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Thread: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

  1. #1
    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Some examples of "teaching the basics" you'll see a lot when questions are asked:

    Left hand position & technique:

    Keep the left hand relaxed
    Angle the fingers like a fiddler would
    Don't choke the neck, leave a gap rather than have your palm cradle the neck
    Assign two frets to each finger:
    • 1st position, index frets 1 & 2
    • 2nd position, index frets 3 & 4
    • 3rd position, index frets 5 & 6
    • 4th position, index frets 7 & 8

    Thumb rests lightly and naturally usually along edge of fret board
    Fret with tips of fingers, fingers curl slightly
    Use minimal pressure required to get a clean note
    Fret close to the fret
    Use one finger to bar two courses if possible
    etc.

    Right hand position & technique

    Keep right hand relaxed
    Hold pick loosely, just tight enough not to drop it
    Avoid tension
    Motion in wrist not fingertips, some motion in forearm
    In common time, alternate picking DUDU with downstroke on the beat
    In slow 3/4 time, downstroke on the beats emphasizing beat one
    For jigs, master DUDDUD
    etc.

    I'm of the opinion that it is important to master the basics, and I think the best teachers are ones who teach and drill the basics in as interesting a way as possible. Most of the best players, when and if they teach students, tend to teach the basics.

    BUT the other thing is, that once the basics are mastered, most musicians are not SLAVES to the basics.

    An example would be Tommy Emmanuel. When he teaches fingerstyle guitar, he takes a tune like Freight Train and drills the importance of playing an alternating base line, adding rhythmic harmony over a never-changing bass line, and adding melody lines on top. It's a form that is taught rigidly, with few variations, by any good teacher of fingerstyle guitar.

    But watch him perform: Hands and fingers all over the place, bass line pretty steady but disappears at times, etc.

    Advanced playing is often underpinned by a mastery of the basics, but can leave the basics in the dust to good effect.

    I think that sometimes when very basic advice is given in a public forum, some advanced or long time players can bristle against the basic teachings or the manner of the basic teachings, because 1) they learned by a different route, and 2) they are not slaves to the basics - they maybe are advanced, journeyman players who've been largely self taught, and do not readily see the value of teaching a newbie to master the basics.

    Examples of "exceptions" to the mandolin basics I mentioned at the top

    When forming various chord shapes, the thumb goes wherever it's most comfortable, the angle of the fingers could be much different, a lot of pressure could sometimes be needed (should still use minimum necessary to avoid tension build up), etc.

    One finger to each fret on many chromatic runs, next finger next note, etc.

    Pretty much every basic rule can be forsaken for the sake of playing well in one situation or another. Some very creative musicians think entirely out of the box on technique and create some wow factor stuff.

    I believe that teaching and drilling basics is the only way to go with students, and once they are mastered, learning individual tunes or songs give opportunities to depart from the basics where necessary, and creativity should be encouraged always.

    Just some captain obvious thinking and rambling this morning, before I actually have to go do some Sunday work, lol.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    One must know the rules implicitly before breaking them.

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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    In any skill that takes an extended period of time to master, "the basics" are simplifications of good technique (whatever "technique" means for the skills at hand). Rarely is something absolutely true, but is it useful to present concepts as such for pedagogical reasons; they are easier to digest (than a more nuanced explanation of technique) and provide concrete goals for the student to work towards. Ideally, once the basics are learned, it will be obvious to the student how those basics are actually simplifications of more advance technique.

    I am a mandolin novice myself, but this has been my experience in other domains.

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    The Amateur Mandolinist Mark Gunter's Avatar
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by joh View Post
    In any skill that takes an extended period of time to master, "the basics" are simplifications of good technique (whatever "technique" means for the skills at hand). Rarely is something absolutely true, but is it useful to present concepts as such for pedagogical reasons; they are easier to digest (than a more nuanced explanation of technique) and provide concrete goals for the student to work towards. Ideally, once the basics are learned, it will be obvious to the student how those basics are actually simplifications of more advance technique.
    Well put - that's a very good, concise explanation IMO. In the arts, we're not dealing with rules per se but with techniques and technical prowess.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    With the handful of people I have taught I make the point right from the start that virtually every technique I show them has exceptions. For every particular technique, I can show them video of high, high level players doing it differently and often the exact opposite. However they have to start with something and rather than sow confusion by showing them five different ways to do everything, I am trying to show them one way that works hopefully the best. As they progress they can explore other ways of doing it. At the same time I watch them carefully to see if something is causing difficulty and has to be approached differently. One of the most valuable lessons I ever had was when a teacher told me to shorten my stroke while strumming the guitar. We spent an entire 45 minute lesson with me strumming chords while he said "Shorter, shorter". It fixed a bunch of problems I had.

    The other point I will make to them is that it is only a "style" if you have control of what you are doing. Sloppy and unable to do it differently is not a style. It is your style if you made a conscious choice to do it that way, not because it is too difficult or you do not want to put in the work to do it right. An important part of learning to play an instrument is gaining the physical control and reflexes to do what you want to do.

    My own left hand technique is completely non traditional and incorrect due to Django level injury. We do what we have to in order to make the music come out. Sometimes there are real limits.

    There are only a handful of absolutes. The biggest one is to always listen both to yourself and other musicians. A musician who plays without listening is a waste of time and lousy to play with or listen to. I have encountered more than a few like that. With students I have always been able to fix that habit with some effort. I spend a fair amount of time trying to show them what to listen for either with videos or my own playing. This is things like meter, where the one count is, where the chord changes are and other musical things. Sometimes it can be a revelation to a student even to try to figure out how many and what instruments are playing.
    .
    Another is the relaxation. Too much tension and pressure can cause injury over the long term and I try to prevent any of those habits from getting ingrained. It also makes the playing more difficult, less fun and not as good. I try to work with them to adjust posture to allow the easiest, most relaxed playing. Everyone's body and instrument is different and sometimes small adjustments make a large difference.

