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Thread: Play softer, play better?

  1. #26
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Lots of important stuff being brought out in this thread! Yes, volume and tone are coupled, and you don't usually get optimal tone at low volume. Greater volume is also desirable when playing with others in acoustic sessions, jams, or ensembles. Learning to play with decent volume -- and at full tempo, no less! -- is an important skill to master, but not necessarily an easy one. Finally, playing with electrical amplification can make you sound louder, but it does not equate to playing louder acoustically: these are very different things (see above, about the coupling of tone an volume). Tension in the hand and arm is the great enemy, restricting both speed and volume, and adversely affecting tone.

    Finally, be sure to practice as you intend to perform, at least from time to time, to keep from building up bad habits.

  2. #27
    music with whales Jim Nollman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    If you are playing an F hole instrument, it's always worthwhile to have someone else play your mandolin while you listen. That's because the instrument's tone doesn't really focus until 6 or 8 feet out. How often do we hear inexperienced mandolin players picking way too loud on their instruments because they don't understand or trust how the sound projects. In general, a better sounding mandolin takes less muscle to sound loud and clear.
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  3. #28
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    ... How often do we hear inexperienced mandolin players picking way too loud on their instruments because they don't understand or trust how the sound projects. ...
    HUH?!? No way! In the acoustic jams that I frequent, the mandolin players -- regardless of their level of experience -- are usually struggling to be heard, and I have NEVER heard anyone tell them that that are "picking way too loud." Not if there are any fiddles or banjos in the same jam, that is. Both of these instruments are significantly louder than a mandolin. That applies equally to mandolins with ff-holes and with oval holes. Mandolin players rarely have to worry about playing too loud!

    Of course, if they're inexperienced players and hitting the wrong notes, or playing at the wrong times or with the wrong rhythms, that will surely get noticed, and all the more so if they're trying to pick loudly.

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  5. #29

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    HUH?!? No way! In the acoustic jams that I frequent, the mandolin players -- regardless of their level of experience -- are usually struggling to be heard, and I have NEVER heard anyone tell them that that are "picking way too loud." Not if there are any fiddles or banjos in the same jam, that is. Both of these instruments are significantly louder than a mandolin.
    I have told 2 other mandolin players that their noodling over singers and practicing a break over another player is too loud and rude.

    Obviously, ymmv
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    I have told 2 other mandolin players that their noodling over singers and practicing a break over another player is too loud and rude.

    Obviously, ymmv
    Yes, but the problem here -- and it is a problem -- is not that these folks are playing the mandolin too loudly: the problem is with what they're playing on the mandolin, and that they are playing at all during times when they should either be silent or playing backup. I agree that it's rude to play over someone else's solo break (that's why they call it "solo"!) or against a singer. The first is pretty darned obvious. The latter is more of a judgement call, since it's not unusual in bluegrass circles to play fill-in licks during the vocal parts. But you don't tromp directly on the vocals.

    This is not a loudness problem. It's a timing problem -- and a matter of musical etiquette.

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  8. #31
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    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.
    Well, the thing to remember is that you don't achieve volume by playing "hard". Largely it's a matter of pick direction, playing into the plane of the strings rather than away from it; the late John McGann used to preach that sermon. And there's a way of placing the pick between your thumb and index finger that makes a tense grip all but impossible.

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  10. #32

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    for me, it's a matter of playability that's most important, which is mostly a matter of string action and its tension. then comes tone/sound, which is mostly my brain and fingers and then the box acoustics itself. acoustic volume/output depends on a number of things that can all be greatly modified by amplifying the sound via transducers or mics or both. as such, ej73's offer me a lighter fretting touch and faster playing over ej74's, but with less acoustic volume, which only matters to me if amplification is part of the equation, or not.
    Oh mandolin, "subjective" is thy nickname!

  11. #33
    Registered User Manfred Hacker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Same problems here. Clean playing sacrificed to speed and volume in jams.
    Strangely enough, a lot of people quiet down, whenever a guitar player starts a break, but they never do that for mandolins, :-((
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  12. #34

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Y'know the way David Grisman plays loud, fast and clean?
    That's because he's David Grisman.

  13. #35
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Yeah,,I hear people like Sam Bush,Marty Stewart,Chris Henry,etc. .they take it real easy on their mandolins.....

  14. #36
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Nollman View Post
    How often do we hear inexperienced mandolin players picking way too loud on their instruments because they don't understand or trust how the sound projects. In general, a better sounding mandolin takes less muscle to sound loud and clear.
    Quote Originally Posted by sblock View Post
    HUH?!? No way! In the acoustic jams that I frequent, the mandolin players -- regardless of their level of experience -- are usually struggling to be heard, and I have NEVER heard anyone tell them that that are "picking way too loud." Not if there are any fiddles or banjos in the same jam, that is. Both of these instruments are significantly louder than a mandolin. That applies equally to mandolins with ff-holes and with oval holes. Mandolin players rarely have to worry about playing too loud!
    I beg to differ a bit. Well in my recent experience, I see this more and more.

