Saturday, July 31, 2010

More Song A Week Thoughts

My last post really only covered the period after you know the tune you're going to play or have learned it from tab or whatever. But there's also a process I go through before I get to that point, so here are my thoughts about that.

The first thing I do when considering learning a new tune is to find as many recordings as I can. I prefer recordings by players I admire of course, but if the tune hasn't been covered much I'll take whatever I can get. iTunes is great for this, and there are other methods. YouTube is quite good, although it's harder to get them onto your iPod. They don't have to feature the mandolin heavily, although it's great for getting ideas from if they do. Then I listen to them over and over, hum them to myself, or just imagine them in my mind, and see what I can pick out on the mandolin.

If I can't quite grasp the tune that way or there some bits I want to understand, then I will look at tab. You should never be afraid to look at tab. Once you've developed a good ear, tab can't take it away from you, it can only help, and similarly knowing how to read tab will not stop you from developing a good ear. The only thing that will stop you from developing a good ear is if you never use it to try and pick out a tune for yourself without it - and of course you're going to do that sometimes, right? I wanted to cover that off because it's a myth I hear repeated that somehow tab is bad, it's just not true, it's only people who are bad, and it is your inalienable right to use tab. And if you do learn the tune from tab, stop looking at the tab as soon as you can. While you're playing, look away from the tab as often as possible. Pretty soon you'll have it in your memory instead - memories are lazy, and as long as they know the tab will be there they don't bother. But if you continually take the tab away from them they finally get off their lazy asses.

I'll often take those two or three versions on my iPod and listen to them over and over before I go to sleep. But I don't listen to them in a sleepy kind of way, no I am thinking very hard about what each note might be and where the chords change, and why that bit's different and so on. By the next morning I'll know the tune pretty well, and after listening to it a few more times I'm ready to start playing it from the tab or from my own memory, and then start the process described in my last post.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Song A Week

You don't have to join the song-a-week group on Mandolin Cafe, but it's a good idea to learn a new tune every week or so if you want your playing to improve. Every tune has its little corners that will exercise you, no matter where you are with your playing, and if the tune is easy for you that's an opportunity to develop the arrangement or do some improvising or do any other kind of thing with it that you normally don't do very well.

Here's how to learn a song as quickly as possible:

1. Know that you will not learn to play a song well in one sitting. Are you Adam Steffey? No, you are not. So you can't do it.

2. Play the song as slowly as you have to to get through it successfully, but try to play it in time. Consider using a metronome. If you set it slow it will help you. Set it to beat on the 1 and 3 of each bar.

3. Understand that step 2 is the hardest thing you will ever do on the mandolin. Once you really have the tune down at a slow speed, you have done all the hard work. Now go back to step 2 and do it properly.

4. Gradually speed up from the slowest possible speed. Do not worry that the speed may be embarrassingly slow, and that you personally feel you ought to be able to play faster than that. We all feel like that, even pros, and we are all wrong.

5. Decide what speed you're going to achieve. Depends what tune it is of course and on your own abilities. But be realistic. If you intend to play it at a jam some time or with a band, you need to be able to play at the speed some show-off will pick for you, not a speed you're comfortable with. So figure that out.

6. Repeat step 4 until you reach the speed in step 5.

7. Record yourself, or try playing the tune at a jam or with your band. Put it on YouTube and send me the link.

8. Keep playing the tune every now and then for the next 10 years, working out different ways of playing it, different chord settings, variations, improvisations, anything you enjoy hearing others do.

9. Die happy. Oh, also, remember that sleeping between each step is advised. Every time your sleep, you get better on the mandolin. I don't know why, but it's true.

I think a lot of people wonder how long it will take to play a tune well. Recently someone told me they tried to play Blackberry Blossom for 2 weeks and then they knew they would just never be able to do a good job with it. To me, this sounded ridiculous. I have been trying to play Blackberry Blossom up to speed for 7 years now, and I still mess it up 2 times out of 3. And other songs I can have ready to go in a couple of weeks. Honestly, you will not do your best with a song until you've had it under your fingers for at least a week or two, but it could easily take years to really get it down.

Here's me playing Katy Hill very slowly, working on step 2:

Sunday, July 25, 2010


This is a fiddle tune that can be found in the Fiddler's Fakebook (and the Mandolin Picker's Fakebook). There are a lot of different versions, although I couldn't find too many recordings by well known artists of it. The Fiddler's Fakebook says it's "New England". I created my own arrangement which mixed a few of the versions I was able to find on iTunes and YouTube, although no-one else seems to have the longer minor chord in the B part which I like.

There is also tab for this on Mandozine - not exactly the version I do but close enough to get you started.

Here's the link to some more examples and info on the Song A Week social group at Mandolin Cafe.