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Notes from the Field

Doing it Wrong

Rating: 5 votes, 5.00 average.
This is the way it happens.

Step one – a newbie asks a perfectly legitimate question on technique, or needs some received advice clarified.

Step two – Various folks respond with helpful ideas, often quoting some of the great teachers of mandolin, present and past.

Step three – Someone disagrees – referencing some bigger than life famous player who does it differently, as some kind of invalidation of the advice and of the teachers’ instructions.

Step four – phrases inevitably get passed around as follows: “do what you have to” “there is no right or wrong” “it’s all personal preference” “there is no wrong way” “whatever works for you”.

This pattern has happened enough times I am sure it is familiar. Somehow we get stuck there, either arguing the fine points (I didn’t mean directly on it... I meant…), or providing intriguing exceptions to every accepted wisdom (my cousin has one leg longer than the other so he doesn’t need a foot stool), to interesting personal anecdotes (well I find it easier to use my finger nails and tune in fourths, after removing one of each string – feels more like what I was used to with guitar), to referencing great players with quirky habits (holding the mandolin vertically and picking with his thumb hasn’t held Kenny Hall back any). The discussion then goes like a marble in a bowl wandering around these points without making forward progress, until all are bored with it and the newbie that started it all has decided to take up the banjo.

I have been a part of these discussions, at all the steps, asking for advice, giving advice, disagreeing with advice, and quoting exceptions. Its great fun. It is my habit to drink coffee when I am at my computer, and by now I have put Mr. Starbucks’ children through college I am sure.

So in an attempt to spin this marble yet again, this time uninterrupted, let me get my coffee and get to it.

There is a standard way to hold and play the mandolin. And before you get your hackles up, let me be explicit - that does not mean any of the following:

  • It doesn’t mean that departure from the standard is wrong.
  • It doesn’t mean that there aren’t exceptional players who depart from the standard.
  • It doesn’t mean that the teachers of the standard don’t depart from it at times.
  • It doesn’t mean that I don’t depart from the standard.
  • It doesn’t mean that you should never depart from the standard.
  • It doesn’t mean the standard isn’t evolving, or that everyone agrees on every point.
  • It doesn’t mean that holding up a standard is being a slave to convention.
  • It doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t or can’t be creative.

There is a standard. It works for most people most of the time, and is an excellent way for a beginner to get moving with a minimum of heart ache.

I think many people misunderstand what a standard is. Many folks think standard is synonymous with right. Which unavoidably makes non-standard synonymous with wrong. And how dare you tell me I am wrong when the great “Golden Mando-boy” himself plays the same way. How dare you tell me I am wrong when my left hand was surgically reconstructed after an accident with a garbage disposal. How dare you tell me I am wrong.

Playing mandolin, like many endeavors, is best begun by beginning, as opposed to walking around and around looking for a front door. No matter how you begin, down the line you are going to modify, correct, relearn, and adjust things you took as gospel at the beginning. There is no avoiding it.

My personal experience has verified to me over and over and over the value of standards. Whenever I find myself at a plateau in my playing, where better never seems to happen – whenever I am stuck, it is because of some non-standard technique that I have not addressed. As soon as I figure it out, progress seems to flood in like there was a breach in the submarine wall. Till the next plateau, where I have to find the next “bad habit” that is limiting me. (Many bad habits go unnoticed, I think, because they are of no consequence as long as you have more important, more egregious and limiting issues to work on.)

I think that responding to a legitimate question with “there is no right or wrong” “do whatever is comfortable and gets the job done” etc., is not only unhelpful, but it is wrong. Advice and instruction from John McGann, Mike Marshall, Peter Martin, and all the other great teachers, is very important, very helpful. Much more helpful than sharing my personal experience. When a newbie is not sure what to do, the newbie could do a whole lot worse than following the advice of great teachers. I think it is probably better to follow their instructions than to emulate the specific behaviors any particular mandolin player, no matter how great. Certainly better than emulating me.

