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How do we learn?

Perhaps you wonder why I'm asking this question. After all you've got a mandolin and probably at least one of the following: a teacher, an instruction book, and an audio or video course. So just start at lesson 1 and do what you're told. By perseverance you will become a competent musician, perhaps even a great one.

Well actually not just like that. One of the common misunderstandings about playing music is that you simply follow instructions. Students of classical music are required to "read music", to follow the dots when learning a piece. A teacher will give instructions about fingering and tempi, and the process can seem to the student to be a kind of military drill. To carry out the drill to perfection you must practise, practise, practise.

Unfortunately there's a vital ingredient in the mix that is sometimes ignored. Did you spot the deliberate omission in the list of learning tools in the first paragraph? Your ears! Music is something that you hear. As a musician you are striving to reproduce on your instrument what you can hear in your mind. Children in their earliest years at school learn songs by listening to the teacher and memorising the tune (as well as the words). The vast majority of non-classical musicians - rock, jazz, blues, folk, country and bluegrass - learn to play the notes that they can hear in their mind. They may be notes you have learned elsewhere and have memorised - from someone's performance or recording - or, as you become more creative, notes which you have found for yourself. People have asked Earl Scruggs where the early bluegrass musicians got their licks from. To Earl the answer was obvious: the musicians made up their own licks - they had nowhere else to go!

Of course you are undoubtedly influenced by all the music you have already heard and enjoyed. You can analyse all this stuff as you choose. Most of us start by copying tunes, licks and riffs, particularly from recordings, and analysing (in some fashion) what is going on. The phrase "in some fashion" should perhaps read "in our own particular (or peculiar) fashion". Some people will automatically put blues ideas into their playing almost without thinking about it, simply because they can hear and understand subconsciously what it is all about. Others find it helpful to think in terms of blues scales, flat 7, 3 and 5 notes, and so on, looking for a structure or system to it all. For many of us it is our own individual blend of these approaches. I don't want to be prescriptive, but just to say "Listen, enjoy and create sounds to your own taste."

In order to reproduce the sounds your mind wants you to create, you will need to work out what to do physically on the mandolin. Where to find the notes is one problem, but not the only one. How to hit the strings with the pick, how to create just the right rhythmic effect, how to vary the dynamics of your playing - these are all matters which require your attention. A gifted musician will give that attention automatically - for the rest of us it requires a bit more conscious thought and prompting. It's often said that as a beginner you will sound bad before you can start to sound good. The real stumbling block to progress is not the sounding bad, in itself, but when you don't realise how bad you sound and you don't recognise what you need to do to make your playing sound better. Constructive criticism is invaluable here! My playing as a beginner improved by a quantum leap when someone said, "You gotta make it swing!" Suddenly the clouds rolled away and I realised what I had to do.

"Up the neck" is something which is often perceived as a stumbling block. There really is no mystery to this. You go up the neck to get the sounds that are up there. For anything higher than a B note (7th fret) on the first string you've got to move on up. To play a mid-range B note in a double stop with a D note above it, you're forced to move up (work out the fingering for yourself - don't dive for some bit of tablature). And once you're up there, move your fingers around and you'll find some other useful notes nearby. You may then want to go back to the lower part of the neck again, or higher up - well, just move your left hand, as quickly as you can. OK, I know there are all sorts of techniques you can develop for fingerings and position shifts but these are just tools to help you with the job. The job itself is to decide what notes you want and go get 'em.

As you explore the neck you will doubtless come up with alternative ways of doing the same job. You are the final arbiter on which way to go. Often we are limited by our own technique, which can be a challenge in itself. Years ago Niles Hokkanen came up with arrangements of Devil's Dream and Red Haired Boy entirely in double stops. You can find them in Niles' Twin Mandolin Method, with the advice "Just get out some bullets and bite hard!"

So if you are in the doldrums with your learning, sit down with your mandolin and think of a song or tune you'd like to be able to play. Try it in various keys, and work out a simple version, complete with chords. Try to do this from memory, or if you need some prompts go to a recording - but not a tablature! It's often best to find the chords first, if you can. I recently came back from a screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou? humming all the tunes - the film is feast of old time music! Harry McClintock's version of Big Rock Candy Mountain particularly took my fancy this time around. It worked out best for me in the key of D. I got some chords together - you can manage with three, though I introduced a fourth one which sounded nice to my ear - and I then started picking out the melody on the mandolin. You can go on to thicken out the sound in places with double stops and embellish the melody with extra notes to taste. I don't suppose for a moment that my resulting arrangement was fantastic, but I had a lot of fun with it. It made me run around the neck to find double stops that had good tone, and at other points I introduced extra bits of melody that seemed, to my ear, to fit, and which had probably lodged in my mind from fiddle tunes. You don't know what's in your musical memory until you start to rummage around for ideas!

I would always recommend anyone to go to a good teacher. There is also much to be gained from published instruction courses and tablature. However, at the same time you should be listening, thinking and working out how to get that mandolin sounding the way you want it. When you play, you are making your own personal musical statement to yourself and to everyone else who is listening.

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