August 2020

By Lucia · 4 minute read

Did you know I love mandolins? I even own one. It has been getting quite lonely recently, sitting on top of our instrument cabinet gathering dust, but I am making a public vow right here to start playing it more!

(You can follow along with my mandolin diary here.)

When I hear the instrument’s distinctive sound I can’t help but smile. But if you’re wondering how or why a classical violinist became a mandolin fan, read on!

What is it?

You may have gathered by now that I’m not talking about a handy kitchen gadget for slicing vegetables*.

A mandolin is a small strummed string instrument with frets. There are many different types (about which you can learn here) but there are three standard styles:

  • Bowlback mandolin, a native of the Southern Italian city of Naples;
  • European flat-back mandolin;
  • American carved-top, or F-style, mandolin.

Although these instruments look very different, they all have 8 strings which are tuned in unison pairs to four pitches: G, D, A and E. That’s right, exactly the same as a violin! So although many mandolin players come to the instrument via the guitar as they are already familiar with frets and plectrums, violinists can adapt fairly easily too due to the shared pitching.

The Neapolitan bowlback: my favourite!

Italian Roots

My father is from the Southern Italian region of Puglia, so I feel a tug of nostalgia whenever I hear the unmistakeable sound. I have been told that my late Italian Grandfather used to play mandolin and I wish I could have heard him! If you’re not sure whether you’ve heard one before, have a listen to the beginning of Dean Martin’s That’s Amore – the sound whisks me back to the long Italian summers of my childhood.

Missed Opportunity

I first entertained the idea of having a go myself whilst studying for my undergraduate degree at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Our orchestra manager asked for a volunteer from the violin faculty to learn some mandolin for an orchestra project. I don’t remember the piece, and I wasn’t the chosen one, but it wasn’t until this point that I realised the mandolin also featured in orchestral repertoire.


A year later we went on a college orchestra trip to Montepulciano in Tuscany, where we performed Giovanni Paisiello’s opera The Barber of Seville (correct: Paisiello wrote his opera before Rossini, and his earlier version was much more popular at the time). We were joined in the orchestra pit by a local mandolinist, whom I thoroughly enjoyed sitting next to! It fuelled my love of the plinky-plunky sound even more.

Don Giovanni

In the summer of 2010 I moved to London. I auditioned as leader of the one-to-a-part opera company Co-Opera Co. and subsequently enjoyed four summers’ worth of pocket opera productions with the group. One of my favourite projects was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which features mandolin in the Canzonetta Deh, vieni alla finestra. As we were such a small orchestra, it was decided (OK, I may have begged a little) that I could try my hand at the mandolin part. So I got to work!

I was able to borrow a mandolin from the Royal Academy of Music, where I was studying at the time, and arranged a lesson on plectrum and fret technique from my guitarist friend David Massey. I also picked up some extra tips from the madolinist in the Royal Opera House’s production of the opera, which excitingly also included a dress rehearsal sit-in. I may not have become 100% comfortable with the instrument at the time, but I really enjoyed being able to play it in the pit for Co-Opera and the whole experience led me to believe I may actually be able to add it to my CV one day.

Fast-forward to summer 2020…

…and my mandolin playing has really been neglected! My RAM instrument was a flat-back mandolin, so I wasn’t as enamoured with it as I could have been and inevitably had to return it when I graduated in 2012. Even though my Dad bought me a bowlback instrument shortly afterwards, I just hadn’t had the time or need to keep it up.

But during the Covid-19 lockdown, following a chat with a good friend, I felt moved to pick it up again. Lee, a Royal Marines drummer-bugler, is always learning and his most recent project is the bass guitar. He has just taken his Grade 5 exam, and the joy he has found working on it really pushed me into action! I knew it wasn’t enough to just say it though, so I went looking for a framework for my learning and decided to document it online for some accountability.

To cut a long story short, I found a syllabus and set to work! To follow along with my progress, click here.

* Did you know the kitchen tool is so-named as the wrist motion required to slice the vegetables resembles that of a mandolin player’s strumming hand? Neither did I!

If you like this, you might like…

Mandolin Diary – Week 1
PFJ 2020 – 31 Baby steps
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