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Playing the Mandolin: Tips, Tricks and Advice from Pro Bruce Graybill

Learning how to play the mandolin can be a time intensive process, and may look daunting for the new player interested in playing this fantastic instrument. However, playing the mandolin does not need to be overly complicated.  Many new mandolin players inquire about resources, tips and tricks for getting started.  We asked award winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer-songwriter Bruce Graybill for a few tips and tricks to make learning easier and more fun. Here’s what he suggested:

I have spent many years teaching privately, at camps and doing workshops. As a player who started relatively late in life (28 years old), my area of specialty seems to have gravitated towards how to learn and progress faster, and how to structure technique for the best ergonomic process to operate the instrument efficiently, with the least negative impact on your body. A cursory reading of interviews of greatly accomplished players (over decades) shows that the largest portion suffered from tendonitis (or related repetitive movement disorder) at some point in their career. Many of the cases were in fact so debilitating, that players had to stop playing for extended periods, and pursue many medical approaches to allow them to play again, as happened with me, propelling this area of study. Through my work as President of the Classical Mandolin Society of America, I was afforded the opportunity to do limited study some very advanced players, many of whom dealt specifically with these issues in their teaching. While I have compiled many of these approaches and observations over the years, to say that they were all 'my ideas' would be misleading. I have to give the credit for these ideas, and the observations they caused me to make, to a handful of great players and teachers that shared their knowledge and experiences with me. I am truly privileged to have some meaningful time with each, that greatly affected my approach to the Mandolin; Keith Harris, Dave Peters, Gertrud Weyhofen, Tamara Volskaya, Ugo Orlandi, Carlo Aonzo, Don Stiernberg and Ray Bell.

My short bullet list of tips:

1. Find a good instructor who teaches from a classical approach. This doesn't mean you are learning to play Classical music, but the approach to technique and musicianship has strong benefits for getting you up and running in study with a good solid foundation. Most any style of music can be used with this teaching approach. Incorporated in that study over time, with be tools that help you learn faster and develop your knowledge of music in general, which will make you a better player.

2. Learn to read standard notation. For many advanced players, this has been a key to learning much faster.

3. Develop your ear (ear training) in combination with the above.

4. Practice with a loud metronome regularly; different tempos, especially very slow.

5. Play with others, in jams and/or bands. This not only helps playing in time and adjusting timing, it helps to develop listening and ensemble skills. It also affords the opportunity to improve your improvisational skills.

6. Practice and play with good posture.

7. Study a variety of styles. This will help your playing improve more quickly, regardless of what your main you choose.

8. Listen to many Mandolin players of all styles. Read their interviews in past and current publications. It is amazing how much information can be gleaned as a player.

9. Set goals for study and performance. Recitals, concerts, contests, etc., all offer the opportunity to not only prepare material, but present it in a public performance that will reinforce growth.

10. Last but not least, and this one really is important: Get a good instrument to work with! Professional quality instruments that are well set up and sound good, have a huge impact on the growth of players. Even low-end student line saxophones for a 6th grader cost around $1500 new. In most cases, if you buy a mandolin without overpaying, you can resell it in good condition for most of, or more, than you paid for it. A great instrument will enhance your progress, and greatly increase the desire you have to play it!

About Bruce Graybill:
Award winning multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer-songwriter Bruce Graybill got his start in professional music as a lead Guitarist touring with ‘The Ebony Blue Show Band.’ In 1982 he was introduced to Mandolin and Winfield, later marrying into the family that brought him to both. Awards include two first place wins, two third place and nine top five placements in Mandolin at the National Flat-pick Championships (Winfield). He is an endorsing artist for Weber fine acoustic Instruments and a former President of The Classical Mandolin Society of America Inc. Bruce currently performs solo, with the duo ‘Cordas Eclética,’ the Gypsy Jazz ensemble ‘Hot Strings Trio,’ and the ‘Wicked Stringbenders' in the Kansas City area. Bruce also teaches privately and conducts workshops. Notable performances include The Grand Ole Opry, The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Classical Mandolin Society of America conventions across North America. Bruce’s playing can be heard on many Weber instrument marketing videos; the Rawhide Arch top Guitar, as well as many various A and F style models of Mandolins, Mandolas, Octave Mandolins and Mandocellos. View full artist profile.