By Brad Phillips
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 violin-piano-metronome combination. Having all of these elements in one instrument saves time switching between instruments and helps keep the flow going.
Characteristics of the Mandolin
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.
Introducing Your Students to the Basics
Learning to play basic mandolin is fairly easy for students, especially if they already play an instrument tuned in fifths. All the notes are where one would expect, and violin fingerings tend to transfer in most cases. Teaching half a dozen chords would be a good first step. Once the student has learned basic chords, consider challenging him or her to learning the diatonic chords in a few common keys. The more they play, the more their calluses will develop to handle the double steel strings. (Fair warning: Violin calluses aren’t enough. It does hurt at first—they’ll need to develop thicker skin.)
Controlling the Pick
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. Have your students 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. Have them hold the pick between the thumb and first knuckle on their index finger in the most natural way possible, adding enough pressure to the pick to keep it from falling out of their hand. Anything more is a waste of energy and will hinder technical development with the right hand should they decide to try and further their skills past the basics. Tension is the enemy! Stay loose.
The Mandolin as a Teaching Tool
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.
Brad Phillips is a multi-instrumentalist from the great state of Michigan. Holding both bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance, Brad’s work as a fiddler, violinist, mandolinist, guitarist, arranger, composer, producer and teacher has made him one of the area’s most sought-after acoustic musicians. He has appeared with the likes of Jeff Daniels, The Verve Pipe, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Joshua Davis, The Elders, May Erlewine, Seth Bernard, Drew De Four, and toured for 10 years with Celtic super-group Millish. A resident artist at the Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, MI, Brad also works as a sound designer and musical director. He teaches Roots Music & Improvisation for Strings at The U of M String Preparatory Academy, and has several performance projects of his own including duos with virtuoso bassist Jacob Warren, guitarist extraordinaire Jesse Mason, The Roots Music Strings, and others.