Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Changing my mandomotion

Published in The Alliance Review on Jan. 13, 2009
I’ve been playing guitar for 37 years and mandolin for 19, but I recently discovered a point of poor technique that I’ve unknowingly been practicing. I saw my problem while watching a DVD recorded in 2000 of my former band playing at a festival in Warren. On the opening medley of tunes, I played rhythm on octave mandolin and guitarist Mark played rhythm on guitar while Tom played a pair of Irish reels, “The Coalminer” and “The Silver Spear,” on whistle. Watching the video, I noticed that my strumming motion was limited to my wrist, whereas Mark strummed using his entire forearm. Looking further through the video, I found a tune where Tom played guitar, and he also strummed using his forearm. I next watched John Doyle on an Irish guitar teaching video and saw that John also strummed with the entire forearm, not the wrist.
I got out my octave mandolin and strummed it, and I played from the wrist just as in the video; I tried the guitar and did the same. My poor technique both surprised me and bothered me because in the early 1990s while first studying mandolin I had learned, at least in theory, that proper pick attack involves moving the pick perpendicular to the strings and that the wrist must move back and forth across the strings, not rotate, which causes the pick to make only partial contact. I knew that, but there I was doing the wrong thing.

A few days later I consulted a classical mandolin video because I needed to compare movement in melody picking to strumming motion. The melody picking is done more from the wrist because you’re playing individual strings rather than all strings and you don’t move as far, but the mandolinist still moved her hand as a complete unit across the strings and did not rotate her wrist.
Accomplished players say that to learn correct hand movement you place the pick on the string, pick the string downward and let the pick rest against the next string, a perfect example of the inordinate amount of patience required by instrumental practice. By stopping and resting against the next string, you learn the correct motion across the strings involving a relaxed movement of the entire hand over the sound hole rather than rotating the wrist. In the latter, your pick would pretty much miss the next string.
So I began to practice the movement both on strumming and on melody, and I quickly saw a difference. In a few sessions, I improved my ability to play fast runs and triplets because my pick was moving past the strings and back rather than going up in the air where it becomes useless. The forearm strumming feels awkward, as if I’m doing the wrong thing, and it will for a while. But I’ve changed hand technique in the past — after playing mandolin for a few years, I realized I was holding my pick incorrectly and changed my grip, nearly incapacitating myself for a few days. Shortly after switching technique, I declined an Irish banjo player’s invitation to join him onstage because I could barely play. This time I’m not incapacitated, and I can always fall back on the old technique until I’ve effected the change.

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