MMC Lesson Three: The Big Secret

  1. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    This lesson is part of a Study Group for Mandolin Master Class by Brad Laird.
    To start at the beginning, go to this thread:
    To purchase a copy of the book we're using, go here:
    List of all lessons in this series can be found here:

    Lesson Three: The Big Secret

    In this lesson we take a moment to slow things way down, and think about Brad’s assertion that practicing and playing need to be two distinctly different things.


    1. Study pages 9 – 11: How to spend an hour playing 16 notes and The cruel master – the metronome. Spend some time in the coming week integrating these ideas into your practice routine. Open your MMC book and re-read this section each day, and make a plan for incorporating ideas from this section into your practice schedule. Then, do it!

    2. Work with the metronome every day. If you are new to this, or if you have trouble using a metronome, or if you simply hate the metronome, then it is doubly or triply important for you to follow through with this lesson. The metronome will help you develop better timing, and in the end, you will be glad you did this. If you can’t stand the metronome, use it until it becomes your friend.

    3. The big secret isn’t such a big secret after all: When you read the text, you see that it has to do with self-discipline and self-analysis. And the list of things that Brad gives us to think about is not exhaustive. There are many things to analyze and work on that have not been mentioned, for example, under the heading of Tone, are your upstrokes as strong and clear as your downstrokes? And this is only one more example, there will be many others for you to determine what you need to work on. The real secret is that some players will get this and do the work, whereas others will have no part in it.

    4. Listen to the podcast titled, Practice vs. Playing: Learn to draw a distinction between your woodshed sessions (practice) vs. playing, and be sure to do plenty of both!

    5. Study pages 47 – 49 in the Music Theory section, then take the self-test #3. Discuss what you’ve learned about music theory, and any questions you might have, by posting to this thread below.


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  2. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Q: I watch a video that says, ok, quarter notes, eighth, sixteenth notes. I see they are picking faster that's it. How do I apply it to a song?

    If you want to try to understand about note durations, I'd suggest looking at each of these lessons.

    Note Duration

    Measures and Time Signature

    If you have studied those pages and have questions, let me know. Meanwhile, let's take a familiar tune to see how it works. I decided to use Row, Row, Row Your Boat because it is well known, has a straightforward rhythm, and has great examples of how quarter notes, eighth notes, half notes and triplets are used in rhythm. The music, with mandolin tab, looks like this:

    TIME SIGNATURE: The 4/4 up there tells you that there are four beats in each measure (bar), and quarter notes get one beat each. Each measure must have 4 quarter notes, or the equivalent of them. Each measure has four beats.

    There are numbers above the tab notes (below the standard notes) that show the beats of each measure. If you play this melody on your mandolin, use a downstroke on every note that falls on the beat. Use an upstroke on all eighth notes that fall between the beats.

    Are you understanding how the beats fall? Try singing the first measure: ROW, ROW, ROW your BOAT over and over a few times. The capitalized "ROW - ROW - ROW - BOAT" falls on the beat, 1, 2, 3, 4. The lowercase "your" falls between the beats 3 & 4. You can sing the melody with words: "ROW, ROW, ROW your BOAT" or you can sing it with number the same way: "1 2 3 & 4"

    In this first measure: Beat one is a quarter note, beat two is a quarter note, beat three-and is two eighth notes, beat four is a quarter note. So there are four beats here, and the note values or durations add up to the equivalent of four quarter notes.

    Analyze the beats in measure two by singing the tune again, over and over, and tap your foot at the beat. It will sound like GENT-ly DOWN the STREAM. You can sing the numbers like this: 1 & 2 & 3 - (4)

    In this second measure: Beat one-and is two eighth notes, beat two-and is two eighth notes, and beat three has a half note that you must hold all the way through beat four. This is because if a quarter note gets one beat, then a half note must get two beats. A half note is twice the length of time as a quarter note, and remember, these beats are measuring time. In music, the beats count time like the beats of your heart, the tick-tock of the clock, the click of the metronome. In this measure, there are four eighth notes and one half note, and these add up to the equivalent of four quarter notes, and account for four beats in the measure.

