March/April Mandolin Diary

April 2021

By Lucia · 4 minute read

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Ancient Buddhist proverb

I’ve known this phrase for a while now, but never before has it resonated with me so strongly!

Earlier this year, I was Googling (on Ecosia, but “Ecosiaing” doesn’t sound quite right) one of the composers from a previous mandolin grade and stumbled across an excerpt from a book called The Mandolin Lesson. I kept the tab open on my computer for a while and when I eventually got around to reading it I became so intrigued that I had to order a copy! A throwaway comment somewhere in the text about a journey home to East London on the central line piqued my interest even more, so when I received my dispatch notification directly from the author herself I decided to hit the reply button. After a few friendly messages back and forth, I had booked my own mandolin lesson!

Although I had already started looking at VCM’s Grade 4 repertoire, I kept coming up against questions which stopped me from committing anything to video.

How should I play that trill?

Why can I hear tremolo on one recording and not another?

How can I stop this chord sounding so tinny?

How do I change my strings and which type should I use?

With my first lesson booked for 12th March I started feeling calmer in the knowledge that these questions would finally be answered, and by someone who knew the style of playing I was aiming for. I was becoming tired and confused trawling through the internet for answers, never quite knowing how qualified the authors and video makers were.

As I began reading her book, I felt more and more certain Frances would be the right teacher for me. Her violin background meant she would understand exactly where I was coming from, and her performances on the classical stage are exactly what I’m hoping for further down the line. Her experiences of Italy gave us another thing in common and not only that, but she lives only a few tube stops away: perfect for when face-to-face lessons can return!

I couldn’t help but laugh in the days running up to my first lesson: I suddenly started writing in down and up strokes, fingerings and dynamics, realising I had been freestyling up until then! Even when recording my previous videos, if something wasn’t quite right I could just do another take. But suddenly I became very aware I would be playing live (albeit over Skype) whilst having my decisions scrutinised by another human being! It really drove home to me just how out of practice I was at regular live performance, thanks to our current circumstances.

It was great to be able to share my videos with Frances before the first lesson. It meant we were able to hit the ground running, targeting my right hand technique straight away! If you look closely in the video below, you’ll notice I am now resting the heel of my right hand on the strings, just behind the bridge, whilst developing a sideways motion with my wrist (similar to that of using a rubber or sliding a computer mouse side to side).

Frances and I have got on brilliantly over my first three lessons! I have learnt so much about the world of classical mandolin playing already, and I can’t wait to see how my playing develops under her kind and watchful eye. She even sent me a little gift in the post after our first lesson: a new plectrum! I love its almond shape, echoing the shape of the mandolin itself: a practical feature, not just a gimmick! The slender shape helps me reach the strings better with my new right hand technique.

Fouchetti Sonata IV: Allegro

Understandably, getting used to this new technique has slowed me down a little so there’s only one video for your delight and delectation this time!

Unlike in the previous grades, Fouchetti’s Grade 4 offering is one of the simpler pieces on the syllabus, making it an easy choice for my first video of the series. It demonstrates a common quality of mandolin music that I love: there is a charm and cheerfulness to the music that lifts the spirits even when it is predominantly in a minor key.

This piece also follows the trend that, although we are still quite early on in the grades, this is real music! Much of the beginner repertoire for more common instruments comprises simplified versions of more complex tunes, even melodies originally written for different instruments. But I have loved seeing how much of the VCM syllabus features specific music for the mandolin, making them much more enjoyable to play.

YouTube Audience

I started this series of videos for my own development and accountability, so it’s been a lovely surprise to start receiving comments and encouragement from complete strangers who have stumbled across my YouTube channel! I love hearing that my project is inspiring others to pick up their own neglected instruments, and have loved being able to answer their questions as I become more confident in my own abilities.

I imagine there are many people in my position who have been teaching themselves new instruments over the long months of lockdown. If this is you and you feel you’re reaching the limits of self-tuition, why not get in touch? If you’re getting to know the violin or viola, I’d love to help! Or for anything else I can point you in the direction of one of my talented colleagues. Just visit my teaching or contact pages to start the next step of your journey. I can’t recommend lessons enough!

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