Mandolin and violin comparison - interview with Chris Thile
This interview may be of interest to mandolists and fiddlers/violinists:
This interview may be of interest to mandolists and fiddlers/violinists:
Very interesting — and what fantastic playing!
Spacey… thanks a lot! :)
Bless him, thanks, I enjoyed that, and in another two or three years… ;-)
They had a similar interview on NPR the other day, which I caught making the hour commute home from work. Thile was talking about his training and method which started out entirely by ear, and how tedious it was to teach himself "sheet music" and apply that method to this classical project. Can’t imagine learning and memorizing all of that Bach with such precision for an album like this~ of course he’s Chris Thile. ;-) The speedy parts are mind-blowing.
Bela Fleck also has a nice classical banjo album out there that I enjoy now and then. Here’s a wee clip, just a taste of what’s on the cd: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tohpjnUIJU
Simon Mayor is also pretty nifty on the mandolin —
Trevor, thanks a lot for posting this - it really is top quality.
Great stuff. Thanks for posting Trevor.
Trevor,gam,JJShea-Thanks. Great stuff and very inspiring. I’ve played a lot of Bach on the guitar but never tried it on the mando,let alone the banjo. Many years ago my teacher from college,Fred Hand did an album of Bach and Vivaldi on bluegrass instruments called Baroque and on the Streets. Eric Weissberg played banjo on it. The arrangements were great and the pieces worked amazingly well with that approach. Then again, I’ve heard that Bela Fleck recording and while the Bach and Scarlatti pieces are great the Romantic pieces not so much .Chopin Brahms and Debussy on the banjo? No Thanks.
Chris played a concert here last year. He plays with such joy! Crazy good musician.
I heard that radio bit, too, JJ, and I think I need that CD.
Thanks for posting this, Trevor.
Hearing this stuff has, oddly, given me a confidence boost.
I’d got to the point where I actually said in a session last week, "I hate the mandolin, I wish I could play a proper instrument." I was maybe half-joking, but I was half serious too.
Well - it IS a proper instrument.
Yes it is - just has its limitations, like most other instruments. Imagine only having nine notes to play with! (Scottish pipes…)
… though there is a *very* fine line when playing ITM on it between it ‘working’ and sounding plinky-twee.
"Plinky-twee"… that’s a good one. Maybe it has something to do with how a rough edge to the tone is valued in Irish traditional music. Like a bit of scrape on the bow, or aiming for a "hard, dark tone" on a flute. I’m not sure there’s a way to do that on mandolin (speaking as a mandolin player myself). It’s easy to end up sounding a bit precious… like some of Simon Mayor’s recordings.
A more aggressive pick attack can give some balls to the sound of a mandolin. Also using more double-stops,the way a fiddler would. I wish more mando players would use more ornaments than just trebles-Thile demonstrates both in the interview and in his playing that slurs are very do-able on the instrument,albeit tricky and demanding on the left hand. Roger Landes plays rolls on the mando although he often plucks the lower note so some purists might object,but it works for me.
Interesting to hear your thoughts. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with for years. I think choice of tune can help – choosing darker tunes can mitigate the worst of the tweeness, and accepting that there are some things that the mandolin just can’t really do. I stand to be corrected on this, Thules showing why, but I don’t think you’re ever going to get the sheer speed and lift out of a mandolin. Even after a couple of years, I can get that so much better out of a fiddle.
Double stops do add a lot, but in my experience seem to work better for Scottish tunes than Irish.
Yes, picks and picking can make a huge difference – I’m forever sanding mine down to try to get just the right combination of roundedness and pointiness for speed and triplets. Triplets seem harder on a mandolin than anything else – banjo, bouzouki, mandola you name it. I guess it’s a combination of twin string courses and high tension.
Slurs are do-able and hammers-on can achieve a reasonable representation of a fiddler’s slide.
Rolls are another ballgame. You need an instrument with a huge sustain (by mandolin terms). I’ve just acquired a lovely Paul Shippey mandolin and all of a sudden rolls have become a possibility…Whether they add much is another matter though.
