Sunday, August 20, 2006

Remedial Dexteity (Mandolin)

I've been doing a horrible thing on the mandolin, or, depending on how you look at it, I've always been doing a horrible thing. (No, I don't mean playing one. Shut up.) In a bold stroke, I've gone and demoted myself back to the level of rank beginner, and it's really taken a lot of the fun out of playing as I pick along like a palsied, club-handed child--missing strings, playing unintentional ones, all at a pace that would bore a the crap out of the calmest yogi.

I'd been struggling with my right hand technique for some time anyway. I knew I should have been more observant about pick direction for one thing, and knew in an abstract way that pinning my right hand was bad, suspecting that this was why, counterintuitively, my right hand was often slower than my left. I pin my hand differently than most people evidently do--the very back edge of my palm wants to sit on the strings just behind the bridge, sometimes using the upper corner of the bridge itself as a sort of pivot. They say that pinning your hand ultimately makes you slower, and pinning it there also compromises my tone sometimes, as my hand can sneak over the boundary and muffle the strings.

Careful observation of my picking has also led me to note that although I don't swing my wrist much at all when playing melody, I certainly let it go when I play rhythm, and also when playing leads that are heavy on multiple strings. For these broader motions, I hold my pick more loosely, whereas on melodies it's tight, and for those melodies the motion is like a scoop, always plucking at the strings and in, a rotary motion primarily, that is inherently slow.

The nail in the coffin though was getting out and seeing some really good performers play. Armed with my usual, "why the hell doesn't mine sound like that?" I grabbed Dad's binoculars and scoped out the pickers. Well, mine didn't look like that either. There were some occasional pinners, sure, but their wrists were still much more fluid than mine. There were some players that were a lot more rhythmic-looking too--the great Sam Bush looks like he's swinging a big beat pretty much the whole time, but he jams a lot more notes in there. (Somehow. I couldn't see half of them; I am thinking it may have been telepathic.)

Something had to be done. To even begin floating my wrist I had to crank it almost unnaturally around, but immediately got more swing and a few plucks this way revealed a big new brassy tone (a mixed blessing, but I'm finding I can control it if I release my death grip on the pick). Then I came home I came across a post here (though I can't find it now, of course), which mentioned in a brilliant aside that the right hand is the big motor that drives the tune, that's all the rhythm's in that right wrist, and that a good player will build melody around the fundamental rhythmic motions. (In that analogy, the left steers.) Well, well, that's probably why my melodies rarely gel either. Damn.

But I've got the tools, right? I can play rhythm, and I can free up the wrist when those circumstances demand more motion. So why does it seem so fucking unnatural? Playing so badly and slow is hurting my motivation after making so much progress in the last year. I long for someone to reassure me it'll get better soon, to keep at it. I'd also happily settle for reassurance that it's fine to go back to the old pivot. (I play faster than ever with that tight wrist. I've checked a few times, just for that warm fuzzy of slight competence.)



twiffer said...

hey, kudos for even trying to learn. i find the mandolin fascinating; though personally i'd try and learn to fiddle.

rundeep said...

Hey keif:

Find a teacher. Seriously, if you can get someone really good, maybe in one or two sessions you'll get better exercises and make serious improvement. I've never had the chops to be a serious musician (and I lack the determination which could make up for the lack of talent), but I found someone who was really really helpful on some issues I didn't even know I had.

I add to twiff's props for you. (And twif, I play the violin. Well, played. Haven't touched it in years. I think it's a bitch to learn, even if you call it fiddle instead. But if you and your housemate have a tolerance for scratchy noise, it's worth doing.)

Keifus said...

Hi rundeep, I'm thrilled that you stopped by and dug this deep.

I've recognized the value of lessons for some time, but so far I'm an autodidact. (If I had money and time from the house, I may never have picked the thing up in the first place.) I've got some tricks to help me play better--it helped a lot to learn new stuff, especially new styles, keeping the pick direction roughly correct, and it also helps a lot to practice standing up (need to balance better and can't anchor my palm). I also accept that sometimes cheating gets you there.

I don't expect I'll ever discover real musical chops--best I'm thinking is a capable hack--but it's certainly filling a void. And even if I perpetually suck--I hope not, but it's a possibility--I still enjoy it.

Even better than lessons (at least for me, now) is playing with others, which I only get to do with my dad on these get-togethers. The fiddle (or violin if you're fond of more serious styles) is slowly growing on my wife though. She has a little more talent, but a lot less dedication. Hope that works out well.