Mandolin tremolo is the subject of this 2nd lesson in the Mandolin Lessons for beginners concept I conceived almost one year ago targeting to teach my kids how to play mandolin and have fun, while at the same time help others learn mandolin as well, by recording here a detailed transcript of each lesson, together with videos and tabs.
The first lesson proved popular and I received nice comments motivating me to continue. I am doing that now with this second lesson that is all about mandolin tremolo, hoping that Alexandra and Panos (my kids) will continue having fun while learning how to play. I am trying my best to make these lessons interesting, as I want my kids to enjoy them and for this reason I am using a mixture of theory, practice with videos and recordings for these lessons. In this second lesson, I will begin with a discussion about the first lesson (what have you learned?), and then I will focus on tremolo, probably the most important technique for mandolinists.
So, here is the second mandolin lesson, grab your mandolin and follow Panos footsteps!
We start the lesson by settling in at a nice spot, near the Christmas tree and in front of a large window to have nice physical light.
Here is the spot.
And here is the student – my 11-year old son, Panos, ready to start (really dad?).
We begin remembering what we did during the previous lesson, a part of which was theory and the rest was practice.
I ask Panos what he learned and he gives me the highlights, i.e. how to hold the mandolin, how to place the left and right hands, how to hold the pick, how to read tabs. He also adds that I gave him two exercises to practice.
I begin asking questions, to see how much he actually remembers (try to answer them on your own, before revealing the answer):
Once we are finished with the questions, I ask Panos to play for me the exercises I gave her during the first lesson, to see if he has any problems before proceeding.
Now, that we are sure that the previous lesson is well understood, it’s time to move on to new stuff!
This is how I explain what is tremolo to Panos:
Tremolo is a music term that we use to describe the right-hand technique where we rapidly repeat a single note with the pick.
I play tremolo for Panos to give him a feeling of what tremolo sounds like. You can hear the soundclip above.
I then ask him to try it.
Here is Panos trying to play tremolo. He looks a little bit frustrated, but he is not disappointed you shouldn’t be either! Tremolo is not easy. Keep reading to see how you can master mandolin tremolo with practice.
I explain that the key with tremolo is to understand that you have to play:
the same note many times in a series of down-up, down-up strokes. The faster you become with this movement, the better sound you produce.
After understanding what tremolo is, I explain to Panos that we have two types of tremolo, the free tremolo and the measured tremolo.
Free tremolo, sometimes called also expressive tremolo, is a tremolo that can speed up and slow down in order to help express feelings while playing.
Measured tremolo, is timed in order to follow the music or to produce a desired effect. We may have four strokes per beat, for fast tempos, six strokes per beat for medium tempos and eight or even twelve strokes per beat for songs with slow tempos.
Free tremolo is used in music without a strong beat, such as ballads, classical music etc. Measured tremolo is mainly used in music with strong beat, such as blue grass.
So, what do we call the technique where we do not play tremolo? Then we use the word staccato, to describe the technique when he hit a note just once!
I see that Panos finds it difficult to understand the differences, so I play it for him.
I then ask this question: “Why do we play tremolo?”
I get no clear answer from Panos, so I proceed to explain it.
Tremolo is mainly used to play notes of long values (duration), as when done properly it produces a sound that is like the note becoming one long sustained constant note.
The thing with mandolin tremolo is that due to the string pairs, the tremolo sound is so characteristic and beautiful that it has become something like a signature for the mandolin. Nevertheless, you should not use it anywhere!
A good way to understand the neccesity and importance of the mandolin tremolo is to make a comparison with the cello.
I watch with Panos the above video of a cellist playing long notes and I ask him if he sees any similarity in how the cellist uses the bow with the mandolin tremolo. This is what he answers:
The movement of the bow produces a sustained note. Can you do this with a mandolin? Not really, unless you use tremolo.
That’s an excellent answer, we are now ready to continue.
Till now, I explained to Panos that tremolo is used to produce long sustained constant notes. But is this the only case when we play tremolo with the mandolin?
The answer is no, and so I explain to Panos that we also play tremolo when we want to create a special effect and to express a specific feeling.
As this complicates things, and Panos looks puzzled, I give him three generic rules that will help him decide when to use tremolo.
- First rule: The composer or arranger has indicated that you should play measured tremolo by using hash marks on the stem of the note or under the number in the tab.
I give him a music score that contains notes with hash marks.
I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the hash marks. I ask him:
- Second rule: The piece has slow tempo and notes with long values, so the only way to achieve the sustained sound required is to play these notes with tremolo. In this case the composer does not need to add any indication.
We now move on the third rule.
- Third rule: Free tremolo is sometimes indicated with slurs over the notes. To indicate where the tremolo should stop, the composer usually places a dot (staccato symbol) on the first note after the tremolo.
I give him a music score that contains notes with slurs.
I show this picture to Panos to help him identify the slurs. I ask him:
How easy is to play tremolo? The truth is that it is difficult, it requires practice and the usage of the pick and the right hand when playing mandolin tremolo is essential.
I give to Panos some exercises and I emphasise again that he must not get disappointed at the beginning. Tremolo will improve over time.
Here is a link to the exercise in PDF format for you to print: Lesson 2 practice exercises
I ask Panos to play each exercise slowly, three times. To make each note last enough to practice tremolo, I ask him to count to four before moving to the next note.
Here is Panos trying the exercises.
Once he seems to understand the exercises, I tell him he needs to practise this exercise, as homework, for the next lesson.
As these exercises are not really interesting, I also give him the following exercise that is much nicer, as it is played with mandolin and guitar. If you don’t have a guitar don’t worry. I have recorded the guitar part for you below to play along.
I now give Panos his real homework. This is a piece of music from Fernando Sor, so I start with a short biography of the composer and some trivial facts for this particular piece of music.
Josep Ferran Sorts i Muntades (baptized 14 February 1778 – died 10 July 1839) was a Spanish classical guitarist and composer. While he is best known for his guitar compositions, he also composed music for a wide range of genres, including opera, orchestra, string quartet, piano, voice, and ballet. His ballet score Cendrillon (Cinderella) received over one hundred performances. Sor’s works for guitar range from pieces for beginning players to advanced players such as Variations on a Theme of Mozart. Sor’s contemporaries considered him to be the best guitarist in the world,and his works for guitar have been widely played and reprinted since his death.
I describe to Panos, that this particular piece of Sor music that I give him is identified as Op.35 No.22 and is really an inspiring piece of music, although very simple. It is an exercise for guitarists (that is why it does not have a proper name), but it so beautiful that some of the greatest guitarists in the world have performed i at concerts. Julian Bream for example, probably the greatest classical guitarist of all times, plays this piece in his DVD while explaining that it is the first piece of music that he ever played in front of an audience when he was very young (if I remember correct he was eleven years old), so he is very fond of it, like me.
So, here it is, Fernando Sor’s Op.35 No.22 arranged for mandolin and guitar:
I now give Panos the mandolin score and mandolin tab.
If you want to print it, here is a pdf (adobe Acrobat file type) that is more convenient to print:
I ask Panos to play along with me while I play the guitar. It is not easy, but he likes it! Here is a recording of the guitar part for you to play along:
I hope you like it, as much as I (and Panos) do.
That’s it! I cross my fingers and hope that this second lesson was easy enough for Panos to follow and it will not scare him off!
He looks happy and continues trying to play the Sor exercise after I leave hime alone. Success!!!! I am a happy dad…
What do you think my chances are for Alexandra and Panos wanting to continue the mandolin lessons and do a third one? Please leave a comment to give me motivation to continue!