    Here is something to learn: The Triplet. Triplets are exceptional. Triplets change the timing or duration of their notes, by cramming three notes into the time-space of two notes. So in this merry verse, three eighth notes are crammed into each beat. One beat normally accomodates only two eighth notes. Normally, eighth notes are counted by saying "seafood" four times each measure. Set your metronome, and say the word "SEAfood" at each click (SEA on the click, food between clicks) and you will begin to understand how eighth notes fit. Now, replace "seafood" with "chocolate" - "CHOC-o-late, CHOC-o-late, CHOC-o-late, CHOC-o-late" - and you will begin to understand how eighth note triplets work. Triplets are a special case, so there is a number "3" printed where they are tied together. You can sing this measure as "MERrily MERrily MERrily MERrily" or you can sing it as 1 &-a 2 &-a 3 &-a 4 &-a

    Each beat of this measure contains a triplet, which is equal to the timing of two eighth notes or a quarter note, so this measure has the equivalent of four quarter notes, one per beat. Yes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes and triplets are played faster than quarter notes, because more of them must be crammed into each beat which is set at quarter note speed (4/4)

    The timing of this measure is exactly the same as the second measure, so read that again and apply the principles to this final measure to see how well you understand all this.

    Use a down pick stroke on the beats, and an up pick stroke between the beats. Triplets are special though, and in this example you should try DUD DUD DUD DUD in that measure.

    Set your metronome to make a click on each downbeat. 1, 2, 3, 4 - click, click, click, click
  3. HonketyHank
    All those days, months, years I spent trying to emulate the Kingston Trio with a few friends and I can not remember EVER playing a Major 7th chord in an actual song. I knew such a thing existed because my chord book had them in there, back in the back, along with all the other 'oddball' chords I never needed.

    To this day I find the Major 7th chords to be discordant (pun intended). That F# sounding out right next to the G in a GMaj7 makes me want to stop the music and say "OK, who did that?"

    I'm here to learn. No axe to grind. Just sayin'...
  4. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter

    OK, maybe you'll never use a major 7th in any tune you play - but you could, if you wanted to. It makes a good passing chord sometimes. You'll hear sounds you'd recognize in a lot of songs if you play:


    Example, key of A, play this chord progression or pick the arpeggios:


    I doubt you'll find any of that in Bluegrass, but I'm no expert. You'll find it in Beatles tunes, big band tunes, jazz, etc. though. I don't know where you'd use it besides as a passing chord, maybe Brad will chime in.

    Keep in mind that the music theory stuff is for our edification, or edu-muck-ation . . . I think it's important to give us understanding, but it's for studying. A lot of what we learn that way will be used in our playing, and some of what we learn may not ever be used. Depends on what you like to play. Playing is different than studying or practicing.
  5. HonketyHank
    Ok. Serious now. I read the material last night and spent some good practice time on the closed position A major scale slo-mo exercise. After a number of repetitions, I came to believe that I have a significant problem with left hand positioning.

    So last night and this morning I have been researching left hand technique, watching videos from Pete Martin, Baron Collins-Hill, Mike Marshall, Brad Laird, and assorted others. And trying out stuff from these folks. I came away with several things to work on and one definite item that needs immediate attention: USE A MANDOLIN STRAP, EVEN WHEN SEATED. Gosh what a difference that makes in my ability to let my fingers and hand relax and to fret notes with minimum pressure (while still sounding crisp).

    The main other thing I will be working on concerning left hand position will be finding an optimal position for my left thumb which will let me freely hit frets with my index finger and my pinkie without contortions or repositioning. As the experts all point out, that must not be directly behind the neck, nor should it be sticking way out above the fretboard with the neck in the palm of my hand. It will probably be different for different folks, but somewhere in between those extremes is where it will be.
  6. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I think the strap thing is a great idea. I think I heard something about that from either Brad or Pete Martin when I first got my mandolin, and I've been using one ever since.

