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Bluegrass Ramble #1

Why do musicians fail?

The Bluegrass Mandolin site is primarily intended to provide you with signposts to places where you may be able to get help with your mandolin playing.

Sometimes the help is very specific, for example sites which carry tablatures and articles on technique. Other links are to places which may help your musical education, broadening taste and providing fresh insights to the mysterious business of understanding and playing music. In this, I don't pretend to act as a critical arbiter. If I think a site has some merit it is listed, but you will have to decide if it offers anything to you.

The Bluegrass Ramble page is a new departure. Over the many years I've been learning to play bluegrass I've made a lot of good friends through the music. When we've not actually been playing we have discussed every aspect of music making. I have learned so much from so many people in this way, that I would like to set down some of the things we have talked about, which are probably typical of discussion among learner musicians around the world.

When I first posted the Bluegrass Mandolin Home Page in December 1999 - and it was just a single page at that point - I had in mind the person I had been 35 years previously, trying to understand how bluegrass music worked and how to play it. I found it difficult. The comparatively few people in England who could play bluegrass in the 1960s seemed like superior beings who had acquired their skill in some other world. So I sat in my college room and picked away the best I could, first on guitar and then on banjo, listening to records and trying to work out how to get that bluegrass sound.

Fast forward from the 60s to the 70s, and things began to improve. Banjo players had the best of it, and Peter Wernick's Bluegrass Banjo manual (Oak Publications/Music Sales) opened new doors for many of us, with its intelligent analysis of rolls and the inestimable advantage of the little plastic disc with demos of many of the tablatures in the book. And Hub Nitchie's ground-breaking Banjo Newsletter really cracked the atom by providing a superb monthly supply of tablatures and discussion about how to improve your playing, as well as a slew of information about banjo parts and construction. Suddenly there was a world of help out there for the amateur musician.

Jack Tottle's Bluegrass Mandolin soon followed the Wernick banjo manual in the Oak Publications/Music Sales list, and by 1980 there was a developing range of mandolin resources, including David Grisman's quarterly publication, Mandolin World News, and Mike Holmes' Mandolin Notebook. Homespun Tapes and others were producing audio, and later video, instruction materials by top name players. Niles Hokkanen's approach to learning and improvisation provided many of us with a quantum leap in our understanding of the mandolin. In short, all the teaching stuff is now out there, from Bill Monroe to Chris Thile - quite some development for the amateur musician in my own lifetime.

And yet ... why do musicians fail? I have met and corresponded with beginners who have bought an instrument, have all the instruction stuff and constantly listen to bluegrass CDs - and they keep asking, What is the secret? How do you get that sound?

The answer is, use your ears and practise, practise, practise.

For all of us, playing music involves a lifetime of listening. In one of the first sessions I ever joined as a very tentative beginner with my new guitar, the bass player leaned over and said dismissively, "You're out of tune." That guy did me a favour. He made me realise the importance of tuning, and also that when you're playing with other people you can be an absolute pain if you don't get it right. There are two reactions to criticism. One is to crawl away and give up. The other is to practise and improve.

There is no secret trick to playing music. I sometimes tell people that all you have to do to play the mandolin is to move your pick down and up. OK, you've also got to fret the strings, but honestly that's all there is to it, to actually make the sounds. Everything else is down to Timing, Touch and Taste. Here are a few aspects which you need to consider.
  • Timing: playing in time (99% of bluegrass is strict tempo music - when in doubt, listen to the bass); being able to bounce and syncopate your playing, whether it's chordal rhythm, riffs or solos; being able to play behind or ahead of the beat (hold back or push) without altering the basic tempo

  • Touch: getting an appropriate sound out of your instrument - good tone; playing loud or soft; controlling your pick movements, not just thrashing

  • Taste: choosing what you play - of course you will be limited by your technical abilities, but even an amateur like me can choose how to approach a break or how to back up a vocalist. Often, less is more. Develop a sense of theatre, for example find some lonesome bluesy licks to provide fills in a sad song, or push fast major scales on top of the beat in a pacey number. Learn when to tremolo and when not to - it's a powerful dramatic device. (Buzz Busby and John Duffey were two of the masters of when to use tremolo, IMHO.)
You learn all this stuff by listening, playing with other people and practising on your own. For the average family person there can be difficulties with all three!
  • Your spouse and kids can't stand your CDs - you'll have to listen in another room, and if you want the volume up you'd better use headphones. Listen to music in the car. For many years I used a small portable tape recorder around the house while I was getting washed and doing chores.

  • You want to go out of an evening and play, or go to a weekend bluegrass festival - you have to tread a delicate path here, make sure you get out sometimes but don't over-indulge yourself to the extent of neglecting the important people in your life. I'd have thought that going out once a week to play is not by itself going to threaten your family stability.

  • A much more difficult one is regular practice at home. This is essential if you are to make any sort of progress. There are lucky folks who just seem to play an instrument naturally, but this is probably not going to be you. It is certainly not me. Jane Wampach summed it up succinctly many years ago in the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association mag. She pointed out that all the great players have spent many years of practice to develop their technique. If you don't practise yourself, expect it to take longer. A progressing player will typically need between one and two hours a day to stay on top of things, so you are going to have to find at least this sort of time. Musical instruments are the hardest of taskmasters. Playing at the weekend is not enough, it's gotta be every day. Again there can be big conflicts of interest at home, and it would be a braver person than me to tell you how to solve this one! However, as Peter Wernick has pointed out, you can easily miss many hours of television without loss. This has been my primary solution over the years, together with not getting involved with too many other major commitments outside the home. Again you have to tread the path between spreading your energies and interests too widely on the one hand and becoming a picking nerd on the other.
Only you can decide what commitment to give to your music, just don't expect it to be an easy deal. I can only say that I have found enormous mental benefits in learning to play. It has always been something that I have struggled to do. For this reason it helped me for many years with my day job as a teacher of English as a second language to adults. It forced me to recognise that my students also found learning difficult, and it was my job to find ways to give them insight into how the language worked so they could practise and make progress. And yes, they had very busy lives, had to make time to do their homework and come to class, and sometimes encountered opposition at home to their starting to learn English in the first place.

As a professional teacher you are constantly confronting the problem of nature versus nurture. This is the perennial, indeed the ultimate, issue of education. As applied to music it means, is musical ability inborn or learned? Most teachers reckon it is a bit of both, in fact quite a lot of both! Ronnie and Rob McCoury must have inherited their ability to play music from father Del, but the environment in which they grew up must surely have fostered their musical development. Ditto the Reno brothers, two of whom are currently starring as members of Hayseed Dixie, Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Norah Jones, daughter of Ravi Shankar ... the list goes on.

Those folks have a super dose of musical genes; you, and certainly I, have rather less natural talent. I guess that if you enjoy music and are keen to play it indicates some natural musical inclination, and practice can only improve things. I must say that I still find some serious limitations to what I can do on the mandolin and that not everything improves with practice. However, much does get better and that is honestly all I can promise you if you are setting out on your own musical journey. In view of the sort of commitment I have outlined above you may feel that this is a tough deal, but unfortunately it's the only one on offer. What I can guarantee is that it will be a stimulating and exciting journey, and that you will surprise yourself by what you are able to achieve.

Enjoy your music!


28th March 2005

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