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Thread: The “Intermediate “ problem

  1. #1
    Registered User Cochiti Don's Avatar
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    Default The “Intermediate “ problem

    I’ve found myself stuck in the intermediate phase of my mando playing. I think it’s a problem for teachers as well as students. They know how to teach a beginner, and advance students are a dream. I know I’m not a beginner. I can chop in most keys, pick out most classic tunes like Whiskey before breakfast, etc. what I can’t do is play a decent break.
    This became clear when I went to the bluegrass camp in Texas. Intermediate students were in the advanced classes. It was challenging. I found myself having to constantly tread water instead of swimming. When I joined the numerous jams each day, all I could do was pick out the tune when I came to be my turn to break, and it was always too fast for me. The slow jams for beginners were too beginner.
    I don’t know if I’m by myself in this situation.
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  2. #2
    Gummy Bears and Scotch BrianWilliam's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    It probably wasn’t the most fun to be on the bottom end of the advanced group. But, I bet that spot is where you learn the most. Keep at it!

  3. #3
    Registered User jdchapman's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Been in this stage for twenty years. But I'm a little better every year.

    I suspect that if I ever had the time and discipline to play five hours a day, with people who were better than me, it might change more quickly.

  4. #4
    Registered User Ranald's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I'm with you, Don, though I have learned to play breaks a bit. Because of my focus on blues, after a while it started coming naturally. I find, as you say, that many teachers aren't great with adult learners who are neither beginners nor geniuses. I've had this experience with both fiddle and mandolin. Many music teachers have not been trained as teachers, and often don't understand such concepts as different learning styles. In fact, many teachers (not just music teachers) teach as they've been taught without giving much thought to their approach. After all, the way they were taught worked for them. If a teacher is explaining to me some concept like minor scales or arpeggio notes, and I already understand the concept, they sometimes assume that I know a great deal more than I do (e.g., they think I can easily play minor scales). One of my main problems with fiddling was getting my speed up, but my teachers generally didn't understand that teaching me how to play well slowly didn't get my speed up. Eventually, I bought Gordon Stobbe's DVD on bowing, which helped me considerably.
    (for fiddlers:

    A few things that have helped me with soloing: getting my teacher to play melody or chords while I attempted to solo. On hearing what I was doing, the teacher could usually give suggestions. Playing by ear along with recorded music, trying to do on mandolin or fiddle what others are doing on guitar, trumpet, piano, or whatever. Using various teaching resources (books, CD's, DVD's) that specifically teach how to solo. The quality varies and they often teach specific solos rather than how to solo, but once you master a few of the solos, you get a sense of how they work. They tend to also teach techniques like using arpeggio notes or going up and down the scale, which may not be terribly creative, but work in a session. Finally, there are background tracks available commercially, in which you can play lead.
    I too am intermediate. I agree there's nothing more frustrating than paying out your hard-earned money for a camp or workshop where you have the choice of a group learning Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star or one learning the behind-your-back version of Orange Blossom Special.
    Good luck and keep at it,
    Last edited by Ranald; Aug-19-2018 at 9:53am.
    Robert Johnson's mother, describing blues musicians:
    "I never did have no trouble with him until he got big enough to be round with bigger boys and off from home. Then he used to follow all these harp blowers, mandoleen (sic) and guitar players."
    Lomax, Alan, The Land where The Blues Began, NY: Pantheon, 1993, p.14.

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Nothing wrong with treading water. Even after you started to swim, you'll still look funny to a fish.
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I’m in the same boat with Don. I believe that my issue is that I don’t jam enough to get used to playing along with others at a speed that is different than I normally play at as well as switching from chopping to note picking on the fly. Especially if there are multiple mandolins playing the break-ack! Although the same has happened at Irish sessions too where it’s all melody playing. I believe the answer to be to jam more and put your ego in your pocket and forge ahead...... just this hack’s $.02.
    Last edited by Mike Scott; Aug-19-2018 at 9:31am. Reason: Typo

