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Thread: Play softer, play better?

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    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Play softer, play better?

    I have recently noticed that if I play a tune at low volume, I can play faster and with fewer finger-fumbles. I also observe that my left hand finger pressure is much lower. All this seems to make playing a tune a much more pleasant experience. I think the key is finger pressure. Is that right? If so, why can I not force myself to use less finger pressure when playing loudly (or at least not softly)? When I watch good players playing fast and loud, it looks like they are barely laying their fingers onto to the fretboard. Me, well, it feels like I am trying to push the strings through the back of the neck, even though I can indeed play with that easy low-pressure fretting technique (but only at soft volume).

    Is there any help for me other than a psychiatrist? Any exercises, tips, drills? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Our brains are amazingly efficient instruments. It's a little bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head. Your brain tries to use the same network to opperate both arms. Only after some prodding will it change/build networks to give you hand independence, but you have to signal to your brain that you want it.

    I would recommend creating an exercise where you start picking a scale quietly and slowly bring on the volume while not increasing the tension in your fretting hand. After you can do it at a slow tempo with volume, increase the tempo. Both tempo increase and volume increase tend to cause us to finger harder so be sure to work on both. Then try chord changes with strumming, adding volume and tempo over time.

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    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    There is also a corollary here. Playing softly allows me to use less of a deathgrip on the pick, allowing smoother, faster, and more precisely timed strokes. All those instructional videos where the likes of Mike Marshall, Chris Thiele, etc, speak of the necessity of eliminating tension come to mind.

    Thanks, Dadsaster. I think your advice applies to this too.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I once worked with a man that played hard rock. If I was talking of a band I had heard, he wouldn’t ask if they were good, he’d want to know if they were loud. I guess to some the louder has to be better.

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    You need to be sure to take a deep breath and center your thoughts before you start the song, kind of like a pre flight checklist. Be sure to add "light grip" to your list.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    It has always seemed to me that bluegrass mandolin players needed to push as much volume as they could out of the instrument (banjo killers). Playing traditional Irish or Scottish music at a pub session is similar.

    But yes, I think you do play better when you are not having to push it so hard. It's a question of getting the right balance, I suppose.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    That is one of the unexpected benefits of my resonator. It is extremely loud when played with accustomed pressure, of course, but one can play it as if softly and it can be heard quite well. At these "regular" volumes I can play better, more accurately, and faster (FWIW), and by the way, still have a bunch of dynamic range above and below me.

    I could understand how someone could make the rez their primary instrument.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    It's true that trying for more power makes things more difficult--pick will get stuck, your timing gets off, and the tone is often not pleasing. But one does need to able to project in many settings. So you do need to practice power as well as gentle playing.

    Spending all your time playing quietly will leave you unable to put out when needed. But it can be equally hard to play well with a very light touch, which you will need if you use amplification other than microphone, and that effort will show you how to get a sweet tone, also.

    Sometimes it is easier to play heavy, so that all notes speak. This is the familiar heavy-handed clunky piano player. And the acoustic instrument acts as a limiter---it can only get so loud. But this is not musical, even if dependable. (I speak from experience.)

    Sometimes "projection" is not about loudness, but about accuracy and focus. Playing the right notes at the right time can hold attention without being actually loud. Control over loudness allows you to emphasize the important notes, to drive the rhythm with a clear pulse.

    Shorter version---you need to be able to play soft and loud, too (and in between). Otherwise known as using more dynamics---the musician joke is "More dynamics? I'm already playing as loud as I can!"
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    That is one of the unexpected benefits of my resonator. It is extremely loud when played with accustomed pressure, of course, but one can play it as if softly and it can be heard quite well. At these "regular" volumes I can play better, more accurately, and faster (FWIW), and by the way, still have a bunch of dynamic range above and below me.

    I could understand how someone could make the rez their primary instrument.
    Now that you mention the rez, I'll mention my Vega Little Wonder. That one has some dynamics to it too. Maybe I could just play nice and sweet on the mandolin then grab the Vega for the Sousa marches and stuff.
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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Both volume and speed are no good as objectives per se, since concentrating on them withdraws attention from the other things you need to concentrate on.