    With the more inexperienced mandolin players playing melody I hear many playing softly, so as not to be heard. Hoping to "get it" before they play loud enough to be heard.

    With inexperienced mandolin players primarily interested in chords and rhythm, I hear some folks pushing real hard, playing the thing beyond where it has a pleasing tone. Most mandolins can play really loud if you wang on them. So when someone suggests they play softer there is a two fold reason, well three... One, they are too loud. Two their tone is terrible an irritating from pushing so hard, and three, they are not listening.

    Now, mind you, these are not bluegrass jams particularly. So there may be something different in a bluegrass setting.
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  15. #37

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quite jeff. A jam is just a bunch of drummers asserting themselves more and less, with the additional feature of a little harmony and melody. If you have sensitivities wrt meter and pitch, a jam can indeed be more wang than want.

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  17. #38
    Innocent Bystander JeffD's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by catmandu2 View Post
    If you have sensitivities wrt meter and pitch, a jam can indeed be more wang than want.
    Often the case unfortunately.
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  18. #39

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by JeffD View Post
    I beg to differ a bit. Well in my recent experience, I see this more and more.

    With the more inexperienced mandolin players playing melody I hear many playing softly, so as not to be heard. Hoping to "get it" before they play loud enough to be heard.

    With inexperienced mandolin players primarily interested in chords and rhythm, I hear some folks pushing real hard, playing the thing beyond where it has a pleasing tone. Most mandolins can play really loud if you wang on them. So when someone suggests they play softer there is a two fold reason, well three... One, they are too loud. Two their tone is terrible an irritating from pushing so hard, and three, they are not listening.

    Now, mind you, these are not bluegrass jams particularly. So there may be something different in a bluegrass setting.

    IME, most significant is their, and/or the group's, tempo is too fast for them to play with good time (and feel, but time); ime, timing breaks down quickly, whereas a person may be able to hold the 'notes' together, etc. I can tolerate and learn to love all kinds of tonal/noisy things, but arrhythmia, eesh.

    *I don't think I can recall a time when someone was ever asked to play softer because of tonal aspects, or the quality of a voice/instrument - other than too much volume, poor note selection, (or bad time).
    Last edited by catmandu2; Nov-16-2017 at 1:41pm.

  19. #40

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I have tried everything I can think of to play loud and it just isn't going to happen. I know a lady fiddle player who has the same issue. I've observed that even though she plays very quietly, people respect her enough to listen. In other words, a quiet player who is good will command enough respect from the rest of the group to stop whacking away so damn loud on their own instruments to listen, gosh darn it. So now I try to achieve that instead of loudness, which I'll never achieve.

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  21. #41
    Mandolin Friendly Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Often, it seems to me, the OP and I seem to be on similar tracks in the musical journey, and this is a good example. By that, I mean that I've experienced recently in about the same time frame what the OP expressed in the first post. I think several signals brought me to that point. Mainly, it was in practicing to use a lighter touch at the frets and practicing more economy of motion in the left hand fingers. I found that playing a bit more softly began to sound pretty awesome, and achieving a higher degree of "musicality" in my playing was possible.

    That reminded me of other "signals" I'd gotten - like remembering an interview I'd heard recently; someone had said they'd been at festival and encountered Chris Thile sitting in a corner somewhere practicing and playing very quietly in the hour before he went to the stage to rip out a set. And like videos I've seen of mandolin virtuosos playing solo sets using a wide range of dynamics in their playing.

    What it means for me in my own playing is that practicing playing softly in order to focus on aspects of my left hand technique is helpful in more ways than I can catalogue. I doubt that it hurts my ability to play hard at all. I've been banging out rhythm guitar for many years, and when I'm accompanying my singing, or "performing" for others, the tendency is more often to play harder than maybe necessary.

    I've read this thread with interest since the initial post, a lot of great thoughts. Some of my own thoughts are that if playing more softly allows you more accuracy and helps to get more control of the nuances involved in dynamics and musicality - those things to me are more important than worrying about being heard in a jam setting. There are again, too many reasons for this to catalogue here, but I'll mention a few. For one, you never know what you're going to get at a jam. Could be a room full of people many of whom have come only to hear themselves, who play too loudly anyway, and with whom there is no point competing. For another, if in a jam there is anyone in the room who cares so little about what you're playing in a solo that they can't listen and adjust, that should be of little consequence in the moment; after all, it's only a jam. If your playing is really just too soft to be reasonably heard, then that's something you should work on - or, perhaps you should be focused on building an ensemble of like-minded players instead of wasting time with jams where you don't fit.