I believe a student that learns the standard way of doing things is much much better off, acknowledging all the exceptions and contradictions. The framework holds, even if individual accommodations have to be made to the details for specific reasons and specific goals, either temporarily or permanently. If I was told it doesn’t matter, do what you want, do what is comfortable, I would dropped the instrument as soon as it got hard, as soon as my finger tips hurt, as soon as I knew I couldn’t play.

Yea but, yea but… this famous guy holds the mandolin neck in the crotch of his hand, this other one pinky plants, and she lets fingers fly, and that one holds the pick at a reverse angle, …

Referencing great mandolinners that have non-standard techniques just contributes to one’s feeling bad. It’s like you are pointing out not only that I am doing it wrong, but I am doing it wrong inadequately, because I know I don’t sound remotely like those prodigies who are doing it wrong. ... Gimmy a banjo.

The fallacy in this thinking is that these great mandolinners certainly did not get there by playing non-standard. Their success is more explained by talent, practice, and experience, and getting so many other things super right, and as a result these noticeable non-standard things don’t get in the way. Furthermore, amazing talent knows when and where to hold to the standard, where and when the standard doesn’t apply, and where and when deliberate violation of the standard is a good artistic decision.

For those of us who aren’t amazing talents, the standards work real well and likely we would be better with more adherence.

I am not of the opinion that teaching standards, and teaching that there is a standard, gets in the way of creativity. In fact I think the opposite, gigantic creativity and great beauty occurs working within the rules, within expected norms, and trying to find unexpected beauty in unexplored territory between the rules, and selective and surprising violation of expectations. This is not the same as saying there are no rules. Pushing the envelope does not mean there shouldn’t be an envelope. One of the identifiers that something artistically great has happened is that the accomplishments of the artist result in the envelope being questioned or expanded, lines get moved. Convention, and expectations are forever changed.

Where is the beauty if it doesn’t matter what you do?

Look, you can do whatever you want. However, you cannot escape the consequences of doing whatever you want.

Really, the truth is I really don’t care. I don’t care how anyone plays the mandolin, be they famous, non-famous, or infamous. I really don’t. Maybe it’s because I have never been an emulator. Perhaps to my detriment, I am willing to admit. Many things in my life might have been easier for me if instead of trying to figure out how to do things I just copied how I was seeing it done. But then again…

There is a famous story I heard from a preacher, about a cat that was born with a birth defect that prevented it from walking normally. The cat grew up and had kittens, who emulated their mother’s awkward gate though they themselves had no defect requiring it. Likely not a true story, but the preacher’s point was to ask how many of us burden ourselves with behaviors and thoughts and defenses and accommodations that we learned from others without checking if they really applied to us or if we needed them.
My point is, ummm…. hang on....

Well it’s a good story anyway. The extent it applies is the extent it is relevant I guess.

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Updated Feb-13-2023 at 9:22pm by JeffD



  1. Bertram Henze's Avatar
    I most respectfully disagree. Many famous writers created enlightened works without a single drop of coffee, Homer wrote the Ilias and the Odyssey without drinking coffee, and I am not drinking any of it now either, while I type this; in fact, I have always hated coffee and can do all my day's work on two half-litre cans of tea, one in the morning, one at noon.

  2. JeffD's Avatar
    On the advice of my doctor I have cut down on coffee - I only drink one cup at a time.
  3. fredfrank's Avatar
    I have always tried it my way, until my way held me back from getting it done. I recently wrote about problems playing up-tempo and how my right hand just couldn't handle it anymore. I decided I would not give up and started watching YouTube videos with players I admired to see how they got it done. While I didn't copy the players, I did notice basic fundamentals that they had, which I did not.

    I have to say that emulating someone just because you might admire their music, isn't the right reason to copy. But, once you try what feels comfortable and fail to grasp something, it doesn't hurt to re-examine an accomplished player's technique for helpful hints.

    My biggest regret is that I didn't have YouTube around when I was learning. Who knows how much easier this would have been...

