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Thread: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

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    Registered User mikeyes's Avatar
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    Default What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    When I took Mick Moloney's class mandolin last year at the O'Flaherty Retreat in Texas, he mentioned that the mandolin had one advantage over all other instruments: the ability to make a large chordal sound that emphasizes the lift and can be heard. Otherwise, he pointed out, the notes can get lost in a big session. He illustrated this with one of Tom Cussen's mandolins which was not particularly loud note for note but did have a big chord voice.
    Mick suggested that in a session you could use that to your advantage not as a backup instrument but as a technique to add to the richness of the session and to make sure that you hear yourself.
    I have videos which I will post later, but I was wondering if anyone else had any techniques to assure volume or to make sure you can be heard or at least hear yourself in a session (as opposed to stage or quiet playing.)

    Mike Keyes

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    I too found out that you can make yourself heard by picking more than one course at a time. Picking? Erhhh... no, banging is the word. It comes at a price, of course: you have to leave most of your intricate fiddle-style ornaments behind.
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    Registered User James Rankine's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    I only take mandolin to sessions now when I'm travelling as it is my portable music companion. Like many I lost the volume battle in local big sessions and succumbed to the charms of the tenor banjo.
    The mandolin is actually much more versatile than the tenor banjo when you are walking into a session and don't know what to expect. A lot of sessions that are advertised abroad as "Irish" are general song sessions and I've done enough mandolin and bouzouki chord playing to be able to play by ear. You can be a welcome change from the hoards of guitar players. If it is a more recognisable trad session I can lead a few sets - that's not usually a problem volume wise as people usually respect and follow the person leading the set - it's the 80% of the time when your not leading a set that's the problem. The rest of the time I will amuse myself playing the lower 3 strings like a bouzouki - I don't think I add anything, I'm more concerned not to disrupt, but then I think most sessions can cope well without any accompaniment (I only play the bouzouki when I'm guaranteed to be the only accompanist - which in practice means with a Ceilidh band).

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    I use double-stops and partial chords mixed into the melody line here and there, but it's just part of my general approach. Moloney is right: the ability to use harmony (or what I'd call partial or implied harmony) is the one unique feature the mandolin brings to the music. Well, aside from the regulators on Uilleann pipes, but that's a special case. It's one reason I haven't gone to a tenor banjo just for the volume.

    I'm not sure it's a path to being louder, though. There is only so much you can do with a mandolin. Being heard is basically a function of what you're up against in session size/volume, the innate qualities of your specific instrument, and whatever picking technique you use to draw out the volume. I probably hit the strings a little harder in a big session than I do playing alone at home, but obviously that only works up to a point before it starts slowing you down.

    As for those partial chords mixed in the melody... I have to be careful about that. I don't want to clash too much with a chord choice made by a guitar player. Or worse, an implied chord in the melody line. So it's mainly double-stops, partial chords, and dyads ("power chords" with no 3rds), depending on the tune. And not too much of that, since the most important thing is to be right there on the rhythm pulse of the single-note melody line with the rest of the group.

    There are a few special cases I'll avoid, like a full or partial C chord in a D mixolydian tune. I'll do that at home, but not in a session where there are flute or whistle players, or pipers. They will tend to play a C natural on the sharp side of equal temperament, sometimes called a "C supernatural" or "Piper's C". If I play a standard first position C chord under that on mandolin, it can sound pretty sour. There are tunes in other modes that play games with a constantly shifting C nat and C#, so you have to be careful where you decide to emphasize one or the other with harmony.

    Use your ears and listen for whether it's working or not. Keep your chords subtle, occasional, and not too big and obnoxious. Leave that to the guitar bashers at the session.

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    Registered User James Rankine's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post


    There are a few special cases I'll avoid, like a full or partial C chord in a D mixolydian tune. I'll do that at home, but not in a session where there are flute or whistle players, or pipers. They will tend to play a C natural on the sharp side of equal temperament,

    Yikes -must be some good musicians in your session if that's your only problem. Given the intonation issues of some of the fiddlers in our session you could practically accompany in a different key and nobody would notice (I hope they're not reading this )

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    Registered User mikeyes's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Here is a long youtube video that shows some of the chordal techniques from Mick.



    Mike Keyes

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Quote Originally Posted by James Rankine View Post
    Yikes -must be some good musicians in your session if that's your only problem. Given the intonation issues of some of the fiddlers in our session you could practically accompany in a different key and nobody would notice (I hope they're not reading this )
    Oh, there are plenty of other problems in that session, no worries.

    One thing I forgot to mention as an occasional method to be heard is kicking down the tune an octave, if it's in a key/mode that allows it. This lets the mandolin be heard more clearly underneath the range of the fiddles, flutes, and pipes.

    Playing the whole tune this way usually only works if it's in A or A mix, where the tune sits on the top two strings, with room to transpose down and play on the lower strings. Can't do it all the time, but it's a good trick for playing with Scottish smallpipes (and similar), since so much of their repertoire is in A mix. Sometimes it's possible with tunes in other keys, where you can kick just the B part down an octave.

