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A Syncopated Twist on Chromatic Scales

June 2011 3 Comments

by Marilynn Mair


For the June-July issue of Mandolin Sessions I’m working with an exercise from my recent Mel Bay publication, “Brazilian Choro—A Method for Mandolin and Bandolim,” co-written with Rio bandolimist, Paulo Sa. This exercise on chromatic scales appears mid-way through the book, and combines chromatic fingering and syncopated rhythm in a way that will challenge and benefit mandolinists of all styles.


Chromatic fingering on the mandolin creates a quandary for your left hand, as each finger has to cover 2 different frets in quick succession, so you need to constantly readjust your hand position slightly to keep the line fluid and not run out of fingers. How you solve this dilemma depends on the music you are playing, the flexibility of your left-hand technique, and your familiarity with playing chromatic passages. Difficult at first, chromatic fingering will become second nature with practice. And besides Choro, an extremely chromatic style, dexterity in playing chromatic runs is crucial for playing jazz, bluegrass and any improvisational style well.


Some suggestions for fingering are given at the beginning of the series of exercises. Try them out and decide how to apply them to the music that follows. While it would have been easy for me to give you a strict fingering template for all the exercises, it is more valuable in the long run for you to figure out a fingering, or several fingerings, that will work well for you.


These exercises also involve the characteristic Choro syncopation of 16th-8th-16th, and variations of that rhythm incorporating rests and ties. This element of syncopation is important to Choro and gives it a very different feel than either jazz or bluegrass, because rather than “swinging” a written rhythm, players vary the rhythm by a 16th note one way or the other (or by playing triplets, but that is beyond the purview of this exercise to explain). Thus learning to carefully place notes within the music’s 16th-note template is crucial.


The rhythm as written in the last section of Exercise 1 may look unfamiliar to you if you don’t already play Choro because of the displaced 8th notes. In classical music you would find the 2nd 8th note in the measure written as two tied 16th notes, so there would be a place-keeper written note on beat 2 even though nothing actually sounds there. Choro typically just writes the notes as played, except in phrasing over the barline where ties become necessary.


I’ve given you a count-in at the start of the recording, and also give the “one” at the start of Exercise 2, to keep you on track rhythmically since there is a rest on beat 1. I’ve added a measure of rest before Exercise 3 in the recording, because the start sounded as if it could be confusing for you without it. But otherwise the exercises flow from one to the next to give you practice changing rhythmic patterns.


If you find this series of exercises interesting, there are many like it in “Brazilian Choro—A Method for Mandolin and Bandolim,” that explore a variety of rhythms patterns and syncopation, modal scales and arpeggios, as well as the music, history and performance practice of Choro. You can also find articles on Choro and some Brazilian sheet music to download on my webpage, as well as a link to purchase my new Brazilian recording, “Meu Bandolim” (My Mandolin), recorded in Rio and the US with an all-Brazilian cast of musicians.


And if right now you are wishing you could just sit down for a private lesson with me to work all this out, well this summer you can do exactly that. You can have 5 days of private lessons (alternating between me and my mandolin colleague), plus technique classes, workshops, and a chance to rehearse and play in the American Mandolin & Guitar Orchestra, by attending my SummerKeys session, from July 11-15 in Lubec, Maine. Hope to see you there!

ChromaticScales92-3.mp3 | Printable Version

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  • Mandolin Tuner said:

    Nice article. I am just starting out to teach myself to play. Thanks again!

  • fox said:

    Does a suggested outline exist for The Complete Mandolinist? I’ve made up one for myself showing exercises from the various sections of the book to work on simultaneously but I would feel more comfortable with one from an experienced music instructor.

  • mmair said:

    MT, glad you enjoyed the article. Fox, the idea is to unlink the lockstep development of the RH & LH for players coming from different backgrounds. If you’re a violinist then the LH will go faster & the RH will take more time. if you’re a guitarist it’ll probably be the opposite. Generally the Musicianship pages are the hardest, and Coordination will need to wait until you have each hand going. I’m sure your outline is perfect for you.