Monday, August 24, 2009

Can You Draw A Cow?

When I started learning the mandolin, some things that used to frustrate me then that seem a lot easier now. For example, I always wanted to improvise, but it just seemed impossible - it's still hard, but at least it's possible now.

I think the main reason was that I was inhibited from reaching the notes by my technical ability - at that time each phrase had to be practiced ahead of time to get it right, especially at speed. So I couldn't really play anything I hadn't practiced the notes for, over and over.

Another part of it was what they call "ear training" - it's really brain training. My brain took a while to develop precision about the sounds it wanted to hear in my improvisations. I knew the sort of thing I wanted to hear, but it was like the difference between being able to imagine a cow, and being able to draw a cow (with no cow in front of you - a lot harder than it sounds, try it!). I took singing lessons for about two years, which really helped with that - plus it improved my singing a lot too.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Change Your Strings

I had been hanging on to my old strings because I thought they sounded great. Finally I changed them. Now I realize how bad the old ones really sounded!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Look In The Mirror

Sometimes it's hard to hear the mistakes I make when I play, especially small ones. I think it works a little bit like looking in the mirror - perhaps you've noticed how your face doesn't really look how you expect when you see photographs of yourself. People have a "mirror face" they put on when they look at themselves, and my own experience is that my brain makes adjustments to what I see to make my mirror image coincide more with my own internal self-image.

I think the same applies when I'm playing the mandolin, and it's hard to stop my brain tweaking the sounds to make them closer to what I want to hear, but a few techniques help to fool it: making videos and recordings helps of course, but you don't get the immediate feedback while you're playing.

One is to go play in a room with different acoustics to my normal practice room. The other is to play into a mic and listen to the sound amplified in some good solid headphones (solid enough to cut out the acoustic sound). This makes just enough difference to let you hear what you're doing in a whole new way. It also helps to tweak the EQ (treble and bass) of the signal through the headphones to change the experience even more.