    Like you, I've been doing the w-a-y s-l-o-w thing too. I have so many problems to figure out that it's hard to even know where to start without a good live teacher giving me feedback. What I have started with is fixing my upstroke, which is much more horrible than I imagined. Because I like to play with a lot of syncopation, it is too easy to relax that upstroke too much. As a result, not only do I produce too many weak upstrokes, but also I totally miss too many of those notes - just missing the string completely when playing up to speed. I started working on it about a month ago, based on feedback received from Don Grieser.

    Last night and this morning, I started reading Brad's Mandolin Training Camp again. I *hate* the "landscape mode" format that book prints out in, and consequently I had tucked it away and practically lost it a year or so ago. But . . . I'm blown away by the material he has in there. It goes into some depth about the left hand, the thumb, etc. As I go through that material in tandem with MMC, I'm coming to realize even more just how gifted a teacher Brad is. If you can afford to do so, I'd highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of it, despite the funky format.

    I need to do a lot more thinking about my own left hand position and use of the thumb as well. There are numerous helpful sources with advice on that. I like what you wrote about it. One thing - based on what I've seen some really great players doing, what I've read in Brad's material, and what I've seen in a video he has on the subject, the thumb should not be kept (or forced) in a static position. It needs to be free to move around a bit for the optimum position depending on what notes or chords you're playing. If I can find the video I'm thinking of, I'll post it here. It may be one of the ones you've already found. It would definitely be pertinent to the discussion in this thread.
  7. HonketyHank
    What I see on the 'rules' for left hand is that when you are talking about chords, any and all such rules go out the window. I like the idea of using the thumb position as a pivot point while picking in whatever 'position'. I think what I need to do is find just where on my thumb is best for me. The experts aren't much help there -- Pete Martin's thumb is almost out of sight nearly behind the neck; Mike Marshall has half his thumb waving in the air. That results in very different 'grips' if you want to call it that but I am sure that they arrived at those positions because that is how their hands were most relaxed while still being able to reach their notes.
  8. bradlaird
    "I *hate* the "landscape mode" format that book prints out in" I hear ya, Mark! It seemed like a good idea at the time! haha I have been thinking for 5 or 6 years that I might redo it in the normal way. I was just thinking that computer screens are horizontal so I should set em up that way... maybe. (That's the only book I did in that cockeyed way.)

    And, Hank... saw you grabbed copy! Thanks! I need to swing by Tractor Supply this afternoon and get some Super 12 for my donkeys. You just bought that sack of feed.
  9. HonketyHank
  10. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    I need to work on good use of the thumb for supporting my playing fingers. I've noticed that the reach of my fretting fingers is improved, and the tension in my wrist and forearm is lessened when I try the positions that are demonstrated in these videos. The first is Brad Laird responding to questions from a student:

    The second is from Barbara Schultz, leader of the popular Song-of-the-Week social group here at the cafe:

    The one that Baron Collins-Hill published at is great, but beware: Unless your fingers are 7" long like Baron's appear to be (even his thumb is twice as long as mine, and I thought I had big hands) the optimum position for us will probably not look much like his, with the pad of the thumb sticking so high above the neck!

  11. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    A big thanks to Hank for the feedback, it helped me to notice a big problem with my left hand placement. Trying some changes on thumb placement is paying off for me, at least I think it is.
  12. bradlaird
    Hank said... "All those days, months, years I spent trying to emulate the Kingston Trio with a few friends and I can not remember EVER playing a Major 7th chord in an actual song. I knew such a thing existed because my chord book had them in there, back in the back, along with all the other 'oddball' chords I never needed.

    To this day I find the Major 7th chords to be discordant (pun intended). That F# sounding out right next to the G in a GMaj7 makes me want to stop the music and say "OK, who did that?"

    I'm here to learn. No axe to grind. Just sayin'.."

    Hank, I hear what you are saying. So why did I inform folks of those foreign, rarely played in bluegrass chords? Cuz, they are interesting!

    And whether the Kingston Trio (or Bill Monroe or Flatt and Scruggs) or anyone else ever played those chords, those NOTES DO appear against a backdrop of 1-3-5. (Simpler 3 note chords.) They might be momentary, and only found in the melody or the improv of the solists but they do happen.

    I talked about this in my book The Flint Hill Scrolls (a--ick--banjo book) but didn't elaborate on the idea much in Master Class or Training Camp because, quite frankly, it hadn't popped into my mind at that time.

