My new teacher has a completely different approach to the instrument. While my last teacher was mostly interested in me learning how to play songs (which makes sense), the new teacher is more interested in how I'm playing the instrument.
It's interesting to take this step back a year into learning the instrument. I hadn't been paying close attention to my instrument any more. I was focused on the notes on the page. I didn't know what my hands or fingers were doing, other than whether or not they were hitting the right notes.
After my first lesson with the new teacher, I changed the way I have my strap positioned on the mandolin. I did this so that I could change the way I hold the neck with my left hand. I tend to grip the mandolin like my life depends on it. I have to remind myself that it's not a paddle and I'm not rowing a boat. I can hold it lightly with my thumb and in so doing, free up my four fingers so that they can move easier over the strings.
My first assignment from the new teacher was to simply run up and down the neck, doing chromatic finger exercises. I was no longer playing particular notes and I wasn't playing a scale. I simply ran my fingers up and down the neck, four notes at a time, and in so doing, I watched my fingers completely spaz out. They did this weird spider-like movement above the strings because they weren't familiar with the new positions. You can see what I mean at the beginning of this video:
After running up and down the fretboard all week, my fingers relaxed and hovered over the strings quite calmly. The weird finger splaying had stopped.
The other thing the new teacher had me do was finger exercises. I now sit at my desk and flip flop my fingers over one another, over and over again. I don't do this on the mandolin. I just hold my two hands together, palm-to-palm, and I flip flop my fingers over each other.
First I flip flop the index finger of each hand over each other, then the middle fingers, then the ring fingers, then the pinkies. Then I try doing the first and second set of fingers together, the second and third sets of fingers together, then the fourth. Moving on, I try to do the first set at the same time that I do the third set. This is when things start to get messy. Then I do the second set simultaneously with the fourth and now my brain freezes and says, "I DON'T KNOW WHAT NERVES TO SIGNAL BECAUSE I HAVE LOST TRACK OF WHAT FINGERS YOU WANT ME TO MOVE!"
It is at this point that I realize I'm not using nearly enough of my brain on a daily basis. It makes me understand why they say learning a new instrument or doing crossword puzzles — anything the challenges your brain on a daily basis — is a good way of preventing the onset of dementia and mental illness as you age.
THE MANDOLIN IS SAVING MY BRAIN FROM ATROPHY, PEOPLE.
That's right. The mandolin cures Alzheimer's. You heard it right here. Interestingly, my mandolin teacher says he considers musicians "mini-athletes." It makes a lot of sense. You need to work out the muscles of your hands and forearms just as if you were training for a sport. It takes practice. It takes repetition. It takes conditioning. So now I'm finally addressing the physical challenges behind the instrument and I'm actually enjoying it a bit more.
And now, just for fun, here are some of my favorite bands featuring the mando:
Here's Brandi Carlile, who I'm going to see in concert this month and whose voice was sent down from the angels or knitted by unicorns. I'm not sure which. Maybe it's both:
And a little uplifting diddy from the Lumineers, thanks to the sprightly strings of the mandolin coming in at around :56:
More mando in the weirdly techno-folk Crystal Fighters. They grow on you, I swear:
And last but not least, Chris Thile on the mandolin from the Punch Brothers, who was also named a MacArthur Genius this week. That's right, folks, A MANDOLIN GENIUS. I'm telling you, learning the mandolin will make you both a genius and the world's tiniest ironman athlete. Oh, and could win you $500,000: