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Thread: How My Life Was Changed

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    Back around 1980 I graduated from Berklee, where my main focus was on learning theory and composition. I could play OK but my tone and technique were "not happening", and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't get a sound approaching that of my heros. So, I decided to call Andy Statman and arrange a lesson.

    That was the only lesson I ever took on mandolin. Andy got me thinking VERY seriously about my right hand. I was clenching my fingers in, which was limiting my movement. He showed me and got me thinking of ways to get gravity working for me, to make the act of playing much easier than the struggle I was going through.

    My left hand was the "flying fingers" syndrome- rather than keeping the fingers down as I ascend the string, I would lift each finger under the new note on the string. As the link below details, this makes about 80% more work for yourself .

    I have detailed a bunch of right and left hand technique ideas collected from my experiences both with Andy and from casual "picking the brains" of other great players here.

    After the lesson, I went to a hardware store and bought a long vertical mirror. I put it in my practice room so I could watch my hands. I took me three months, practicing untold hours, to get the new techniques to become automatic. During this period, I was playing bluegrass 2 to 4 nights a week in bars- where, of course, in an effort to keep up with the fast tempos, the new techniques would fall to shreds and I'd be back hacking away.

    After the 3rd month, I began to be able to deal with the new way of playing on the gig as well (lots of metronome practice!). From here, I went on to winning regional mando contests and eventually Winfield.

    The point of my post is to say that if you are willing to work hard at the right stuff, you can really change your musical life. The first point is that you need to feel unsatisfied with your playing (I still do and hope I always will- that's how you keep growing!).

    The second step is to find a great teacher who is a great player. The combination is rare.

    The third thing is to enjoy the ride. You'll probably be looking at long hours of dedicated practice- but you will get results in a relatively short time (I could do three months in prison if it made me a better player!)

    I hope this post may be of some help to folks who get down on themselves for "lack of talent". I consider myself the product of hard work much more than talent.

    Best holiday wishes to all you fine Cafe patrons!
    John McGann, Associate Professor, Berklee College of Music
    johnmcgann.com
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  3. #2
    Registered User John Flynn's Avatar
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    Truly words of wisdom! Thanks for this and all the advice you share so graciously online.

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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    I find this post from John so generous, articulate, unpretentious, and helpful--to say nothing of unsolicited, I hardly know what to say. Except maybe thank you, John, for loaning us your gifts.

    The one sticking point for most of us, as you point out, is finding that great teacher/player combination. I keep my eyes wide open all the time...

    Thanks again, John.

    Mike Buesseler

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    Registered User Milan Christi's Avatar
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    My right hand is my nemesis - thanks a lot for posting this stuff, John, it's very encouraging. Playing the same scales and things with the metronome at such a s-l-o-w tempo makes me weary but I know there's light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks for shedding that light!

    Milan
    Milan

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    Registered User Eric F.'s Avatar
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    Thanks, John. If I didn't have a book and DVD by you, I'd feel guilty about all the free help!

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    Nice story.

    I'm reminded of the main reason I never took lessons
    in any formal sense. I have no natural talent
    for music, none whatever. I assumed I would be dismissed
    as a hopeless case so I simply had to learn on
    my own.

    My first instrument was the guitar and it
    was awfully slow, and I was as much helped as hindered
    by the perverse fact that I could read music years
    before I plucked one single tone on the guitar.
    I wasted a couple of years before finally realizing what music-making is about.

    Amazingly I didn't fall into all the technical traps.
    Having small hands I was forced to arch my
    left hand away from the fretboard
    in order to reach all the notes,
    for example.

    Apart from that I learned by example, reading, listening,
    finally transcribing. I didn't have a good right
    hand for backup work, BG style. In the mid-60's
    I met a fellow from Detroit (and a cousin of Neil
    Rosenberg's), Tom Wolf. I watched him play
    (his main instrument was actually the banjo)
    and noticed how the pick came to rest on the next string after plucking a bass note. Thus I learned about the rest stroke.

    In 1969 on my first and only trip to the US I asked
    Tom and his cousin which people to meet and Tom
    suggested, among others, his friend Eric Schoenberg,
    who was then living in New York City. I was into
    a bit of finger-picking and I remember showing Eric
    my arrangement of Yesterday, in open D.

    He listened and commented on it, roughly, there's some
    nice stuff in there and some junk. Then he showed
    me a few things and I realized I would never be
    able to put in *that* kind of work in working out songs.

    So you might say that was the only lesson I ever took, and it made me give up finger-picking altogether,
    right away, in New York City, on the
    11th of August in 1969.

    Eric was certainly not out to discourage me but
    he made me realize that my calling was the flat pick
    and I've stuck with that ever since.

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    8 Fingers, 2 Thumbs Ken Sager's Avatar
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    Wow. Reading John's and Peter's posts clearly shows us there are two paths that diverge in the woods. I wouldn't say that one path requires more courage than the other, but it's clear the outcomes can be vastly different.