    While I do agree that certain styles do not call for 4 (or more) note chords, the soloists are often playing THOSE ADDED notes over a bed of 1-3-5 or 1-b3-5 stuff. (And in bluegrass it's often more like: 1-5-1-5-5-1... ya know... power chords with very little thirdy presence.

    So, why know about it if you are never going to need it? I can't answer that except to say that too much knowledge is unlikely to hurt you. Too little, on the other hand, well...

    Plus, you never know when someone will want to hear "Color My World" or "Misty". They are good for tips if nothing else.

  13. HonketyHank
    OK, I have spent a week on this devilish exercise in enforced humility. I have a few observations. Some of which I make in all seriousness.

    1. The thought crossed my mind at some point that as simple and slow as this thing is (at least the first half of it), it may well be too advanced for me. I say that, half facetiously, because my trouble with it is lack of reach, strength, control, whatever, of that pinkie finger, especially on the G string.

    2. If I follow the instructions and move back down a step in speed whenever I make the first imperfect note, four seconds per beat quickly becomes a goal rather than a starting point.

    3. Speed is not an issue. For me, it is getting very precise placement of my fingers just in exactly the right spot on top of but slightly behind the fret so as to obtain that sweet clear ringing tone with sustain all the way to the next note.

    4. If I cheat and move along despite clunky notes, speed does eventually become an issue. But I have to cheat to get to that point.

    5. Get ready for this ... This exercise is physically and logically impossible because it calls for dexterity. One can only be dexterous with the right hand. BY DEFINITION. If this exercise were to call for sinistrality, it would be possible.

    6. I therefore resolve to work on being more sinister. In the mean time, I declare victory.

    7. Seriously, I plan to continue to work hard, and slow, on that closed position A scale with the objective of clean notes, not speed. This means that I will be watching my left hand 'grip' to try to find a position that facilitates this objective.
  14. HonketyHank
    I should add that I have been following the thread Nice Clean Notes,, in the main forum with interest. A lot of it applies here for me.
  15. bradlaird

    I enjoyed reading your observations and analysis. Your mention of sinister reminds me of the evolutionary changes in language and how, if that trend continues as it likely will, my book will eventually appear to future readers as Chaucer does to Britney Spears.

    It was only recently that I encountered the more archaic meaning of that term when attempting a bit of reading on heraldry during some brief exploration into my own genealogy. If only I had an Oxford educated editor who also likes bluegrass handy to correct my butchery of the King's English. (It took me over a minute to decide if I should capitalize the "e" in English just now.)

    Shifting to another point I'd like to suggest that if one labors so over those two scales, suffers sufficiently for some time, and then proceeds merrily down their path, my purpose is accomplished. Similar to the military training in how to make a bed properly, the attention to detail will have lingering effects long after the drill sergeant's harping fades away. Eventually one leaves boot camp and a few salient ideas remain. Then the suffering was worth it and the concept of slowing down and getting it right can be applied to future technical obstacles.

    (For those who enjoy those couple of pages of torture there awaits the second book Mandolin Training Camp. *demonic laugh*)
  16. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    Your work at this is an inspiration, Henry. Last week was terribly busy for me and I did just a little practice and just a little playing, not much and not nearly what my regular habit is. At the end of the week, we loaded up a bunch of equipment and drove to Dallas to complete the second phase of a job there Friday and Saturday, and today traveled to South Texas before returning home. I had only one hour today, so I split the time by slowly playing the first parts of a few tunes and focusing on left hand position, then enjoying a few minutes of sloppy playing beside the Brazos river.

    I want to continue with the concepts of this lesson this week, and prepare for lesson four to be posted later in the week, maybe Saturday. What I am taking away from the current study is to learn to keep a much straighter plane from my elbow to the knuckles of the left hand, and let the thumb fall where it may according to it's nature (Sorry, I've read a lot of Ben Franklin and John Wesley in my youth). By doing that, I do extend the reach of my fingertips, but I have a bad habit of not playing that way, and it has a negative effect on my accuracy, so I need a little more time on this before pressing ahead. Not looking to perfect it in a week, but to invest a little time in it.

