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Notes from the Field

Everything I Know Might Be Wrong!

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Elsewhere I wrote about the hierarchy of hard. I think I can explain at least one of those hierarchies better.

I have this idea that one of the reasons many folks pursue technical excellence is that it is easier to pursue than musical excellence. Yes, easier. It’s easier to pursue playing at blistering speeds in all keys up the neck, with intricate double stops and four finger moveable chords, than it is to learn to play beautiful music beautifully such that it moves people.

Hard as it is, it is easier to impress people than it is to move people.

The path to technical excellence is a path that is more well-defined and easier to see and follow, than the path to musical excellence. Progress is more measurable. It involves concrete notions of put this finger there and hold the pick like this, and fewer vague notions about peoples' response to music, musical expectations, and how to communicate a passion. Heck, even the word “musicality”, a word that I am using a lot in this essay, is not easy to define precisely. Not as easy to define as say “double stop” or “Cm chord”.

The rockstars and established entertainers that we love have this musicality muscle well developed. Years of experience and a proven track record of entertaining and moving people. And, on the other hand, there are folks out there with mad skills, blistering speed, awesome tone, who unfortunately we will never hear about, because of their lack of musicality. Many thousands of them, practicing in their upstairs rooms.

One could argue that it is musicality, more than anything else, which initially attracts us to a given performer and to a large extent keeps us listening. And the truth is we can all name top entertainers that we love who are not technical monsters on their instruments.

One curious result, that leads to grumblings in our mandolin community, is that these established entertainers can grab a mandolin, and using their well developed musicality, do something moving, expressive, and extremely entertaining, without having to demonstrate mandolinny technique or accomplishment. Doing amazing things without having to play amazingly. Or so it seems.

O. M G. Here I am religiously practicing scales and arpeggios and pursuing great tone and volume and speed, working on double stops and ffcp. Are you telling me everything I know is wrong? That the path between me and these others is other than getting better at the mandolin?

I have related in discussion threads and elsewhere when this all came to me. It was a very specific moment. For me it started watching a video of Steve Earle doing "Galway Girl". He was using these simple two finger first position open string chords and a guitarish, basic, simple strumming. I remember grumbling that's not playing the mandolin. Its “playing guitar on the mandolin”.

No closed chords, no melody, no tremolo, no slides or double stops. Just flailing at the mandolin. Or so it seemed to me in my infinite wisdom.

I made some almost snarky comments in a thread and was justifiably called out. I was clearly missing a lot.

While Steve Earle was not playing the mandolin in a very mandolinny fashion, so I thought, he was certainly playing music. And, as I remember being pointedly admonished - Steve Earle is there playing it on the stage, I am here at my computer commenting on it. So who is the one who "gets" it?

Same kinds of discussions with Paul McCartney's "Dance Tonight", and Eddie Vedder's "Rise". These are not examples of technical mandolinny brilliance. But my goodness they certainly are examples of a great music.

And isn’t being able to play great music the point? Kind of?

It all brought me to realize that getting good on the mandolin, while important, is also kind of beside the point. If playing great music and playing music greatly is important, then getting musical on the mandolin is the important thing. As much, if not more important than technique.

Sure good mandolinny technique contributes, with varying degree for different musical genres, and there is so much to this eight string wonder that is amazing and unique it would be a shame to miss it, but, at the end of the day, there is one heck of a lot that is missed when getting good at the mandolin is your only goal.

It’s a mistake I made and I realize I continue to make. And I think I can attribute it to my first comment above: pursuing the techniques and intricacies of mandolinning, hard as it is, is easier than pursuing musicality and expressiveness.

I am already “good enough” to engage people, musicians, audiences, general public, but for lack of musically. Heck, the newbie with only four chords is good enough to engage people, given some passion, musicality, audience sensitivity etc.

And practicing my arpeggios ain’t gonna get me any closer to playing greatly. Its like screaming in a bucket and thinking I am arguing effectively.

So why do I do it? If it was a result of a thought out plan of development, it is a bit wrong headed. No, I have to admit, I do it, and do it a bit obsessively, in large part because it is what I can do. My rational self back-fills with a reason, the mistaken idea that working obsessively on arpeggios and scales etc., is all I need to do to get me to where I want to be. Really, when I strip away all the nonsense, I am working on the easy part.

As the great comedian Buddy Hackett said, “I was going along fine till I came to a fork in my head.”

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Updated Jul-18-2016 at 8:48am by JeffD

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