Perhaps better to concentrate on a slower pace, really elucidating the tune with judicious triplets and hammers-on? And accepting that it ain’t ever really going to sound quite like the original thing…
Ian-there’s a way you can play repeated- note triplets on the mandolin which is to make use of the double strings. If you push down more with the pick and slow the motion down a tad you can sound the two strings seperately,then follow with an up-stroke to complete the triplet. You can even change notes in between the down and up strokes to get,say 3) bbc on the second course. I like to use this sparingly mixed in with slurred triplets and the more conventional down-up-down stroke triplet. The technique takes a little practice but once you’ve mastered it the temptation is to use it everywhere.
I’d never play a triplet like that. It’s not much harder to play them on twin strings than single string. Learn how to play one properly (whichever direction you prefer as the main one), and then you’re able to do them on guitar, mandolin, whatever. Even fiddle. The rhythm is the same (and that’s usually what confuses people).
Thanks for those suggestions - 5stringfool, I’m going to try that (even if jeff doesn’t approve…) I hadn’t thought of that one; whether it will be the answer remains to be seen.
jeff_lindqvist: I can play triplets fine on the bouzouki, mandola and banjo - and much of the time on the mandolin - which is why I came to the conclusion I did. That’s why pick shape seems so critical.
What I have never fully mastered, however, I how to churn them out wherever needed on the fretboard, 100% reliably at a full 12o bpm or so reel speed - while ideally maintaining enough volume to be heard in a session. My mandolins both project very well, but even so, the combination of picking hard in order to be heard (which is almost an unconscious reflex action) and playing fast seems to be enough to cut the reliability factor to about 50%. My conclusions are further backed up by the fact that playing amplified reduces the need to pick so hard, and then the triplet success rate goes back up.
I’ve been playing for about 30 years and have never got this reliable enough for my satisfaction, which is why I wondered whether it was simply asking too much for an ordinary mortal.
Anyway, this wasn’t intended as a help-ian-stock surgery, just a comment on the limitations of the mandolin in ITM :-)
I have encountered plenty of mortal mandolin players who can churn out the triplets in full speed reels. So it is perfectly possible — not a limitation of the instrument. I suppose you just have to figure out the technique that will enable you to do it and then practice it. A lot.
I used to play mandolin myself, but that was many years ago. But what I have seen some good players do, in the situation that Ian describes of a noisy session, is to play firmer and harder on most of the notes, and totally relax for the triplets, without worrying about the volume for them. It seems to work.
Thanks both, you’re doubtless right. The tricky bit is playing strongly without becoming tense. Maybe a personal problem, though I have talked to a number of other players who find the same inclination - to play loud you tense your pick arm so as to strike the strings with force (which often has the undesirable effect of tensing the rest of your body too). Problem is, as Ben says, triplets in particular are best played relaxed.
I’m still working on it - though the pickup is a good cop-out it’s not really appropriate for (most) sessions.
Emory Lester once told us in a mandolin class that ‘if you squeeze the pick harder, you may be louder’. When I tried this, it seemed to be true. Maybe this technique, which mainly uses muscles in the hand, can increase volume without creating addition tension in the arm and shoulder when playing faster (a problem I have).
Hmm. Food for thought… Glad it’s not just me.
In my experience it’s better to get more volume by putting more weight into the strings rather than hitting them harder. I find this gives you a better tone as well. While it may still slow you down a bit it won’t force you to tense up your arm muscles,which almost inevitably tenses up your left hnd, and the rest of your body too
Having returned to mandolin recently after a long affair with the guitar, it is both lovely and sobering to hear Mr. Thile. Lovely because of his exquisite technique and attention to detail, and sobering because the mandolin still sounds like a mandolin in the hands of a master.
Blessed by the recent acquisition of a better mandolin (an Eastman MD614 f-body o-mouth), I’m currently beating on session standards from Foinn Seisiún 1.
The triplet suggestions are welcome. Right now, I’m working on decluttering - playing one note for the duration of a triplet to try to get the flow of the tune down. After the rest sounds decent to me, I then try to work on the triplets. Hitting the trips with different notes is still clumsy for me - which I figure is a left-hand problem.
Any further advice - or links to decent tutorials - would be appreciated.
>>putting more weight into the strings
Do you mean putting heavier gauge strings on the instrument?
I had been mulling over doing the opposite. But my new Shippey mandolin has the most amazing tone and sustain and I don’t want to lose that by altering the stringing that Paul put on.
