3. Get a metronome!
I can't tell you how many times I read that advice and ignored it. I figured a metronome was just a nerdy machine for piano players. I couldn't see what difference it could make, especially since I was most interested in bluegrass, a folk, improvisational music that relies on intuition rather than mechanics (or so I thought).
I finally got one, and I was astonished at what a difference it makes. When you play with a metronome, you have to stop kidding yourself and start being honest. You THINK you play in time, you think you can play a tune, you think you're doing it, but until you practice with a metronome, you're just fooling yourself. I bought a wind-up mechanical kind about 15 years ago, but there are all sorts of digital ones now, and inexpensive. If you don't have one, get one. I guarantee it will be your best musical investment in a long, long time.
Its uses are myriad, and I'm sure others can tell how they use it. Here's a list of mine:
- Practice scales at speed. I like to start at half note=108 beats per minute and play scales, increasing the increments until I reach my limit. Also practice scale patterns doing the same. The benefits for both right and left hand are enormous.
- Practice tremolo. There's no better way to regulate what you do in a tremolo than using a metronome. You can feel what both you right and left hands are doing with a precision that you can never chart without the machine.
- Practice rhythm. This is great before playing with others, and a skill many people overlook. The metronome will not lie, and it will not get tired (as long as you wind it or replace the battery!)
- Practice tunes. When I'm learning a new tune, I like to find both a target and an actual tempo. I listen to a recording and set the target tempo, then play at a speed I can actually play at. Knowing the difference shows me exactly what I need to do. It's encouraging to see myself progress notch by notch.
One of the benefits of a metronome is the way the beat will ingrain itself into your brain. You can't help but become steadier once that beat burrows itself into your synapses. I can't repeat this enough, but I truly think playing with a metronome is the single best aid you can find to making yourself a better mandolinist and musician. If you practice with one every day, you will get better and steadier.