By Brad Phillips
Artistic Director of The Saline Fiddlers
Music Producer for Jeff Daniels
One fine day in the mid ’90s, I was a young fiddle nerd in the 6th grade orchestra in Saline, MI when my director Bob Phillips came to class with a peculiar-looking instrument case. It was the size of a violin case, but was shaped like a distorted mini-banjo. As he began our daily tuning routine, he opened the case and revealed an instrument I had never seen before. It was a tiny, fancy, eight-stringed instrument with a black and white paint job that sounded like nothing I had ever heard before.
Mr. Phillips (no relation) proceeded to lead us through class that day playing this mysterious little instrument. Without changing instrument, he could seamlessly move back and forth from picking out melodic lines and accompanying us as we played our Twinkle variations and fiddles tunes like “Cripple Creek” and “Old Joe Clark.” I was completely captivated by the sound, energy, and versatility of what this small wonder was capable of. At the end of class, I fought my way through the chaos of kids ferociously packing up their things to find out more about this new fixation of mine.
“It’s a mandolin,” said Mr. P. “It is tuned the same way as your fiddle!” Armed with this new knowledge, I was allowed to borrow a mandolin from Mr. Phillips that night, and I never looked back.
All these years later, the double-stringed (GG-DD-AA-EE) mandolin is an integral part of my musical life. I am a violinist first and foremost, but the mandolin is an extremely close 2nd, as I have maintained my involvement with it since that day in 1996. Today, I use the mandolin both as a performer and as a music educator. In terms of the mandolin as a tool for string education, it serves a number of helpful purposes. I have found that the characteristics of the mandolin add up to a combination violin-piano-metronome, all in one. Having all of these elements in one instrument saves time switching between instruments and helps keep the flow going.
In addition to being much more compact than a piano or a guitar, the mandolin is fun to play and is fascinating to young kids. I have found the mandolin to be useful in both large ensemble rehearsals and private lesson settings. The sound of the mandolin is bright and percussive. This percussive nature makes for a unique metronome of sorts that helps drive any group of young players. The contrasting sound of the pick shooting across the high-tension strings, (or the characteristic “chop”) has a way of capturing the attention of students and is heard clearly above the soft edges of a string ensemble. This “chop” combined with chords provides an energetic, driving accompaniment. In my experience leading the Saline Fiddlers and other groups like them, the mandolin often saves the day in a frustrating rehearsal when the robotic metronome just won’t do the job. It is as if the mandolin creates the perception of jamming or playing in a band.
Learning to play basic mandolin is fairly easy to do, especially if you already play an instrument tuned in fifths. All the notes are where you would expect, and violin fingerings tend to transfer in most cases. Learning half a dozen chords would be a good first step. Once you’ve learned your basic chords, consider challenging yourself to learning the diatonic chords in a few common keys. The more you play, the more your calluses will develop to handle the double steel strings. (Fair warning: Violin calluses aren’t enough. It does hurt at first. You’ll need to develop your thicker skin.)
In my experience, aside from the throbbing fingertips, the most challenging part of doubling on the mandolin from a strictly bowed-strings background is learning to control the pick. Not unlike learning to use a bow, creating a rich, full tone with a pick is a challenge at first. You’ll want to use a thicker pick (around 1 to 2 mm) with rounded edges. Anything too thin or pointy is just noisy. When holding the pick, being loose is key. Fit the pick between your thumb and first knuckle on your index finger in the most natural way possible. Apply only enough pressure to the pick to keep it from falling out of your hand. Anything more is a waste of energy and will hinder technical development with the right hand should you decide to try and further your skills past the basics. Tension is the enemy! Stay loose.
I highly recommend taking up the mandolin and using it as a tool for teaching music. Its unique characteristics can enrich the environment of any strings classroom. It is tremendously useful rhythmically and as a way of implementing harmonic support while captivating your students’ interest. It truly is like a musical multi-tool, combining aspects of the violin, piano, and metronome all in one small, snazzy little instrument. And who knows…maybe you’ll inspire a career mandolin player the first day you take it to class!
Great mandolin players to check out: Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Adam Steffey, David Grisman, and Joshua Pinkham.
For more information or Skype Lessons, contact Brad Phillips at: firstname.lastname@example.org.