Usual problem last evening - playing in a new session, the sound just disappeared into the mix, even at full tilt. No point in trying to add any niceness to it. I think it was partly down to the acoustic of the room, but it is disconcerting in a way most other players don’t realise - that doesn’t happen to you with a fiddle, for instance, where the sound is closer to your face…
I think that can happen with many instruments where the sound is going away from the player. Fiddlers are least likely to have that problem because the sound is right in their face. I have played the pipes, fer god’s sake, in places where acoustics + noise = sound disappearing. It is very disconcerting. The only way around that for me (other than not playing in that kind of session) is to have an ear-splittingly loud reed that overpowers everything and then feeling like a tw a t.
Yep, you’re right there - same thing happened with the bouzouki, which is normally reasonably audible. I’m amazed it can happen with pipes, though perhaps the UPs might be more prone than the more piercing Scottish varieties! I know my wife has the opposite problem - can’t hear anyone else at all when she’s got her small pipes going.
I suspect that small-bodied fretted instruments may be the most directional of all, though…
Tricky to deal with as you say - we did an unamplified gig a month or two back when we were having real problems hearing each other, and in my case even myself, which didn’t exactly flatter our sound. :-(
Maybe the answer is a form of personalised foldback, straight from the instrument pick-up into an ear-piece? Not sure how you’d do that with the pipes though!
There is a fella around Glasgow who, as the story goes, got the corner seat in a session and thought he could hear so much better (which is my experience of corner seats as well). The next time he went to the session, he brought two huge plywood boards attached together at a right angle with hinges. When asked what on earth his contraption was for, he said that he liked sitting in that corner so much that he made his own corner.
Maybe that is the answer. Bring your own corner.
That sounds much more like a trad solution :-)
Sorry-by "put more weight into the strings" I actuallly meant leaning your arm weight into the strings rather than hitting the string harder. This works on all plucked string instruments,and though it takes some practice usually results in a better tone. Heavier guage strings would also beef up your sound, but on a mandolin there is a limit to how heavy you can go without risking damage to the instrument.Another thing that can help is a stiffer pick(I have to be careful to type that accurately.)All these solutions will slow you down a bit,at least initially,but once you get used to them you can work on building your speed back up.
The fiddler/violinist is in a quandary. The sound coming up from the instrument into the left ear immediately above it gives a false impression to the player of the balance of his sound with that of the other players in the ensemble. He will also be hearing close-up non-projecting bow noises and so will not be hearing himself as others hear him.
It is not unusual for an inexperienced fiddler in a session to be playing too quietly as far as a listener is concerned. The art of projecting the tone of a violin so that it balances well with the ensemble is something that usually has to be taught at some stage and is not necessarily intuitive - incidentally, just pressing down harder with the bow is not the way to go, but that’s by the way.
A while a go when I changed from playing the cello in orchestras to playing the violin I became very aware of the different levels of sounds involved, both from me and the surrounding players. A useful trick I found to enable myself to hear my playing more as others would, without deafening myself with my playing, and to mask the inevitable bow noise coming into my left ear, was to put a plug of cotton wool into that ear. The result was that with my right ear I was hearing a more balanced sound from the ensemble, with a more muted sound going into my left ear, whilst still being able to project the sound to whatever level is necessary. Problem solved.
>>He will also be hearing close-up non-projecting bow noises and so will not be hearing himself as others hear him.
Trevor, you can have no idea how happy you have just made me. :-)
5stringfool - thanks for that too - something I must try out. Picks are a whole can of worms in themselves - either too rounded, too pointy, too thick and slidy, too thin and clicky. No such thing as one that’s just right…
[*Maybe that is the answer. Bring your own corner.*]
And to think they used to laugh at the folkies who brought their own tankard to the pub :)
@Trevor - it’s surprising how often this aspect of volume / projection and the difference between what the player and listener hears is skipped from fiddle / violin teaching.
As I understand it, you’re, well, not 27 any more :) - however, you do appear to have extremely acute hearing (esp in the upper frequencies) if you feel the need to use cotton wool in your left, albeit for a good reason.
I often wonder just how many people have lost a lot of that top-end frequency hearing, without realizing it.