    Of course the logical extension of that idea is just to play an octave mandolin. I've tried it, but I can't play with the same speed and fluency on the OM that I can on mandolin. It's hard enough to keep up with the fiddlers as it is. A guitar player strumming chords will also tend to buy an OM playing a melody line because the pitch range is similar. So it works best when there are no guitars (and how often does THAT happen?). For some reason -- maybe the smaller body? -- a mandolin playing transposed down an octave doesn't get buried as much by the guitar.

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    Registered User Randi Gormley's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    At least the one relatively loud session I attend, there are two other mandolins. So we sit next to each other and our combined voice can pretty much cut through anything but a couple of boxes! So that's always an option (although only a semi-serious one).
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    One good reason for voicing chords alongside your melody is that the extra power on the picking hand that you (I mean, I) unconsciously use in a noisy session makes you (I mean, I) more prone to hitting "wrong" strings, so at least you'll (I mean, I'll) hit one that harmonises. Or drones if you prefer that sound.

    Sitting next to other mandolinists is also a good plan - the shared resonance has an amplifying effect.
    I try to pick a resonant wood-panelled corner to sit in too, if that's an option.
    And sit a little higher than the other instruments if that's an option.

    However, it's nice to play clean single-string melody at times too. All that thrash gets a bit tiring to the ears as well as to the hands.
    Bren

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    Registered User Paul Cowham's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    One technique which works well on the mando and which Dagger Gordon was pushing at a feis that I went to a few years ago (thanks Dagger ) is exploiting open strings when playing tunes. Most session tunes are in keys that you can use open strings (D, A, G, Am, Em etc) so it is easy if you know the tune to add in open strings (or other fretted notes that are in the chord) when playing the tune.

    I also like the mando on slow tunes (tremollo) and playing along to songs too. A very versatile instrument....

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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    I tend to use a lot of double-stops and partial chords. I use open d and g strings as an octave drone whenever possible (like on the first beat of Kesh). I often try to let the open strings sound as long possible while fretting other strings, creating an almost harp-like sound. I tend to opt for all this moreso than doing triplets, as I feel the mandolin can do so much more than just emulate banjo ornaments.

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    Smile Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    when there are no guitars .
    Ha ha.

    A friend shared a video on Facebook recently of me playing at a noisy pub session.

    I don't recall even being able to hear myself at the time so could have been playing mince as far as I knew. What is surprising, amid the thumping drums and strumming guitars, is that you can hear the mandolin quite clearly. Maybe the phone mic was pointed directly at the mandolin?

    It's a good reminder that mandolin sound can be quite directional.

    If I can figure out how to, I'll try to post it. It's quite a contrast to the lovely quiet room Mick Moloney is playing in, but I'm sure many of you will recognise the situation.
    Bren

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    Registered User liestman's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Mike, I definitely use Mick's technique (but I learned much of what I know from him in the 80s so it makes sense). That is why I like an oval mandolin with a really strong, booming low end. I also like to use ornaments rhythmic differences from what the others are playing, to stand out from the crowd. Thanks for sharing the video - I didn't get to take his class!
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    Registered User BBarton's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Thanks for sharing the video in this forum, Mike -- I'm sure folks will find it useful. I really enjoyed Mick's class a lot, and have been trying to pass along to my "students" the idea of incorporating chords and use of open strings in their playing. They're both fiddlers and not really used to doing that.
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    Registered User Ausdoerrt's Avatar
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bren View Post
    Ha ha.

    A friend shared a video on Facebook recently of me playing at a noisy pub session.

    I don't recall even being able to hear myself at the time so could have been playing mince as far as I knew. What is surprising, amid the thumping drums and strumming guitars, is that you can hear the mandolin quite clearly. Maybe the phone mic was pointed directly at the mandolin?

    It's a good reminder that mandolin sound can be quite directional.

    If I can figure out how to, I'll try to post it. It's quite a contrast to the lovely quiet room Mick Moloney is playing in, but I'm sure many of you will recognise the situation.
    Hah! Indeed, hearing yourself playing the mandolin is quite a privilege and a rare occasion)

    I had a similar occurence at a recent concert (played in a fairly large hall with a tall ceiling), where I could swear I was barely heard among our three-man band, only to have someone tell me later that it was actually the mandolin drowning out the flute! Imagine that!
    -------------------------

    As for the subject, I think that technique fits in some cases more so than in others, and is best used judiciously. I play an f-hole mando most of the time, so harmonizing like that can make a lot of the tunes sound too "bluegrassy", which isn't always the intention, though it can lead to hilarious results.
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    Default Re: What Techniques Do You Use In A session?

    Quote Originally Posted by Bren View Post
    ... I don't recall even being able to hear myself at the time ... What is surprising, amid the thumping drums and strumming guitars, is that you can hear the mandolin quite clearly ...
    I've had a similar experience recording rehearsals with a non-trad outfit, with acoustic (or low-level electric) guitar, slightly amplified vocals, keyboards and/or bass. When positioning the mic for the best balance, we always found that the mandolin had to be the furthest away so as not to dominate - yet I cannot imagine a live acoustic situation where the mandolin dominates (except perhaps playing chop chords or strumming, which I don't do as a rule). I imagine it is partly down to a difference in the way the ear and brain interpret sounds from a single (or double, if stereo) source (i.e. speaker or headphones) as opposed to multiple sources; perhaps whatt we 'hear' is also influenced other senses (sight and touch) when listening to live music.

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