Web Site Update

Hooray!  I’m finally getting round to getting this new site up and running

Posted by Mando1 in News

Developing a sense of pitch (Ear Training)

When I was learning how to improvise I realised I needed to develop my ear so I could easily hear chord changes and melody intervals. I bought tapes and CDs on ear training and spend hours at the piano keyboard trying to teach myself to recognise and sing intervals. I then discovered a very simple and easy way to remember and hear intervals. I already knew lots of songs and tunes so I used these to learn different intervals by using the first two notes of songs in which they occurred. For example the first interval change in the song “Happy birthday” is a major second. Sing it to yourself now. As soon as you start to sing the word birthday that note is a major second above the first two.

So all you need to do is find a song that you know for each interval. Get to know them well and sing them. Singing is very important for developing your ear. If you can sing an interval you’ll be able to hear one. I’ve learned that students who have a good sense of pitch can learn tunes easily. Those that haven’t usually find learning tunes difficult.

Here is my basic list to get started. Then you will need to go and find your own tunes and maybe learn some new ones for the less common intervals.

minor 2nd Bye-bye blackbird
Major 2nd Happy birthday
minor 3rd Work song
Major 3rd Oh when the Saints
perfect 4th Auld lang syne
Flat 5th Maria
perfect 5th The last post
Flat 6th Mana de Carnival
Major 6th My bonny lies over the ocean
Flat 7th Somewhere [ West side story ]
Major 7th Ceora
Octave Somewhere over the rainbow

These are ascending intervals and you will need a similar list for descending intervals. I hope you enjoy searching for your favourites.

A very comprehensive list can be found in the Jamie Aebersold free handbook available on his web site.


There are also plenty of ear training websites and free software to download to test your knowledge using your computer. Just type in “Ear training” into a search engine.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Arpeggios and triads

Do you know your arpeggios? An arpeggio is the notes of a chord (triad) played one after the other adding an octave above the root to complete, first rising then descending. So if I asked you to play a D major arpeggio would you know what notes to play? Here is an easy way to remember the chord tones which make up the arpeggio.

Because chords are made of three notes placed one above the other in thirds, all you have to do is visualise the stave with the key signature . The chord notes will either be on adjacent lines or spaces. For example place D on the space below the bottom line. The other chord tones will be in the two spaces above the D. The third in the space above the D which is F# and the 5th which is in the space above the F# which is A. Simple. How about a chord of G? The root G sits on the second line of the stave so the notes in the chord will be on the next two lines above the G, being B and D.

Simply visualising the stave with its lines and spaces instantly tells you what the chord notes are. Once you know the chord notes you can play the arpeggio playing the root followed by the 3rd followed by the 5th and finally to the octave above the root to complete the ascending arpeggio.

This is so useful for improvisation and really getting to know your chords.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Plectrum stroke dilemmas

A pupil recently said he ws confused by different advice he was getting for 6/8 plectrum stroke direction. Irish players seem to prefer Down Up Down Up Down Up while some tutor books and videos recommend Down Up Down Down Up Down. He wanted to decide on one and stick to it what would I suggest.

Methods for picking are as diverse as positions for holding the mandolin and left hand hold and position shifting. Its important to remember that different schools have evolved through players discovering a good method that worked for them then starting a school based on what they discovered for themselves and then calling it “The right way” or the “Correct way”. It is in teachers interests to have a consistent method to teach so your Irish tutor has his/her method which works for him or her so they don’t confuse pupils. However, as you have discovered, different “right ways” often conflict which, when you learn under different tutors, causes confusion or dilemmas.   So what to do?

The question I would ask is this: when you play, which plectrum stroke works best for you? Which feels the most natural? Which creates the best sound and flow for the beat of the piece. When listening to other players which style do you enjoy listening to most?  

A teacher is a there to nurture and provide support and inspiration for their pupils. It is the pupils challenge to discover their own path. 

One of the issues with plectrum stroke is that, if it works, it makes no difference when you are playing solo, but it does make a difference when you are playing with a group or another player because you will get a different feel and emphasis if you are not picking using the same strokes. This can lead to an uncomfortable or ragged sound for the listener.

When I am working with others we agree on how we are going to pick so the instruments sound together. This may be different to how I would normally do it myself. If you look at classical mandolin music there are often very diverse picking systems for string crossing for example and context is everything and it is not always consistent. 

You have a choice as to whether you want to find a single method approach and stick to it no matter what or develop a flexible approach where you learn different methods and  then  apply them according to context. I tend to prefer the approach you mention taken by Chris Thile   and use this more often and yet there are some tunes I will play DUDUDU.

As a general principle I teach to use down strokes for crotchets and for all notes of longer value than a crotchet. Quavers are played DUDU   unless the time signature is   6/8   when I use DUD DUD. This gives pupils the skill of playing both DUDU in 4/4/ and DUD DUD in 6/8. As they progress they will then meet exceptions to the rule and I introduce classical string crossing methods which you can find in the books by Ranieri and more recently in Alison Stephens’ excellent book series available from www.astutemusic.com. 

If you have   discovered that ALL Irish sessions use the DUDUDU method then don’t fight it, go with it for all your Irish playing. When you are in other contexts play DUD DUD. For me 6/8 is about a 2 feel and I want to hear a strong beat on the 1st and 4th quaver which is best achieved with DUD DUD. Irish music has a continuous flow feel to it which can benefit from the DUDUDU.

So can you develop a dual approach and feel comfortable with both?