    Beyond that the only absolutes are definitions of terms. And that is only so far as it is necessary to be able to communicate. One singer I used to perform with thought the chords were the keys to the song. She would ask me what are the "keys" to this song meaning the chords. It was easier to just tell her the chords than to educate her since she was not my student.

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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by CarlM View Post
    There are only a handful of absolutes.
    I quoted one sentence to save space, but enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing your thoughts and your experience when teaching folks.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    At least we aren't learning violin! Such a discussion in a violin forum would be heresy!

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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Good thoughts. I've been playing scales around the circle of fourths and a series of major and minor arpeggios around the same circle of fourths (G to D) to start every morning -- using single, double, jig and four X (32nd note?) picking patters -- and applying the principles outlined above. It's made, and is making, a significant difference in my playing. It's like mandolin yoga.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    I think a beginner (or any, actually) musician's personality has a lot to do with their learning style. I've known people for whom 'do what feels comfortable' or 'here are six different ways to do what you want' are paralyzing. They need the kind of absolutes they can read or see in the literature. That is no disparagement to their musicality or musicianship -- it's just who they are. Of course, some of those people are also the ones who will say to you at some point "why didn't you tell me I could do it this way?" but it takes a good teacher (or good understanding of yourself) to know which tack to use. When my daughter first began playing harp, her teacher suggested she "just play around with the strings, see what you come up with" and that almost had her in tears -- she told me later "I don't know what I'm doing! I don't know what she wanted! I can't just bang on strings without knowing what I'm supposed to be doing!" Five years later, she can noodle with the best. However, putting no restrictions on her as a beginner almost ended her harp career before it began. And if you're working with someone who needs barriers to feel safe, you might as well give them the rules that will enhance their playing later on.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    My experience is a bit the other way. When I find that I have plateaued in my progress or even fallen back, and things seem to be getting harder, I go back to basics, find most of the time the problem is some standard technique that I have either not learned, or forgotten, or lazily abandoned.

    This seems more and more true as I challenge myself with classical mandolin music. New stuff is hard, sure, but very often I find I make it harder by having abandoned something basic, like keeping fingers down, keeping the neck out of the crotch of my thumb and first finger, sitting up, etc., etc.

    With regard to standard techniques everything I think about it is here.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    As I never had any instruction on the mandolin I had to devise, and gradually modify, my own rules.

    E.g., “leave a gap …”: my version: “don’t hold, grab, or support the neck with your fretting hand. Fix the instrument in place, and bring your hand to the instrument. The thumb will land where it lands”.

    “Assign two frets to each finger”, my rule: “in diatonic contexts finger diatonically, next note, next finger”. By this rule transposing down or up a half step, say from A to Ab, will often mean just moving your fingering one fret back or forward. More chromatic situations will find their solution in playing and make you *pick* even fewer notes than otherwise.

    In the beginning: “don’t use open strings”. In time pick economy will force you to modify that rule to e.g., “avoid leaving a string on an open note”, “avoid changing strings for just one single note”.




    Etc. etc. etc.

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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    It's much like a golf swing: The idea is to inculcate good form - a rock-solid foundation that is relied upon for best outcome/performance. But we can be fully creative and depart from this practice - whenever circumstances call for it, and using whatever means necessary, to achieve the desired outcome - because (playing) music is an art, rather than a science.

    I might add that, naturally, there tends to be more variation in folk forms.

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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    I think the Drill is most important, for me at least. The new technique seems 'down pat' after a while and then I think I 'have it down'. When really it is not and MUCH MORE work needs to be done.

    I listen to my wife, an experienced instructor for almost 40 years, giving lessons to her violin students. And they all 'talk back', pointing out exceptions to rules without any direct experience at all. It is amazing how foolish they sound.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    I think the Drill is most important, for me at least. The new technique seems 'down pat' after a while and then I think I 'have it down'. When really it is not and MUCH MORE work needs to be done.

    I listen to my wife, an experienced instructor for almost 40 years, giving lessons to her violin students. And they all 'talk back', pointing out exceptions to rules without any direct experience at all. It is amazing how foolish they sound.
    Questioners often appear foolish and can certainly irritate experts with their foolish questions. We know that people often swallow their questions for fear of appearing foolish.

    Could go much further with that train of thought, but Iíll leave it there.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    "……………. an experienced instructor for almost 40 years, giving lessons to her violin students. And they all 'talk back', pointing out exceptions to rules without any direct experience at all. It is amazing how foolish they sound.
    Thanks for the insight.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Gunter View Post
    Questioners often appear foolish and can certainly irritate experts with their foolish questions. We know that people often swallow their questions for fear of appearing foolish.

    Could go much further with that train of thought, but Iíll leave it there.
    Mark, I think you misunderstand the point. It is about accepting the information without assuming authority over the issue.
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    Default Re: Learning The Basics -vs- Being A Slave To The Basics

    Quote Originally Posted by DougC View Post
    Mark, I think you misunderstand the point. It is about accepting the information without assuming authority over the issue.
    I understand Doug, I’ve been a teacher, great point. Just want to note that there are different perspectives. Wouldn’t want to judge anybody, especially third hand on an Internet forum, whether expert or questioner.
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