    If you really want to be heard using a wide range of dynamics in your playing, using a condenser mic with amp/p.a. and working with an ensemble will always be a better goal than playing in an open jam I would think. Something to consider at the very least.

    That's kind of where I think I'm headed with it, anyway.
    Last edited by Mark Gunter; Nov-18-2017 at 4:09pm. Reason: the usual spelling errors
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Another thing besides tension that I haven't seen mentioned here is exaggerated hand and finger movement. When I play softly, I am moving my fingers less, and sometimes with increase in volume can also come inadvertent too-larger motions in the hands and fingers, which in turn can hinder speed. I find this to be more of an issue with my right hand (my pick flailing all over the place), but for some players, "flying finger" syndrome in the left hand may also be an unwitting by-product of attempting to play louder. I try to make a conscious effort to make my hand motions remain small while incrementally increasing my volume - sometimes easier said than done.

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    I have a heavy hand an action adjustments for that purpose. Big old-time jams and a few blisters to go along with it too!

    When I began working on classical duets (and now) I lowered the action, which in turn required a lighter touch (i.e., to avoid string buzz). So, the touch goes with the setup to some degree. Thile comes to mind.

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  24. #44
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by fatt-dad View Post
    I have a heavy hand an action adjustments for that purpose. Big old-time jams and a few blisters to go along with it too!

    When I began working on classical duets (and now) I lowered the action, which in turn required a lighter touch (i.e., to avoid string buzz). So, the touch goes with the setup to some degree. Thile comes to mind.
    Yeah, all of this is very situational. I try to play with full dynamics when practicing alone at home, when playing along with my fiddler S.O. at home, and in small gatherings. I was at a house session last week playing Irish trad with two fiddlers and a concertina player. That's just about ideal, for mandolin. I can play with full dynamic range in a group that small, the same way I do at home.

    Over the weekend though, I was in a larger Scottish/Irish session with 5 fiddlers, one guitar, and a piper using reelpipes (sort of halfway in volume between smallpipes and border pipes). I was hitting it pretty hard to keep up in volume. There are no dynamics in pipe music anyway, due to the nature of the beast. So at least on the pipe tunes, there was nothing lost by whacking the strings in a way that I wouldn't otherwise, when playing solo or in a smaller group.

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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Early in my musical adventure playing out meant either busking or playing in restaurants with no sound system. When I finally got to use mics , in the 70's, I was pounding out 'grass rhythms on a D28 into a Peavey mic that couldn't be turned up because it would feed back. When I bought my own sound equipment I discovered all mics are not created equal. I could play gently with more finesse and it was a real game changer. I still "fight" my early experience and have to remind myself not to pound on my instruments. R/
    I love hanging out with mandolin nerds . . . . . Thanks peeps ...

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    Registered User T.D.Nydn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Less isn't more,,,less is less and more is more...

  27. #47
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by T.D.Nydn View Post
    Less isn't more,,,less is less and more is more...
    Just as long as you never say less of what is supposed to be more of what, both versions are just words afloat in the air...
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  28. #48
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bertram Henze View Post
    Just as long as you never say less of what is supposed to be more of what, both versions are just words afloat in the air...
    I think T.D. was referring to just words afloat in the air, Bertram.

    l+e+s+s = "less";
    m+o+r+e = "more";
    l+e+s+s != "more";

    With no context, what else could it mean?
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  29. #49
    Registered User Don Julin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    Seems like the original post was talking about a heavy left hand grip vs. a lighter touch. As mentioned a good setup is key but some basic understanding of proper left and right hand technique goes a long way. Many beginners hold the mandolin too close to their body, forcing them to use only finger muscles and not allowing them to take advantage of muscles in their arms. Others hold the pick incorrectly or do not follow through with a solid pick stroke, in effect only picking one of the pairs of strings resulting in a week sound. They then think they need to pick harder. Here is a very basic video that help some beginners get a stronger tone from the mandolin. Once you are getting a solid strong tone, you will find that it is easy to play with a large dynamic range.

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  31. #50

    Default Re: Play softer, play better?

    heavy fretting finger pressure can make notes/chords go sharp - worse yet with taller than usual frets.

    IMO, there is no "correct" way to play a mandolin. "better" technique may improve part of the process, yet do injustice to another process aspect. no two players will play precisely carbon copy alike, with precisely the same technique. this is a good thing, in the long run. no matter what technique is employed, or how efficient or inefficient it may be perceived by anyone, the sonic results is all that should matter.
    Oh mandolin, "subjective" is thy nickname!

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