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Smooth quavers

When I was practising for a concert playing the Beethoven Mandolin Sonatas I was having difficulty playing a fast quaver passage evenly. This came up with one of my pupils last week and I remembered a very good tip I was given by the pianist I was rehearsing with and it was something that had helped him. He suggested I slow down and play the passage, placing emphasis on the weak beat, in other words the second quaver in each pair. When you do this it takes the pressure off the strong beat and creates space around the first quaver. Secondly it makes you pay attention to playing the second quaver and giving it more than equal importance. Amazing things happen when you do this. Your perspective of the melody changes, you notice the control required for the up stroke and how much control you gain over string crossing and finger placement. The natural lightness of the upstroke is replaced with a power and force turning the expected into the unusual. This reversing of flow and emphasis highlights the parts of the passage that require the most attention and solves quite a few problems along the way.

The power of this strategy is only noticed when you then play the passage at speed. Suddenly I discovered the quavers were flowing evenly and effortlessly because I was no longer throwing away the second quavers. Instead I was really playing them with equal importance and emphasis.

I now do this anytime I find a quaver passage not quite flowing as I would like it to.

Let me know if you find this useful and any other suggestions you might want to add.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Virtual practice

If you find you are pushed for time to practice or you are away from home and can’t take your instrument you might like to experiment with some virtual practice, or practising in your head.

To do this imagine yourself playing, seeing your fingers as if you were playing for real while hearing the scale, exercise or melody in your head. When you do this you fire the neurones in your brain that control your muscle responses because the brain can’t tell the difference between real and imagined memory.

To prepare its useful to pay attention to the piece you planning to practice away from the instrument. First watch your fingers and take some internal movies as you play. Then notice the muscles you are using and the muscle patterns required to move the fingers. Now look up and see if you can reproduce what you have just played. Repeat until you can. Now do the same and this time as you look, simply mime the movements without the mandolin and hear the melody in your head or even sing it out loud. if yo are reading form music notation you can, in addition or instead, visualise the score. This works for people with photographic memories who can recall visual images in great detail. You might start with some scales and see how it works. Because its your brain that signals your finger to move, by practising in your head you can improve your playing by using virtual practice in any odd moments like waiting at traffic lights or stuck in a queue or just relaxing in a chair. When you practice like this it can be as beneficial as actual practice.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Play a ballad

Playing a ballad, nice and slow, using only sustained notes (no tremolo) teaches you many things. First how to hold a clear and sustained note. Leaving you fingers down long after you have struck the string. Your mandolin can a make beautiful sound, make sure you are doing it justice by holding each note for as long as possible. As you do this notice how clean your sound becomes. Listen for any buzzes. These can be due to lack of pressure from the left hand, positioning the left hand finger too far back on the fret or too far forward on the fret itself. Just behind the fret gives the greatest clarity and least pressure required. If you use too much pressure with the left hand you may find you are pulling the strings out of line or bending them causing them to go sharp. When you have checked your left hand position turn you attention to your right hand and the plectrum. Is your down stroke producing a good volume and clean attack. Are you angling the plectrum so you are striking both strings of the pair to maximise resonance and overtones? if your next note is on another string can you hold the one you are playing as you strike the next allowing two notes to sound in harmony together? Paying attention to each of these elements will improve your tone, intonation, clarity and quality of sound and sustain.

Two good ballads to play are ‘Autumn Leaves’ for a swing ballad or ‘Black Orpheus’ for a Latin ballad.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Getting a grip on the plectrum

How do you prevent a plectrum from slipping in your fingers as you play? For some this is not a problem and for those who do experience this there are several solutions. Some players go for ‘Dunlop’ type plectra which have a moulded grip at the top. Unfortunately these tend to be made of soft plastic or nylon which, in my experience, creates a scratchy sound and poor tone. A couple of other solutions are
1. Sand the top part of a smooth plectrum to create a rough grip leaving the point smooth.
2. Wrap a piece of medical sticking plaster round the top of the plectrum to absorb moisture and provide a secure grip.
3. Drill a hole through the centre of the top of the plectrum. This really helped a student of mine recently and the problem was solved.
4. There are some plectrums I discovered in Germany and available, I think through through the Trekel web site www.trekel.de which are thick soft plastic with a grip and although I personally don’t use them I know some players who really like them. They come in blue and white according to hardness.

Any suggestions from readers will be gratefully received and passed on here.

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

More confidence while playing

If there is a place in a solo where you commonly make a mistake, you probably tense up just before you get there, worried whether you’ll make the same mistake yet again. This makes the mistake more likely. One of the problems with mistakes is that you lose your position and it takes some time to get back on course again. So don’t practice how not to make the mistake, but practice how to escape from it. Work out the melody and harmony so that you can improvise a few notes which will sound OK after you’ve made the mistake. You’ll find that the ability to escape gives you more confidence, and you’re less likely to make the mistake anyway!

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips

Leave your fingers down

This weeks tip is something I find useful and which has made a big difference for my pupils. My constant cry is “leave you fingers down” when playing scales. I’m always amused at how much energy is spent putting a finger down to play a note then instantly lifting it off again as the next one goes down. If you are still on the same string and often if not how about just leaving it where it is until it is needed somewhere else? There are several benefits here. Each finger supports the next. The finger is still in position for when you return down the scale. What would it be like if you had a golden rule of “Leave each finger where it is unless you need it to play a note on another string.” As you develop this strategy you will notice that the finger you leave down can act as an anchor to orient your other fingers as you stretch for notes on other strings. It improves speed, accuracy and sustain. it also usually creates rich harmonic overtones.#Tip 10. Creating a good tone

The mandolin is a beautiful instrument and there are many factors that contribute to achieving a good tone. Not least of course is the quality of the instrument itself. There are many reasonably priced instruments on the market that have a good sound. There are four things which are within your control that effect tone. The strings, the plectrum, your left hand fingering technique and your right hand plectrum technique (assuming you are right handed the revers of course if you are left handed).

Posted by Mando1 in Hints and Tips