    Oh, and I only drink coffee when I'm awake...
    Updated Dec-19-2014 at 9:09pm by fredfrank (Forgot to add a humorous ending.)
  4. JeffD's Avatar
    Peter Martin has some excellent videos up. As does Mike Marshall.
  5. pheffernan's Avatar
    Although Pete Martin and Mike Marshall teach very different "standards."
  6. JeffD's Avatar
    As I said: •It doesn’t mean the standard isn’t evolving, or that everyone agrees on every point.

    Actually I haven't looked into it point by point but I haven't found gigantic differences. That might be a neat thread to start, though. Listing or explaining the differences.
  7. pheffernan's Avatar
    Pete Martin, with his emphasis on ergonomics, seems to hold the mandolin parallel to the floor: Mike Marshall, by contrast, advocates positioning the instrument at a decided angle: Which standard is standard?
  8. JeffD's Avatar
    Pete does have it much much less of an angle. Parallel or almost. Well in this case I think Mike is to be preferred. It seems to get the angle of the fingers to the frets right.

    I like what Pete says about the instrument being off parallel with the chest. Mike doesn't address this.

    I don't think Mike and Pete differ enough to call it two schools of thought on mandolin holding.

    That there are teacher's who differ on some points is normal and expected, and doesn't mean there isn't a standard. It means that teachers disagree as to what is best in some instances. What I mean is, just because Mike and Pete have some differences doesn't mean one should recommend to newbies "do what ever you want, it doesn't matter."
  9. bratsche's Avatar
    If any "standard" exists, I think it's just an imaginary ideal held in some people's minds, and it's not universally the same amongst people, as the examples of Mike and Pete clearly show.

    With regard to instrument playing technique, which violin school is the "standard" - is it the Russian? the Italian? the French? They all differ quite noticeably. I maintain there is no actual "standard" to speak of, in violin or mandolin technique. Likewise, there is no such thing as a "standard" human being. Although the "ideal" proportions for body and face have been calculated by Leonardo et. al., how many in the population exactly correspond to them? Ever look at peoples hands? As different as snowflakes. Not to mention arms, shoulders, bellies... you get the picture.

    Even if there were a "standard", I still think you're creating a false dichotomy. Nobody is advising to just "do whatever you want, it doesn't matter". That's not the same thing as "try things out, and find what works best for you." Not at all. No one would advocate picking up any old combination of acquired habits, good and/or bad, and trying to make the sow's ear into a silk purse. But our essential physical differences, and sometimes our background experiences as well, will necessitate different approaches in our playing.

  10. JeffD's Avatar
    My focus is what to say to newbies. I think your points are spot on for experienced players. We all have individual "geometries" as you say, that we have to figure out how to accommodate.

    But even the phrase "try things out, find out what works best for you" is, I think, not helpful for a newbie. If I was told that when I first asked how to hold a bowl back, I would have given up. What would have worked best for me is to have someone else play it. I needed to know how to do it.

    I admit in many cases there are a range of acceptable hows. I suppose the "Italian school" and the "German school" are examples of what happens when there are large difference in acceptable hows.

    A radical thought: I don't think a serious newbie is in a place to make the accommodation decisions. It is all uncomfortable, and a certain maturity is needed (in the sense of experience playing) to be able to say what is better for me. Especially if the newbie is asking specific questions. "How do I hold a pick." "Well try things out and see what works best for you." It will be pure luck if such a person nails a good technique early on by literally following that advice. More likely the beginner will wander on and try and emulate some player that seems popular or cool.