    My temporary 'woodshed' on the bank of the Brazos
  17. bradlaird
    That "Banks of the Old Brazos" sure sounds good.
  18. HonketyHank
    A couple of things I noticed while doing the slow scale exercise --

    You can go way out of tune sharp when fretting up there on the 7th fret if you have two or three of your other fingers down on the string back behind your pinkie (like on 2nd, 4th, and 6th frets).

    I think in general, it is a good idea to avoid lifting your fingers off the strings if you don't have to, but you don't want them clamping against the fretboard and stretching the string sharp.

    Also it is easier for me to get a good clean note with my pinkie at the 7th fret of the G string if my index finger is lifted. Maybe I'll get more stretch eventually, but right now it is a long reach to have both down simultaneously. Our tune of the month (Kentucky Waltz) has a good example of the problem. In a couple of places the version has a double stop tremolo E and C# played on the D and G strings. It is difficult for me to hit that cleanly as a single note double stop or as a tremolo.
  19. choctaw61
    This thread has really got me paying more attention to every aspect of what I'm trying to accomplish.I think it's better to go slow and get it right,than play fast and be sloppy with nothing right.Brad teaches to take time and pay attention to every detail of practise or you left hand a while then your right hand.What's actually going on with each.How am I holding the pick as it strikes the strings,down as well as up.Is there tention in that hand or any part of my am I holding the neck of the mandolin. Where is my thumb.everyones different there.I noticed a video of Brad's where his thumb was behind the headstock I tried that and the eight fret was a breeze on the G string. I could barely reach the seventh fret with thumb resting on top of neck.I think lil things make big differences. After all; It is the lil foxes that spoil the vine,right?
  20. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    "I noticed a video of Brad's where his thumb was behind the headstock I tried that and the eight fret was a breeze on the G string. I could barely reach the seventh fret with thumb resting on top of neck.I think lil things make big differences. After all; It is the lil foxes that spoil the vine,right?"

    Yes! I've been working on correcting that ever since lesson three. I work on that daily, because I have such a terrible habit of having my thumb stick up over the neck, and sometimes I even palm the neck - that will really get you stuck.

    I read what Brad wrote about it in his Mandolin Training Camp and it all made perfect sense from the descriptions on the page. I tried it, and could hardly believe the difference in reach, just like you've said. I have Brad's lesson on playing Sittin' On Top Of The World and in that one he makes a good case for thumb behind the neck, and demonstrates it well.

    We're on the same page with that one, Choctaw!
  21. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    The importance of this lesson cannot be overstated! I don't mean the Woodshed Group "lesson" per se, what I mean is the lesson that Brad teaches here. I've been using a couple other resources that have given me more insight on this stuff - the kind of insight that makes an awesome difference in being able to practice & learn to really be a better player.

    I've learned that one of the biggest rookie mistakes is having a screw-up, or multiple screw-ups in a tune and responding to it in an inefficient way. I'll explain ...

    When you're practicing a tune and you have a "clam" - make a mistake or series of mistakes - how do you respond? You could stop playing right there. Or you could go on and "muscle through" and finish the tune.

    Muscling through the tune is not a good idea, this can come in handy when you're performing, but it's a terrible way to practice. The best thing to do is STOP immediately when you hear something you don't like, and correct the mistake.

    When you do that, there are three rookie mistakes to avoid in correcting the mistake:

    1. Starting from the top. Mistake. This is the normal way a rookie will do it. Start back from the beginning, and try to do better next time. The more efficient way is to immediately work on the specific area of the song that gave you trouble. Do this with a metronome or backing track for best results, and play the problem area over and over to burn it correctly into your brain cells ("muscle memory"). Starting over from the top is a very common rookie mistake (do you do this? I know I've done it countless times for many years.) If you stop to think about it, the only way that makes sense is to "zoom in" on the problem area rather than just trying to play the whole darn thing again!

    2. Practicing at speed. Mistake. S-l-o-w way down and analyze every aspect you can think of about what you're doing and how it sounds when you are stopped to focus on the problem area. Spend as much time as you can on the problem area until you feel comfortable that you have mastered it.

