Matt from Boulder, CO writes:
Thanks for your promotion of the closet pickers. Everything that you are trying to accomplish is much needed and right on the mark.

My son, Gabe, is 9 and has been taking mandolin lessons in Boulder for coming on 3 years now. After Rockygrass this year, he says that he wants to be in mandolin contest next year. An honorable goal!!! He has been using mostly the suzuki books, as well as some folk song sheets, in his lessons with a local violinist/mandolinist. My questions:

While his instructor has been great, I sometimes think that I should steer Gabe toward an instructor that will teach him more along the lines of the music he is really interested in, bluegrass. Should I stick with the current instructor to continue with Gabe learning the basics or steer him at this point toward another instructor?

Nice to hear about Gabe. I hope to hear him play one of these days.

I think musicians should follow what they most immediately *want* to do. Music at its purest is a pure “pleasure” thing, and the “work” factor in my opinion is not necessary to bring in until the player realizes that that will increase the pleasure (by making more and better music possible, with more and better players).

So for instance, I don’t teach scales, but actual songs that end up using the same notes anyway. I get people to find things by ear, because that is definitely a bluegrass skill, and the more someone tries to do it, the better they get. There are types of knowledge that are worth spending time to learn, because they unlock possibilities (such as where to find melody notes, what flavors different chord components bring out, etc.), all for the sake of enriching the music. Once a player realizes how helpful that knowledge will be, the motivation to learn it is there, and they can start utilizing it immediately. That makes it feel less like “work”. I think a 9-year old already has enough “school” in his life where he has to learn things that may not be interesting. Music should be a respite. If a musician loves music, it shows throughout his/her playing.

Gabe has enjoyed “jamming” with others in the campgrounds of the festivals.  While his hootspa is there to approach the groups, his experience and ability to participate is limited.  Is there a worthwhile children’s jam group or an opportunity that you know of for him to play with other kids both to grow in this and have fun?

He would be quite welcome to attend one of my jam camps. He could also get his feet wet by working with my jam videos, which present a large amount of standard repertoire and offer different play along possibilities. Details on those are also on the web site. He would certainly benefit from some jamming instruction, and the jamming situation would help him see what skills he needs to develop to be a better jammer, which is essentially a better musician.

What other suggestions do you have to best prepare him for the contest next year?

With his teacher, select up to 6 pieces that would challenge him AND impress the judges, and then work carefully on every part that is not up to snuff (clear, smooth, and rhythmic, with proper emphasis in the proper places). A year of doing that would accomplish a great deal for his technique, and help establish patterns that would serve him well for the rest of his life. This is something like the path Chris Thile was on as a child. For him, one of the cool results was that he started winning serious prize money when he was only 10 or 12 (and not just because he was cute). He developed a lot of musical momentum during that time, and it hasn’t stopped yet.

A great thing about a young kid learning to perform (under what adults think of as pressure) is that they become somewhat immune to pressure. Chris Thile’s dad said when I produced his first record, that he actually plays better under pressure.

Sounds like there’s a lot of fun down the line, but it’s already fun!