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Practice Tips

John Bird

10. Steady, disciplined practice.

When I first began to play the mandolin, after I got past the initial frustration, I was amazed at how quickly I learned. Chop chords--how cool. Tremolo. Scales and tunes, and speed increasing. Learning the fingerboard and seeing the instrument in my head.

Then, all of a sudden, the quick learning stops. Frustration sets in. Whatever progress I seem to make seems to come so slowly and with so much hard work.

That's the nature of learning any craft, I think. There's so much to learn that, if you can get past the daunting body of the craft, you can make quick progress at first. And that's good, or even more people would have instruments and golf clubs and exercise machines and first chapters of novels in the closet. But you have to press on after the first exhilaration if you want to succeed.

If you want to be a mandolin player, it will take you the rest of your life. And you will go through many periods of frustration, as well as many periods of learning. The key, I'm firmly convinced, is steady, disciplined practice. It takes daily practice to make progress, to get past the doldrums, to get to those places of breakthrough and learning.

I'll go months at a time, feeling like I'm slogging through mud, and then all of a sudden, with no warning, the sun breaks through and I have suddenly and surprisingly mastered something I never thought I'd conquer. The day-to-day work makes that possible. That doesn't mean it has to be boring; there's so much to do that I can vary and explore for a lifetime.

I find this very positive and uplifting, and it applies to much more in my life than just playing the mandolin: my job teaching college students to read and write about literature, my life with my family, my own attempts as a writer, even the spiritual parts of my life. The mandolin is a very powerful metaphor for the positive energy that drives me to live from day to day on this planet.

I know that sounds a little pretentious, but I really believe it to be true. And I think that's very cool: right hand exercises, scales, rhythmic patterns, fiddle tunes, and Bill Monroe's "Wheel Hoss" not only push me to progress on the mandolin, but they also give me a pattern for the way to live my life. I thought I was just learning how to play an intriguing instrument when I picked one up over twenty years ago, but what I was really doing was learning how to live. And I intend to continue doing that, every single day, for as long as I have the strength to hold a pick. It takes no less--and I'll bet many of us on here can testify to the power of that commitment.

P.S. This will be my last tip for a while. Many thanks for the private and public messages about these ten tips. I may write some more again at some time in the future, but ten seems like a good place to stop for now. I will now admit to a kind of selfishness in writing these: I wanted to see what I thought on the matter of practice by writing my ideas for a lot of mando buddies to read; I was sharing, but I really wanted to do this for myself. After writing these ten tips, I find my thinking clarified and my dedication to the mandolin and to music in general renewed. So thanks! Now, back to the metronome.