January/February Mandolin Diary

February 2021

By Lucia · 6 minute read

You’ll be pleased to know I’m still strumming away! Not every day, but as I’d hoped mandolin practice has become a regular component of my week. I’m feeling much more comfortable switching between positions (placing my hand higher up the neck as required) and my tremolo is becoming more reliable.

My mandolin playing has even helped me unearth some useful memories of my own beginner violin classes! My first teacher started us off holding the violin like a guitar so we could easily see our finger spacing on the neck of the violin, and I used this technique for the first time this year in my own teaching to great effect.

Tuning

As I’ve mentioned before, tuning a mandolin takes some patience! After some more thought on the matter I’ve come up with two reasons I might be finding it so hard:

  1. I have NEVER changed my mandolin strings. Those of you who follow EcoNotes on Facebook will know I like to change my violin strings at least once a year: old strings start to sound tired and sometimes the stopping distance required for certain notes to be in tune alters. I’m way overdue a string change on my mandolin, so I promise I’ll get around to that soon!
  2. I’ve been pondering the fact that, within a small orchestra, it’s always preferable to have three or more string players in each section as tuning and blending two unison players precisely is incredibly difficult. Even pianos have 3 strings per key instead of two for this exact same reason. So it’s not surprising that instruments like the mandolin with courses (pairs) of strings are a bit tricky to tune well: they will always be just a teeny bit out. Far from being a hindrance though, I think this adds to the charm of the mandolin sound! Maybe a little bit like a Honky Tonk piano…?

Warm-ups

If you’re a frequent MandoBlog reader you’ll know I’ve been working my way through VCM’s Grade 3 syllabus. In addition to the set scales, arpeggios and string crossing patterns I’ve been finishing my warm-ups with a few of my own technical exercises: a trill exercise to help with my Fouchetti (more on that later) and a tremolo exercise (expanded from the one I shared last August) which I play on each string:

Recording tips

Before we hit the videos, I thought I’d share my top two tips for preparing to record:

  1. Film your warm-up: By getting your equipment set up straight away, you can check you’re happy with the camera angle, lighting and position of your music before you’ve done your first real take. You may even find your “practice run” ends up being the best take!
  2. Tune well: There’s nothing more annoying than listening back to what you thought was a good take and realising your open strings are out of tune. As with any performing, whether recorded or to a live audience, the time taken to tune well before you start is never a waste.

Completing my Grade 3 video series

Sauli

I really enjoyed getting to know these two short movements by Italian composer Filippo Sauli, an early 18th-century theorbo player thought to have been born in the beautiful Italian city of Florence. It is a city I know well, following many a visit to my sister!

My first challenge was deciding how fast to play these pieces, as mandolinist Avi Avital has recorded the whole partita with tempi that differ massively from the recommended speeds in the book. The Prelude for example has a recommended metronome mark of quaver = 100, but Avital plays it at crotchet = 160 (over triple the speed!). The Corrente is marked crotchet = 132, whereas Avital chooses a tempo of crotchet = 200. In both cases, I chose to sit between the two (crotchet = 120 and 160 respectively), going at a Grade 3-appropriate speed whilst aiming to harness some of the wonderful rubato and flow that Avital brings to these simple melodies.

It was a challenge arranging my fingers swiftly enough for the last few chords of the Preludio, but patient practice got me there in the end!

You can find these movements in Astute Music’s Favourite Mandolin Solos from the 18th Century or in VCM’s Mandolin Exams Book Grade Three.

Mr. Honey Walks Down the Street

Before lockdown I would never have thought to record a duet with someone on the other side of the world. But for my next video I decided to call upon my good friend Seb Grand, joint founder of the Grand School of Music in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Seb and I studied together at the RNCM and RAM and used to perform together regularly in the D’Avanzo Piano Trio (alongside Seb’s wife, cellist Noelle). It’s been years since we’ve made music together, so even though I was just playing along with a recorded video it was a lot of fun!

Mr Honey Walks Down the Street is by British composer Eileen Pakenham. You can read more about her here: doesn’t she sound like the humblest composer ever? And look like the friendliest?? This is one of those pieces that sounds entirely different when you put the melody and accompaniment together. I love the moody mysteriousness the piano part adds, especially when paired with the mandolin’s tremolo.

I found the shifting a bit tricky at first, but it ended up feeling very natural. I also challenged myself to play the piece from memory, exercising a part of my brain that I haven’t really needed for a while! Top tip for memorising music: include the dynamics in the process so they feel completely integral to the music.

Find the music in VCM’s Mandolin Exams Book Grade Three.

Fouchetti

Giovanni Fouchetti is a VCM favourite, featuring on every syllabus from grades 1 to 4. After my Grade 2 video taking more takes than I care to share, I decided when I began work on Grade 3 that I would record this piece towards the end of the grade whilst practising the trills as part of every warm-up. I came up with the following exercise which combines the trill passages from both duet parts and stuck it into my scale book to make sure I never forgot to do it!

The hard work seemed to pay off, as I managed to record it in far fewer takes! But having practised the trills for so long though, I found it hard to adopt my usual “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” mindset!

Find the music in VCM’s Mandolin Exams Book Grade Three or buy the Serenades here.

Microjazz for Mandolin

Followers will know that I’ve loved the Microjazz for Mandolin book, and won’t be surprised to hear I’m sad to have reached the end. I wonder if Christopher Norton will ever write a Book 2…? One of the things I’ve enjoyed is playing along with a guitar accompaniment, something violinists don’t often get to do. I once again enlisted the wonderful playing of another fellow RAM alumnus David Massey, which made this even more enjoyable: it was such a pleasure listening to David’s playing as I recorded my part and edited the video.

Be on the lookout for the drama of the last chord of Rustic Dance, when I’m instructed to strum the chord top to bottom instead of the usual bottom to top: what a way to say goodbye to Grade 3!

I can’t wait to start exploring the next grade’s repertoire. I’d love to improve my tremolo further and strengthen my playing on the G string – the one octave A major scale on one string in VCM’s Grade 4 technical exercises should help with this!!

(Plus some new strings…)

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time!

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Mandolin Diary – Week 1
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