    Instead, volume and speed are mere by-products of control, and that is what has to be achieved first: knowing the tune well enough to play it in your sleep will give your hands the confidence of picking a bit harder without going into cramp and useless waste of strength. Just a bit harder, mind you - it's a slow process, and unbeknownst to you, your volume will grow until one day, to your total surprise, someone in the jam or session sitting beside you will ask if you could play a bit softer so he/she can hear the other instruments.

    It happened to me. I have learned not to sit beside squeamish people since.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandoplumb View Post
    I once worked with a man that played hard rock. If I was talking of a band I had heard, he wouldn’t ask if they were good, he’d want to know if they were loud. I guess to some the louder has to be better.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Tom Wright summed it up for me.I suppose that it might help some folk in their playing to play 'softer',but if you're hoping to play in a band situation,you really do need to practice playing as though you're playing in a band ie. as hard as required to produce the volume you'll need. IMHO - it's better to practice playing hard & get that done right,& then to play 'softer' when you want to,than maybe do it the other way around.

    Ultimately,it depends on your playing situation,but even a 'bedroom picker' like myself,plays 'up to tempo & volume' every time i practice. I have an MP3 of this tune on my PC - 'Dance Around Molly' played by Michael Cleveland. I sort of 're-discovered it yesterday,& being a bit ambitious,i decided to play it on mandolin - up to tempo.,my right wrist nearly bust !. I'll go at it again today - i'll nail it some time !,
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by dadsaster View Post
    Our brains are amazingly efficient instruments. It's a little bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head. Your brain tries to use the same network to opperate both arms. Only after some prodding will it change/build networks to give you hand independence, but you have to signal to your brain that you want it.

    I would recommend creating an exercise where you start picking a scale quietly and slowly bring on the volume while not increasing the tension in your fretting hand. After you can do it at a slow tempo with volume, increase the tempo. Both tempo increase and volume increase tend to cause us to finger harder so be sure to work on both. Then try chord changes with strumming, adding volume and tempo over time.
    This is a great exercise. I've done quite a bit of this and it really teaches your mind to separate the hands. It will improve your technique tremendously. Another thing to keep in mind is that mandolins can only get so loud before the tone starts to degrade. Use that to your advantage with dynamics. See if playing quiet and growing the dynamics to get louder draws in the listener and causes other players to play lighter so they can hear you.

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I've heard it put this way:

    1) Tone
    2) Volume
    3) Speed

    You get to choose two.

  20. #15

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I too play better softly,but amazingly every guitar teacher I know recomends playing loud. If I play my way they are always like 'why are you so shy...play louder...hit it well...'

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I was told at a young age by my Uncle who is a pro-player "why play so hard, let the instrument do all the work. you ruin tone/and ware yourself out!" He was right.

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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I used to practice 'softly' on my mandolin years ago,but i found that i was playing 'softly' in a jamming situation. I was demoing my Weber to a mandolin playing friend of mine (who owns a Paganoni F5) at a UK Bluegrass festival, & he asked me why i was playing so softly !. That's when i quit playing softly & really,it's not hard to play 'harder'. However,i get most of my picking power from my fingers,not my wrist. Having played banjo for 54 years has given me strong right hand fingers & i use that to pick 'harder',
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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Stevo75 View Post
    I've heard it put this way:

    1) Tone
    2) Volume
    3) Speed

    You get to choose two.
    Speed is an ambiguous thing: to play a tune faster, so that the tune is over in less time, can be done two ways:
    A - pick exactly the same notes, only faster
    B - pick the same number of notes per minute but leave unimportant notes out

    With Plan A you come to ruin the tone eventually by crowding time with pick noise, of course.
    Plan B is the way to go. The hard part is figuring out which notes are unimportant, but you get used to it.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    The thing I've found as a beginner, playing softer so I don't subject others to my bad playing, is that I don't always play through both of the strings, so I've had to start focusing on my pick strokes a lot more to resolve the habit.

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    playing softer is usually playing with less tension in hands and fingers
    playing with less tension is what helps me to play both louder and faster

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    Registered User grassrootphilosopher's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by HonketyHank View Post
    I have recently noticed that if I play a tune at low volume, I can play faster and with fewer finger-fumbles. I also observe that my left hand finger pressure is much lower. All this seems to make playing a tune a much more pleasant experience. I think the key is finger pressure. Is that right? If so, why can I not force myself to use less finger pressure when playing loudly (or at least not softly)? When I watch good players playing fast and loud, it looks like they are barely laying their fingers onto to the fretboard. Me, well, it feels like I am trying to push the strings through the back of the neck, even though I can indeed play with that easy low-pressure fretting technique (but only at soft volume).

