In a recent All Things Strings interview with Irish-American fiddler Liz Carroll, she was asked if she practices scales and arpeggios. She responded that the tunes themselves are the practice: “there are lots of nice runs within tunes, so I feel I get to practice arpeggios there”.
It was refreshing and encouraging to read this from an expert in traditional music because I have been trying to formulate a practice routine centered around tune-based exercises. I believe an intellectual understanding of scales and arpeggios can be helpful when placed within the context of tunes. The transition to mandolin is helping me flesh out this concept.
Here are some tune based practice techniques that I am in the process of implementing:
Play the same phrase or lick in all keys using both open and closed strings. Note how the same phrase is made in different ways. Expand up on this by playing the whole tune in all keys using open and closed shapes.
Play the tune in a higher or lower octave if possible.
Play a tune or phrase in the same key but in at least 4 different positions on the neck: 1st position (pinky on 7th fret), 2nd position (ring finger on 7th fret), 3rd position (middle finger on 7th fret), 4th position (index finger on 7th fret) and so on. The beginning phrase of the B-part of Arkansas Traveler is a good one to work with.
Be mindful of each where each note in the melody is in relation to the scale as well as the chord of the moment. For example, a G note in the key of D is the 4th note of the scale, but could also be the root note of the IV chord. A C# note in the key of D is the 7th note of the scale but might also be the 3rd note of the A chord.
Harmonize each note in the melody with what mandolin player Carl Jones calls a slant or reach (AKA a double stop). This exercise puts the practice of harmonizing a scale to use within a tune.
Fill in quarter notes and other holes in the melody with arpeggios.
Transcriptions: Practice transcribing unfamiliar tunes from Book/CD sets containing both the audio and notation. Compare your transcription to the actual sheet music or tab.