Learning By Committee

Posted by Bradley Laird

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If you are trying to learn to play a musical instrument are you that guy who posts a valid question in the comments section under a YouTube video made 6 years ago? Are you that gal who buys a mandolin, scopes out the "free" lessons on YouTube, gets an account on Mandolin Cafe, and then tries to learn to play by posting "how to" questions?

I know, you are excited and there seems to be so much information on the web! And it's free, free, free!! I find it interesting that many people will cough up a couple hundred bucks for an instrument but will not lay out one red cent for proven instructional materials to learn to play said instrument. Not everyone, of course, but a lot of folks just think "Why pay? There is so much free stuff on the web!" Yet, when they get into a car accident and their leg is broken they go to a hospital and let a REAL doctor patch 'em up. They don't go on WebMD and post a question about how to splint their own leg.

Eh hem... A bit of truth: Nothing is free. Not even this very "free" post you are reading. I "spent" years learning the ideas I am about to present. I "spent" real money bringing it to you. You are "spending" your time for the free stuff. And what you are spending for that free stuff may be a waste. And don't forget that, unless you are hanging out at the public library using their "free" computers, you had to pay for your iDevice and internet. Nope. Nothing is free. And a lot of what appears to be free is pure bunk. It's like trying to get a balanced diet by hitting the "free" snack tray at six bars in a row.

Enough of that. I recently saw another posting on Mandolin Cafe (but it could have been Banjo Hangout, The Old Tractor Forum... you name it). I have seen this type of thing so many times, always with similar results, that we should talk about it.

First, here is a screen shot of the innocent Newbie and his very valid question:

mandolin forum screen shot


As you can see the helpful ideas, tips and opinions begin pouring in. I am only showing the first two. And they are good ideas. And they go on and on and on.

Rather than weigh in on the forum (adding even more "noise" with MY two cents) I decided to send the original poster a private message. Here's what I sent:


I am sending you this directly so I don't have to run the gauntlet of the peanut gallery.

Almost every time I stop by Mandolin Cafe I see a new player posting the same old questions. We've all been there--a beginner I mean. You, me, Grisman, Thile, everybody.

Forums are fun and sometimes you learn a lot but there are so many opinions and ideas being tossed about and the beginner is unable to know what is right and what is wrong. Let me give you an analogy:

Let's say my wife pulls up to a country store and her car is "acting up", making funny noises under the hood and she has no clue what the problem is. (The Beginner) Then, about 5 well-meaning, helpful old codgers get up from their rocking chairs and encircle the car all giving their opinions and suggestions as to what is wrong with the car. (The Forum Peanut Gallery) One says it might be low on oil. One says it's electrical. One says the timing is off. One says its water in the gas. One says a blown head gasket. On and on.

What my wife needs is to fix the problem and the best way to do that is to call a mechanic (A Real Expert) and have the car towed in and FIXED. One or more of the Peanut Gallery may have been right, but how can my wife know? And which one of them is actually going to get out the tools and go to work on the car? None of them.

Posting questions like "How do I improvise?" will generate lots of suggestions. All well meaning, mostly correct for them, but after you read it all you may be sitting there with all that disorganized scatter of "tips" swirling in your head and be as confused as ever.

You might notice that I rarely ever post on the Cafe. It's just not a good place to discuss things that take a lot of explaining and demonstration. It would be like learning to rebuild a VW engine with a mechanic on Twitter with a 140 character limit. And then, add in that a few thousand nice guys want to help too. And they really do want to help. It's just not the place to communicate certain things. Any one of them, if you ignored all the rest for a while, could teach you some amazing things I am sure. That's the way teacher-student things work best. Pick one, work at one approach for a while, consider another teacher, rinse and repeat. But imagine taking lessons in anything (say knitting) from 5 grandmas at once. They would be arguing over everything and you'd be better off fishing.

Now that I've said all of this here is the pitch: Go to my website, explore the "free" mandolin site and the "mandouniversity" stuff. Let me know if you have any questions. I am not saying that I have all the answers. What I am saying is that I cover a lot of ground in the videos, books, etc. that will specifically and in a organized way answer those questions you have.

I don't sign in at the Cafe often (I lurk) so if you'd like to email me for any reason use the contact menu at the top of

Take care and have fun,

Update: I found another beautiful example of this today. It seems that some posters have but one goal and that is being viewed as clever. Hey, I am all for humor and wit. But did this response do anything to help the person with the question?

another example

Huh? I rest my case.


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