    Without an initial self view that includes a capacity to exceed expectations one can never exceed expectations.

    I would never sit with a teacher who couldn't encourage (or inspire) me to go beyond where I am right now. I guess I wouldn't call Peter's experience a lesson, either.

    Thanks for the insights, friends.

    Surprise,
    Ken
    Less talk, more pick.

  9. #8

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    Wow, Mr. McGann, that's great info! Thank you for sharing it!

  10. #9
    Ben Beran Dfyngravity's Avatar
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    I would also like to thank John for his post. I have had a few lessons in my learning of the mandolin. Over all, they have been fairly helpful.

    My first two lessons were from a guy who taught classical mandolin, classical guitar, lute and violin. His main worries were making sure I could sight read. He spent more time with me learning to site read(noticing patterns, reading serveral messures ahead, and rhythm) than he would teaching me technique. After a couple lessons I wasn't totally satisfied so I stopped going. However, I did learn to read music efficiently which has made me an over all better player. But the biggest thing I learned was something he didn't teach me, but my best friend who was taking classical guitar lessons right before me. So I would sit there and listen to evething he was telling him. One thing I picked up on and transfered to mandolin would be some of the greatest info I have received(passivly). He told my friend to look for patterns while playing. He said there are many times where you can keep a finger or several fingers on the same string and move the others to get where you are going next. That little point has really helped my playing, especially with building speed.

    The second person who gave me several lessons was Pete Frostic of OSFT, some know who that its. He is a very good player and understands a lot about playing mandolin. The first lesson he asked me to play a fiddle tune. So I played Blackberry Blossom. Stumbled here and there, but oh well. The first thing he told me after I played the tune was that I need to lift my wrist off the birdge and to make sure I was gripping the pick between the side of my pointer finger and pad of my thumb. He then commented on some things that I was doing well. Like keeping my fingers on my left hand down on the fingerboard and that my pick stroke over all was solid in the fact that it was a small motion with no motions wasted. After a couple lessons he started teaching my to improvise over melodies, and thanks to him I have progressed fairy good through this process. Sadly I had to stop going because I had to start college, but I difintely learned some great tips that have helped me advance.


    The next thing I am wanting to master is how to listening to someone sing or play a melody and then be able to play it. But I know that has to do with more of my ears and many years of playing than anything else. But I know there is some trick or tip someone has that will help make the process much easier.

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    Gilchrist (pick) Owner! jasona's Avatar
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    Thanks again John--as I said in the other thread your description on right hand positioning has made an immediate impact on my picking.

    I like many have had few lessons. I took lessons weekly for a while, but while the instructor was good, I found there to have been too little time to fully absorb the information--some of which I decided didn't work for me down the road. However, the occasional lesson bears more fruit for me, and they tend to come when I am ready for the information.
    Jason Anderson

    "...while a great mandolin is a wonderful treat, I would venture to say that there is always more each of us can do with the tools we have available at hand. The biggest limiting factors belong to us not the instruments." Paul Glasse

    Stumbling Towards Competence

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    Thanks for the nice comments!

    Peter, sorry to hear about the discouragement there. There's too much competiton in music IMHO and since I stopped competing (literally and practically), I am having boatloads more fun.

    Dfyngravity- to develop the ability to work with vocal melodies, you can work in the comfort of your own home with recordings- before trying to play them melodies back, just listen and "get them in your head" a few times. Then, with the recording, find the first few notes as you play along. Then, turn off the recording and see if you can recall the shape of the melody in your mind, and try to trace it on the instrument. Then replay the recording and see how you match up. Getting a "sketch' rather than every little nuance is a good starting place. If you do this #a bunch, you'll get a sixth sense going, which is good since the other 5 will probably be busy at the time

    Another gem I got from Andy: "You Newgrass guys all play jazz with that 'businessman's bounce' like Jethro- listen to horn players- they play MUCH more evenly!". Dang, he was right again, and my swing feel improved a lot from playing w/ metronome on 2 and 4 and getting the 8ths closer to even than the usual 66%/33% that most books suggest.

    I have had my share of BAD teachers too, from the psycho who called an entire listening/analysis class "a bunch of clowns" to a conducting teacher who told me "you hold the baton like...a "Tee You Are Dee!" to a insult monger jazz guitar teacher who turned out to be a wife beater and fled to Amsterdam...this is why I am such a deep bluesman #



    John McGann, Associate Professor, Berklee College of Music
    johnmcgann.com
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    Registered Mandolin User mandopete's Avatar
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    John,

    Thanks for your post and insight. #After several years of operating as a "functioning, self-taught" mandolin player, I too decided to take a lesson. I contacted John Reischman, whom I consider to be one of the finest musicians and mandolin players on the planet and arranged for a 1-hour lesson. #During that hour we focused almost solely on the right hand. John gave me some very good advice regarding pick angle and grip, that have already improved my tone. #I was somewhat surprised to find that some things that I had deduced through trial and error were things he was doing and his comments just confirmed my notions.