    OK so here is an even more radical thought: I suspect that the majority of non-ideal techniques are not alternatives adopted to accommodate unique physical geometries and abilities. Many are, I readily admit, but I would bet the majority are bad habits that have become comfortable. Bad in the sense that they are motivated by the desire to take an easier way, and bad in the sense that they clearly limit further progress. And, tragically, the limited further progress is experienced as lack of talent.
    Updated Apr-19-2018 at 9:31am by JeffD
  11. farmerjones's Avatar
    It's just if it were a bit more complicated, everybody would revert to "get a teacher" as the admiral's answer. NFN Bagpipes, although the brunt of every musical joke globally, are darn hard to play. To a man, when the question is posted, "how does one play the pipes?" The answer is, "Get some pipes, and get and instructor."
    So that the rest of the forum is threads on terrestrial experiences.
  12. lflngpicker's Avatar
    Jeff, What an interesting and well thought out essay. I appreciate the knowledge and thinking ability to write something this interesting takes. You are a gifted writer and made me and others really think about how to communicate something in a discussion/forum format to a newer musician in response to their questions. Thanks. Five stars in my humble opinion!
  13. Gelsenbury's Avatar
    Great post! Since I teach a bit of statistics, I think an alternative way of describing what you mean would be to use the concept of a normal distribution. There is more than one way of doing things, so there is a distribution of methods rather than a single one. But all methods aren't equally popular in some sort of big free-for-all (which would result in a flat distribution). Instead, there is a "standard" way of doing things, which is the central tendency of a bell-shaped distribution ... and deviations from that standard caused by individuality, habit, anatomy, and all manner of similar reasons. This applies to almost all activities, such as the angle at which you hold the mandolin, the angle at which you hold the pick, the force with which you hold the pick, and so on. Some of these activities will vary only slightly between individuals (giving the distribution a small variance), others will vary more widely (large variance).

    As you say, the extreme statements "There is only one correct way" and "Everybody does it differently" are both wrong. There are ways of doing things that work very well for quite a lot of people; and other ways of doing things that work better for some. When new players try to look for the way that works for them, it makes sense to start looking in the place that works for most people.
  14. JeffD's Avatar
    I hadn't thought of it as a normal distribution, but the analogy holds. I would only add that its not random, or arbitrary, that the standard or the "central tendency" of the distribution, is that technique which yields the greatest effectiveness for the most people. It is the thing to shoot for, absent any good reason not to. (And "its hard, I don't want to" is not among the good reasons.)
  15. LindyHopper's Avatar
    This was great JeffD. I think you've hit upon one of the fundamental questions we have as humans: following other's paths vs. creating our own, and that's why it is such a tricky thing to nail down and discuss. Thanks for the beautiful post, it really made me think, and I believe that is the best that can be hoped for when debating deep philosophical questions.
  16. matty94409's Avatar
    This is a really good read. Thank you.

    I'm a newbie - playing all of two months. I have one ambition with my mandolin - I want to play well. I'm not quite sure what 'well' actually means. But I'd like to be good.

    I've already made the acquaintance - all be it he was on a stage and I was 80 yards away - of Mr Thile and his talented friends (Punch Brothers live in London).

    As I make my slow progress in learning what my mandolin and I can actually do together I do find myself hunting for that 'Holy Grail' nugget of information that will allow me to learn faster, better etc. I read web/blog posts, I watch youtube videos, I buy the occasional book (Don Julin mainly), in a search for my Grail.

    But I have enough insight to know that in the end it's just down to hard work. There is no Grail, no magic bullet. And my genes are firmly set in stone! So at the age of 47 I shall plod onwards on my Mandolin Journey. Mr Thile can sleep soundly with his beautiful February 1924 Gibson, knowing that for the present I pose no challenge to his place in the world of Ace Mandolin Players. But maybe one day............ !!!
    Updated Mar-15-2015 at 2:42am by matty94409
  17. JeffD's Avatar
    For the present... but maybe one day...!!
  18. DavidKOS's Avatar
    Wonderfully put!
  19. jpugh's Avatar
    Well said and beautifully written Sir (Jeff) enjoyable discussion, im quite sure this site is among the best on the inter-web machine, makes me glad that the music-gods made me suck at banjo so much that I stuck w guitar/mando ��,
    Great discussion all. Also, the Pats just won yet another Super Bowl (is that 12 now?��)
    Off to actually practice mando now-