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Notes from the Field

What does one do with a mandolin?

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I mean in terms of activity - what does your mandolinning consist of?

Let me back up.

Lots of threads about practicing, and how much time should be spent practicing, and how to parse the practice time out effectively – exercises, working on specific difficulties, working on new tunes, maintaining old tunes, learning some music theory – all that stuff.
And the discussions are all very good, useful and informative, and even entertaining.

I think, though, that a necessary antecedent is the attitude with which one approaches practice.

I had to get my head on straight about practicing. I had this notion that practicing was like eating the vegetables, and playing well was the desert, the reward for all the peas and lima beans and broccoli. I treated practice and working out the hard stuff as a kind of preparation – and what I was preparing for, the playing well in front of others, that was the mandolin life.

What I have come to understand (these things take me a while), is something most musicians know or learn real early: practicing and working on the hard stuff is the musician’s life. Typically, and especially at the stratospheric performance levels, practicing is in large part what the musician does. The other musical activity, playing well in front of others, is a small and sometimes tiny percentage of time spent at the instrument.

Being a musician is more akin to folks that like to work on cars, and fix them up, and every now and then get to drive them. The actual driving of the hot rod or restored Ford Fairlane, is a very small part of it. A fun part, I admit, but in terms of time spent it’s a small percentage of the time spent engaged in the hobby.

Compare to another activity, say, fishing. I love fly fishing, and most of my time with a fly rod is spent actually fishing. There is some maintenance, some preparation (mostly organization of paraphernalia), but fishing really is mostly fishing.

If you were to make a pie chart of the time behind the mandolin, it seems to me, it consists of three activities:

1 Practicing and working on technique and working on music and lessons, rehearsals, all that stuff.

2 Playing acceptably well in front of others, nailing it.

3 Playing inadequately in front of others (or what sounds to us as inadequately)

A fourth independent activity that many would include would be working on their mandolin, customizing, tweaking the set up, repairing, building. Other than changing the strings and tuning up, I don’t do any of it. So it’s such a tiny sliver of a percentage of my time with a mandolin that it can, in my case, be effectively ignored.

For many there may be a fifth activity, independent from the others, which would be teaching, which can take a lot of time. I don’t teach so I haven’t included that.

We could probably come up with other things, composing, recording, whatever, but really, I think I have nailed the big three.

The professional musicians I have met likely break it down as 90% activity one, 9% activity two, and maybe 1% activity three. They cannot afford to spend a lot of time in activity three.

Certainly the percentage of time in each activity is different for each of us. For me, recently it is about 60%, 30%. 10%. (More due to healthy expectations and a lower standard of “adequacy” than great accomplishment.)

And certainly the categories impact each other. Ideally more time spent in activity one, will result in less time in activity three. It is deceiving because, (I hate to break your heart), none of us will ever get to that place where activity two characterizes most of our mandolinning. Never.

My point is not what our time allocation should be – I leave that to the instructors and others in the forums.

My point is to look at practice not just a part of mandolinning, but really as what we do. Best that we embrace it and enjoy it and look forward to it, because practicing, alone mostly, working on exercises or on specific difficulties, exploring and learning all the stuff a mandolin can do - that is the mandolin life. That is what we do with a mandolin, the majority of the time. In some cases the overwhelming majority of the time. Whether we know it or not, it is what we signed up for. Better that we know it.

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Updated Jul-09-2015 at 11:41am by JeffD



  1. JeffD's Avatar
    Or not. You should find your own path and follow it your own way. I have gone through long stretches of just engaging in activity three, struggling along.

    Its magical what regular practice does. Magical. Everything, the most unexpected things, become easier, smoother, less conscious, more effortless. Its really true. And one might argue that the experience of becoming more competent as a direct result of practicing, that alone, would get us addicted to practicing. Oh were that true.

    Even now I go back and forth and up and down and occasionally revert back to practicing just to get it over with and get on to the jamming. I have found the above way of thinking about it a great tonic against those times when I just don't want to work hard.
    Updated Jul-09-2015 at 11:44am by JeffD
  2. wildpikr's Avatar

    I think you pretty much nailed the concept, especially the part [in your reply] about the magical effect of regular practice.