    Here's to everyone that teaches...thank-you for what you do!



    2015 Chevy Silverado
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    Quote Originally Posted by (jmcgann @ Dec. 06 2005, 14:45)
    Peter, sorry to hear about the discouragement there. There's too much competiton in music IMHO and since I stopped competing (literally and practically), I am having boatloads more fun.
    Please don't get my wrong on this.
    I still think
    Eric taught me an important lesson,
    and I'm only grateful for it, and always was. It
    was good for my development to concentrate on flatpicking
    the guitar.




  15. #14
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    When I heard of the passing of John McGann this thread was one of the first things I thought of. Although I have valued the advice he shared regularly, the original post was a point of inspiration for me. I printed a copy and put it on my practice wall, and got a mirror to watch my hands while I played. This inspiration got me over a plateau I was on at the time. The timing seems right to bump this thread and hopefully help out another avid mandolin player with some sound advice from John.
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

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    mando-evangelist August Watters's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Thanks for reposting, how nice to see this thread again! It reminds me of that time, John speaks of here, right after he graduated from Berklee. It was the same time as I arrived there, and almost immediately I went out and took a lesson with John. Pretty soon he was playing his @$$ off in two of my student recitals. I still have that recording somewhere. . . .

    John's advice here is excellent, about the mirror and the self-diagnosis. I still use a mirror in my practice space for the same reason, and it still helps. The link to his right hand advice reminds me of the ways in which our paths diverged, as players and as teachers. (for a discussion of the medium-pick perspective, check out Simon Mayor's books.) John had great tone and was good at teaching others tone production, but there are other schools of thought too.

    John was an inspiration and a challenge to us all -- I love the way in this post he challenges us to be our best, and avoid all the self-destructive patterns we too often get caught up in. I think, for those of us who knew him from this online community, John will continue to inspire and challenge us for a long time.
    Exploring Classical Mandolin (Berklee Press, 2015)
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    I consider myself lucky to have taken mandolin lessons with John. He made my buy the big black Franz metronome, which I still have, and work with it.
    I also did the look-in-the-mirror route to straighten out my right hand technique. I had watched Monroe's fluidity and economy of motion and strove mightily to play like that. I describe his technique as the ball-bearing wrist; economy of motion!!! I would practice in front of the bathroom mirror late at night, watching and listening.

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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    This is really great.
    Indulge responsibly!

    The entire staff
    funny....

  20. #18
    Gilchrist (pick) Owner! jasona's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    I've apparently been away from the Cafe for too long. I hadn't learned of John's passing until just now

    He was a good one and will be missed.
    Jason Anderson

    "...while a great mandolin is a wonderful treat, I would venture to say that there is always more each of us can do with the tools we have available at hand. The biggest limiting factors belong to us not the instruments." Paul Glasse

    Stumbling Towards Competence

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    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Thought I would bump this thread with the 1 year anniversary of John's death and all...
    And I know I am a day late!
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

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  23. #20
    Mandolinist out of Atl
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Great stuff in this thread. I am in the process of attempting to work with gravity, it's easier that way. "Don't play anything that's too hard." Joe Pass. Also trying to cure my flying fingers and keep them nimble and ready. Thanks for posting.

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    Registered User little george's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    I´m just new (and sadly late) to know the work and music of John McGann. I´m loving the music in is youtube channel.
    Since his personal page is down I can´t get the document he offered us in this post. It sounds very interesting, so, may any other cafe member be kind enough to send me a copy of it? I would aprecciate it very much...

    When I see those videos I just can´t stop thinking how lucky were the people he teached to...

  25. #22
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Quote Originally Posted by little george View Post
    I´m just new (and sadly late) to know the work and music of John McGann. I´m loving the music in is youtube channel.
    Since his personal page is down I can´t get the document he offered us in this post. It sounds very interesting, so, may any other cafe member be kind enough to send me a copy of it? I would aprecciate it very much...

    When I see those videos I just can´t stop thinking how lucky were the people he teached to...
    John was a gift to this community, IMHO, and his passing was a great loss to many no matter if you knew him personally or through his writings and posts. Unfortunately his website is down but the wayback machine has snapshots of it. Here's the page you requested, George.

    http://web.archive.org/web/201203021.../techtips.html
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  27. #23
    Registered User little george's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Thanks a lot for the link, Greg.
    This is my first time to see that "wayback machine", and is very interesting.
    Thanks again!

  28. #24
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    My pleasure. Glad I could contribute and, in a small way, help keep John's work alive to fresh faces.
    Breedlove Quartz FF with K&K Twin - Weber Big Horn - Fender FM62SCE
    Wall Hangers - 1970's Stella A and 60's Kay Kraft

    Whether you slow your roll or mash on it, enjoy the ride.

  29. #25
    Registered Muser dang's Avatar
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    Default Re: How My Life Was Changed

    Another bump for the 2 year anniversary of John's passing... Glad his name has been around so much in the headlines recently, thanks to the homespun re-release.
    I should be pickin' rather than postin'

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