way to "broaden" a folk/bluegrass musician to more harmonically complex music, and that would include Pop, Broadway, Classical, Cerebral Folk, Brazilian and Contemporary Praise and Worship music, would be to pick up a jazz chord "vocabulary." It's there in the extended chords (Maj7, +11, m7b5), the poly-tonalites (Am7/D, F/G), and the rapidly changing tonal centers and cadences (ii V7 I). Jazz can actually be a broad genre category, and it's influence is felt in all these other classifications, as well.

Think your typical three chord Rock and early American Folk. The 'IV V I' cadence so common in the pristine diatonic nature of this simple music is closer to jazz than you might think. So you're playing in the key of A, your main chords would be D, E, and A, already a 'IV V7 I' (Roman Numerals based on the notes of the A major scale). Chord tones would be:
IV = D F# A
V = E G# B
I = A C# E

If it were jazz, we'd spell this out as 'ii V7 I':
Ii (ii7) = B D F# A
V (V7) = E G# B D
I = A C# E

Note in the first two chords how similar the chord tones are.

Ever play though any Bach compositions? What is profound here is how jazz-like his music can be, transparent frequent tonal center shifts with all kinds of variations on the 'ii V7 I" cadence. You can clearly detect aurally and visually (music notation) shifting tonal centers. Brazilian Choro (and American Ragtime) is similar, and both genres can be invaluable in sharpening harmonic analysis skills.

We mentioned the varieties of suspended chords in a MandolinSessions article, see Keeping in Suspense: A look at "Sus" chords and variations. Those who are playing contemporary Christian music churches today know all too well the Sus4, the Add9, the x2 chords. Today's cerebral folk artists are no strangers to these chords either, the "anything but a 3rd" approach to folk.

You'll notice a bit of a paradigm shift here at JazzMando as we retool the website for broader significance in today's music. While our first love has been, and remains the basic of jazz vocabulary, we will continue to reach out and try to extrapolate its significance to other genres as well.

It's all part of our master conspiracy; making mandolin mainstream!

Posted by Ted at 2:59 PM

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