    Sometimes the regular practice is a way to detach from the rigors of the workday in order to concentrate on, or immerse myself into something that I enjoy. It's a form of stress relief for me.
  3. JeffD's Avatar
    It is an end in itself. Its a way to get away from things, to get away from people for a while, and to kind of meditate without Zazen.

    But nobody advertises it that way. What if guitar center said, "come, buy a guitar and spend hours and hours and weeks and months and years, by yourself, working on playing it well, so that you can occationally spend a little time not quite impressing your friends".
  4. JeffD's Avatar
    My friend complained to me that he spends a lot of time walking his dog. I asked him, what the heck else are you going to do with him, he is lousy at dominoes, and hasn't learned to play bridge.
  5. maudlin mandolin's Avatar
    Do you never play for your own enjoyment? Not practising or improving but performing old pieces mastered long ago just for pleasure?
    Quite a bit of my mandolin time is spent like that.
  6. JeffD's Avatar
    I work on classical a lot these days. I am not adept at it, but I get a lot out of throwing myself against it.

    And I warm up every home practice with stuff I know, and finish up with stuff I know, to keep my mood positive.

    But most of the time I am playing stuff I know and play well its at a jam. Sometimes at an open mike or a performance, but mostly at a jam session.

    I was thinking if just playing stuff you already know, at home by yourself, is a separate category of activity, or is it really just practicing? I am not sure. If you are making a recording then yea, or perhaps its just a delayed performance in front of others.

    But playing what you are already great at, alone, - well my thinking when I wrote the piece was that it was practice, because one knows one can stop at any point and do it again or work it out differently. And just knowing that makes it practice. But now I am not so sure.
  7. JeffD's Avatar
    When ever I am behind a mandolin it is my own enjoyment - for that matter. What I mean is, be it practice, or jamming, I do it mostly for me. I occasionally perform, and that has to be for the audience, which is part of what I don't like about it.
  8. wildpikr's Avatar
    Another thing we do: we set an example, a positive example.

    I’ve noticed a trend in the public school system where trimming the budget translates into marginalizing the arts; liberal arts programs [art, music, languages] stand an increased risk of being downsized, or perhaps eliminated. Staying in line with the musical theme here, school band/orchestra programs are slowly losing funding. This, for many, is the first and maybe the only way to learn to play an instrument. Some cultivate and carry the musical interest on, some don’t; some even go on to learn more diverse instruments, and again some don’t; but at least they’re exposed to some type of music.

    And there are those who are driven to learn to play music regardless the situation. I/we fall into this category. My children watched/heard me practice and play and also learned to play music. And now I get to start the process with my grandchildren. They get to see, hear and be a part of the experience of playing an instrument. Maybe they’ll want to learn and play along someday [which would please me greatly] but for now we simply have fun. We strum and sing songs for short periods of time [have to account for attention spans of young ones, of course]. The good part is that I have more time and patience to expend than when I was younger.

    There are so many influences portrayed through advertising, not all bad and not all good, that many times require explanation to the young ears and eyes that see them through the myriad of media outlets.

    My musical influence to my grandchildren, or anyone else for that matter requires no explanation; it's an enjoyable part of what I do. I hope that the positive example we set takes hold.
  9. JeffD's Avatar
    You have a good point. Kids do emulate. If you are someone who plays music, they will not think it unnatural to do the same.
  10. mandoblues's Avatar
    Yes kids do emulate what their parents or peers do, in my case (fortunately) my youngest son has seen me practice and knows of my practice habits of taking my mandolin to work to practice in the stairwell or wherever it was convenient. He practices his guitar (and now mandolin) whenever and wherever and at this point blows me out of the water. The point is not all children follow in their parents footsteps with regards to their passion of music, but one can only hope.
    Great blog Jeff D.

    Best regards from a fellow mandolin player on the left coast,
    Jeff D.
  11. LazyRiver's Avatar
    I concluded awhile back that if I only had 15 minutes, I would spend it practicing the basics. If I jump right in and practice a piece that I'm learning or maintaining, I end up playing it poorly. It's always better if I have warmed up with the basics. Fortunately I almost always have more than 15 minutes (I'm retired). But the biggest jump for me came when I began looking forward to practicing, rather than looking past it. As my teacher says, scales are also music.