    Is there any help for me other than a psychiatrist? Any exercises, tips, drills? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?
    Yes, you lighten your touch, and you will be able to gain speed and will be able to play cleaner. Yet the answer is not all that easy.

    You have to consider what Stevo75 said:

    Quote Originally Posted by Stevo75 View Post
    I've heard it put this way:

    1) Tone
    2) Volume
    3) Speed

    You get to choose two.
    It takes a certain amount of power to get a good tone. I played a festival that had a group that had a very nice sound. They played clean and (sometimes very) fast. At a jam (one impromptu at a music store and one later at a private home where we all stayed) we played unamplified of course. All of the musicians in said group played so quietly! I was flabbergasted! And what bad tone this caused. They traded off good tone and (!) volume to speed. That was an experience I´ll never forget. It taught me that you indeed have to work on tone, volume and speed.

    Another factor that is important has been noted by William:

    Quote Originally Posted by bluegrasser78 View Post
    I was told at a young age by my Uncle who is a pro-player "why play so hard, let the instrument do all the work. you ruin tone/and ware yourself out!" He was right.
    What does this quote say? It refers to the quality of the players instrument. You can not make a silk purse out of a sow´s ear. An inferior instrument does not have the tone, the carrying power and is therefore limited in its playability.

    And herein lies one of the most overlooked stumbling blocks of playing with others.

    I know so many people thathave instruments of a certain quality (take 80ies Martin D-28 guitars, Eastman mandolins, late 70ies Gibson Banjos etc.) - in order to gain tone - try to play as loud as they can. That will lead to super loud music. Yet there is no tone quality in this kind of music. Also the musical dexterity of the players is limited.

    If you play with such musicians and you´ll try to bring them to accept the quality of their instrument (there´s nothing wrong with owning the quoted instruments; they are good in their own right; you´ll just have to take them for what they are) you´ll have a sorry time to get it right.

    The better the instrument, the easier you can play, the better your playing will sound, the better the sound carries. I am allways astonished to notice this over and over again when I play my first good guitar (1990 Martin D-16M) as opposed to my Banner Southerner Jumbo. The Martin is a good guitar. I sound good playing it (and knowing it intimately). But I sound like a milion bucks on the old Gibson.

    So what´s the conclusion?

    To me it is,
    - get to know your instrument well, its qualities and drawbacks
    - do not overplay your instrument
    - try to get the best tone
    - don´t be reluctant to play with authority
    - don´t overintelectualize your playing (you can only play what you can hear).
    Olaf

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  30. #22
    Orrig Onion HonketyHank's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Wilson View Post
    playing softer is usually playing with less tension in hands and fingers
    playing with less tension is what helps me to play both louder and faster
    I think this is exactly what I am experiencing and hoping, in a nutshell.
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Thanks for the great insights expressed in all the responses above.
    New to mando? Click this link -->Newbies to join us at the Newbies Social Group.

    Just send an email to rob.meldrum@gmail.com with "mandolin setup" in the subject line and he will email you a copy of his ebook for free (free to all mandolincafe members).

  32. #24
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Truth .... in going for volume tone timing and taste are often lost. A better mic or transducer preamp combination is a good investment in your music. Also technique work and exercises never stop being part of the process. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

  33. #25

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Hank, I am in the same boat as you. What really opened my eyes was when I realized that my right hand was moving with my left hand on a particularly tricky string crossing on an Irish tune. When taking the speed up, I realized that my right hand would move up towards the neck when I moved the left hand up toward the nut on this one passage. When playing slower, the tension wasn't there, and the link between left and right hand wasn't as pronounced.

    As suggested above, exercises to train the brain to operate the hands independently are what will help fix this problem. Particularly with the finger pressure, turn that into an exercise. Note if there is a particular hand position that exacerbates this. For me, its positions like XX52 or X52X. What is funny is 52xx doesn't seem to have the finger pressure problem like the other two, and my frets show it, my A and E strings, first 4 frets.

    Playing softer won't help the finger pressure problem, if you are simply fretting softer while playing softer, if the hands are still linked. Practicing fretting with just enough pressure to get a good tone, while playing soft and loud will help to solve this.
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