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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Quote Originally Posted by Cochiti Don View Post
    I can chop in most keys, pick out most classic tunes like Whiskey before breakfast, etc. what I can’t do is play a decent break.
    I’ve gotten a lot out of two resources. The Bluegrass Workout books that Steve Kaufmann did for Homespun give dozens of commonly played tunes with music and tab, along with cd’s that offer each tune played at a moderate pace and then at a fast pace. In each version (moderate and fast) Kaufmann plays the tune on the first run through exactly as written in the book, and then drops out for the next two rounds, letting you play solo with the rhythm track. I use the first round to solidify my grasp on the tune and the next two rounds to come up with variations. I rarely use the fast versions, except for speed practice on tunes that I really well. All of my learning comes from the moderate versions.

    The second resource is YouTube. You can play most videos at 1/2-speed or 3/4-speed, which is super helpful for working stuff out. I use that to develop fills and breaks for songs, rather than instrumentals, though. I try to avoid live performances, because I get distracted by the visuals. I use the recorded version of songs whenever possible.
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  11. #8
    Struggle Monkey B381's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    You can speed it up and slow it down, lots of choices. It's helping me.

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    Registered User Darren Bailey's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Hey Don, there are a stack of bluegrass backing tracks for free on Youtube which are great to sharpen your improvisation skills on. Even the tracks intended for specific tunes can be great for jamming with - especially if you don't know the original tune.
    As a guitarist I always fell back on pentatonics which allow you to get away with a lot, though producing nothing great (at least in my case). But on mandolin I've found full scales are much easier to incorporate for some reason, which add a richer sound and allow more variation instead of the same old licks.
    One other thing I found useful was getting a friend (or son!) to play a chord pattern over which you improvise. Doing this builds up a lot of confidence and as a result I once got invited to play with a guitarist on stage at a local folk festival on two of his songs which I'd never heard before (after my son and i had played our twenty minutes) and it sounded good enough for him to invite me to go record with him in his little studio.
    My experience has been that the more you do it the easier it gets - no surprises there!

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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Do you play other instruments? Do you have some basic recording gear? A looper?

    Pick a common I IV V progression and lay down some basic backing tracks. Recording software can be set to loop over and over. That is what a looper does. Then play over the chords to find out what sounds good. Start with the melody, then play some notes in between, then wander away from the melody. Pay attention to the chords and work some arpeggios in. Stop the loop now and then and work out some scale double stops. Build some licks a lick at a time.

    I notice guys that can improvise get themselves in a musical bind, but they have some stock licks to get themselves back on track. Just as things are falling apart, along comes a run that takes them to the next chord change. Vary six or eight of those and people think you know what you are doing. Is ok to keep things simple. Baby steps.

    But the key and the hardest part is to play with better musicians. Ideally be the worst musician in a band, but good enough not to get fired. I started with a rhythm guitar part to Wildwood Flower, then added chop chords, then a bass guitar part. Voila, a band that never stops.
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    Registered User Jill McAuley's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    There is a great app for smartphones/tablets called "Loop2Learn", which allows you to both slow down and loop parts of YouTube videos. I was one of the beta testers for it and I found it very useful.
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Thanks, Jill. That's exactly what I've been looking for. Just downloaded it and it's quite inexpensive. While I'm here, let me say that I've really enjoyed the videos of yours that I've seen! You're a great player.

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  21. #13
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I imagine it's a global issue for intermediate pickers who know how to play but are not up to the demands of dance speeds. And you don't fit in with either group. At five year mark I'm dealing with these issues but am finding help revisiting the fundamentals that I 'sort of learned' going along at slower speeds.

    After an honest assessment this past spring - I felt I needed:
    A better right hand (more efficient, faster and cleaner with less tension)
    A better, more instant, recall of the fingerboard and scales. (to enable improvising at increased speeds)

    I'm sure there will be other things I revisit to learn correctly but these are the two I chose for now. Just working on the right hand has my easy speed up almost 10 bpm (2/4 time)

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  23. #14

    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    First time I picked up a mandolin I was already in my 40's. But I have way more excuses for not playing well.