    3. Declaring victory too soon. Mistake. What a lot of us rookies do is that in addition to the first two mistakes I mentioned, once we actually play the tune correctly one time (maybe twice?) we pat ourselves on the back, problem solved. Then the next time we go to play the tune, the same kinds of mistakes re-appear. Getting through a tune one time in your study is great, but to learn to practice so that maybe you can perform the tune for a camera or for an audience, or for yourself at any time, and have a good go of it, the best most efficient way is to workout the kinks by focusing on correcting your problem areas - slowly and thoughtfully at first, and repeating until you can mindlessly and flawlessly play it.

    Through Brad's lesson here, and some other things I've been studying lately, I've come to realize that I've kind of been stuck between unconscious incompetency and conscious incompetency for fifty years. For example, I've been making the three mistakes I just listed for many, many years, and only now beginning to use a more efficient practice routine. I'm excited about it, and feel that it's working! Had to share.
  22. Bad Habbits
    Bad Habbits
    Hello all - I just joined the group today because I also felt the need to stress the importance of this concept.

    I have been trying to learn the mandolin for a bit over 3 years and have been playing guitar for over 50 - and feel I have made more improvements on both instruments since reading and comprehending Brad's assertion that Practice and Playing are two different things.

    I will vouch that Practicing is not as much fun as Playing! But, I will also vouch that Playing becomes much more fun when you actually practice. It was very evident on the faces of the musicians I jam with, after I actually practiced for a few weeks. Yep, there are still lots of 'bad' notes played on my mandolin, but the complete 'train wrecks' are much more infrequent, and I am not hesitant to step up and attempt taking a break.

    So, just wanted to say, I know it is working for me!
  23. HonketyHank
    Good stuff there. I am too guilty of inadvertently practicing my mistakes until they become second nature.
  24. Sherry Cadenhead
    Sherry Cadenhead
    My teacher has me circle the problem areas on my music. It really helps me focus on them as I practice. And it's such a good feeling to see the circle there once I can breeze through those spots. I also write my metronome speed at the top of the page. If my playing isn't smooth and the notes clear, I'll note a lower speed. This approach encourages me as I see those metronome speeds increase over time. I do this with scale, double stop, etc. exercises, as well as tunes I'm working on.
  25. Sherry Cadenhead
    Sherry Cadenhead
    I just read the theory on pages 47 - 49. Good stuff! I'm wanting to learn to change chords quickly and hope this knowledge will help.
  26. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    For changing chords, playing with somebody or something is going to help tremendously I think, once you learn the shapes you need. You can begin by working with metronome, backing track or buddy at a very slow speed, and when you get it real smooth, then slowly increase the speed. "The Big Secret" lesson is a great lesson for us newbies to absorb and can be applied to just about anything we're working on
  27. Bluegrasscal_87
    I am really enjoying the theory associated with each lesson. I like the way Brad compares this whole thing to learning to speak a language. If I can learn the vocabulary, I can start putting my own sentences together. As I've been working the slow exercises, I've noticed that I tend to fret the string too close to each fret causing a bit of a deadening or buzzing.
  28. Mark Gunter
    Mark Gunter
    That's something to work on. I see also you have a thread in builders forum about buzzing issues, hope you get that sorted out.

    I like the "music as a language" analogy a lot, too. I spend practice time trying to be more expressive in what I "say" on the mandolin. The thrust of lesson three - to slow down and think about a lot of different things you're doing - has been an important lesson for me. I practice that often using backing tracks or metronome.

    I think that a lot of the note fingering issues resolve over time with practice and playing time. One of my problems was deadening surrounding strings when I fret a note. That has improved markedly just from working on left hand positioning and accumulated hours of practice.
  29. Bluegrasscal_87
    I did have some issues earlier. Outside of the finger placement, it really seems to be related to humidity because the buzzing comes and goes depending on where I am. For example, practiced outside yesterday and had some buzzing. Came inside and the buzzing eventually stopped. It's the oddest thing.

    I don't do "slow" well, haha. I definitely am that person who gets excited and claims "victory" after two times of playing it through correctly.
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