    Sure has been a 25-year blessing for me to have found the mandolin and keep plinking at it.

    I seem to gravitate to slow jammers. There are different levels of slow jams.

    Missing the cool dry air of Norte Nuevo Mejico and the general Ft.Stinkindesert(B.Bussman) area as well.

  24. #15
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I find that keeping up with the chord progression helps a lot. Find those sweet spots in the chord position and fake out a solo when you get in a bind. Learn where the major pentatonic is in each chord shape and you are golden.
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  25. #16

    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Playing with others is the only way (IMHO) to get out of this stage. Go to jams, play with friends, join a some ensembles if there is a community music school near you, etc.
    There's nothing better than first-hand experience.

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  27. #17
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandobar View Post
    Playing with others is the only way (IMHO) to get out of this stage. Go to jams, play with friends, join a some ensembles if there is a community music school near you, etc.
    Yes, if you are at intermediate level then it's that interaction with other's that is so challenging and rewarding and offers you the motivation to grow. Playing with others is where you discover where you fit in and what you need to do to make the music happen, it's not work, it's fun.

  28. #18
    Registered User Louise NM's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    Beginners all need to learn the same set of skills, the advanced players are ready to get going with whatever you throw at them, but there's all sorts of intermediates. At a camp or workshop, the intermediate group will include folks just past the beginner stage and people really ready for the advanced class. You'll have ex-guitarists who have picking hands to die for, you'll have people with great rhythm and people with terrible rhythm, people all across the spectrum of understanding theory and chord structure.

    It's challenging for a private teacher to help you put the pieces together. At a camp, probably the biggest challenge is sorting people into groups that will play nicely together, and not run with scissors! You were in the unenviable position, it sounds, of not really having many peers. You did the right thing, though, by trying to keep up with the big dogs. Exhausting, not always a lot of fun at the time, but you do learn a lot, including figuring out what it is you need to learn.

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  30. #19
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I agree with many of the sentiments posted, I feel like if it was easy to get over the intermediate hurdle there would be a heck of a lot more professional mando players out there!

    I find if I really know a song, I can do a lot with just a metronome and jumping back and forth between the cords and the lead part. If I really know the lead part, I can drop in and out of improvision and the lead while the metronome keeps me in time. You don’t have the chord changes but I keep a metronome in my case so I can work on this anywhere... These days though with apps and a set of earphones you can have the real deal without too much effort, so I guess the metronome is an old school aproach.
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  31. #20

    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    This sounds like my recent thread...
    They had lots of great suggestions.
    My take away is that to get better at improv you have to practice it, and listen to what others do.

    So I am practicing improvising deliberately, and it is proceeding on several fronts:
    - practice improvising around the melody, I have written some parts out to get me started, but it seems just thinking about variations on the melody in my head can work, but for some reason it takes me a few days of that before anything good pops out.
    I am hoping that gets better over time.
    - learning a set of 'standard' licks in the BG style by paying a teacher (Banjobenclark) to teach me a set of bluegrass-style licks. To me this is about learning a vocabulary that can be used anywhere.
    - I bought band in a box, and downloaded some backing tracks. BiaB lets you set tempo which is pretty handy.
    - I've been listening to a lot of bluegrass and paying attention to the improv parts, just trying to get my head in that game, and anything that sounds good I will practice.
    - not all keys are the same, I am focussing on G,A,C,D, and E for the guitar players, up the neck is yet to come, but working on it.
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  32. #21

    Default Re: The “Intermediate “ problem

    I think of Speed and Improv as two different things.
    Improv is what you can get when you leave the technical stuff behind. Y'know like the guy said, "you practice and practice and work real hard for a long time, then forget all that and just wail."

    I think of speed as a physical limit. Physical limits are limits. You can stretch them for awhile. But eventually you have to get a work-around. I don't think all the training in the world would help my physical limits. Not everybody can pick like Thile or Grisman. I try to avoid it but sometimes my limitations get shown to me in real-time. I try to gracefully accept them. But hey, aren't ego's made to get kicked around?

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