Mandolin Diary – Week 1

1st-9th August 2020

3 minute read

August challenge

Riding on the wave of my Plastic Free July blog series, I wanted to pay the music side of my site some attention this month. I have tried to use all this unexpected time at home to do things I wouldn’t otherwise have time for, so aiming to play my previously neglected mandolin every day this month seemed like the perfect project!

To read my mandolin back-story, click here.

Getting started

When I took up the viola in 2008, I dropped myself in at the deep end and entered myself for Grade 8. My 3rd year violin recital was very early in the summer term, so I booked myself in for a viola exam in July and went full pelt at it for two months. A few years later I wanted to do the same with mandolin, but when I went looking for an exam board that offered mandolin exams, I couldn’t find one. So I gave up.

Finding a framework

This year’s lockdown situation has brought a few more exam boards to my attention that I hadn’t realised existed. As the mainstream boards weren’t initially offering online exams, teacher colleagues started looking elsewhere for ways to keep their students moving forwards. I can’t have looked very hard before, as when I widened my search I quickly found Victoria College!

I immediately remembered I had already heard of the board, as the Stringbabies teaching method offers Victoria College certificates for their young learners. Following some friendly email exchanges with Victoria College’s staff, I learnt that their mandolin provision stretches back to the college’s foundation in 1890. After a major re-organisation in the 1960s mandolin exams were taken off the menu, but the late Alison Stephens convinced them to launch a new syllabus in the 1990s.

Saturday 1st August

To start the month, I downloaded the current VCM syllabus and got ordering books! I decided to work through from Grade 1, sharing progress videos along the way. As we were visiting relatives I couldn’t actually play! But I was ready and raring to go.

Sunday 2nd August

I got the mandolin out and (after a serious string-tuning session of course) started work on the Grade 1 scales. As I’m always telling my violin and viola students, they’re super important! The mandolin syllabus only has two scales for Grade 1, both of which also feature on the violin syllabus, so I tried the full violin set whilst I was getting used to holding the instrument again. I also tried a few ABRSM Grade 1 violin pieces whilst waiting for my mandolin books to arrive.

W/C 3rd August

I’m really enjoying getting back into playing and have practised every day. It hasn’t taken too long for my right hand to get comfortable with a plectrum again, and I’m mostly hitting the right strings. I only need to master down strokes for Grade 1, so no signature tremolo yet!

Things to work on

  • Heavy enough fingers on the two G strings, as they are thicker than the others and slightly further to reach;
  • Placing my fingers high enough up the finger board, especially the 3rd finger, so that they meet the frets rather than landing in the gaps between them – this will help stop the twangs!

This week’s videos

Books started to arrive throughout the week, so I’ll work towards some proper mandolin Grade 1 videos next week! For now, here are my two scales and some pieces from the ABRSM Violin Grade 1 syllabus, one each to match the keys of the scales.

D major scale and arpeggio 1 octave with Neil Mackay’s Tango:

G major scale and arpeggio 2 octaves with Welsh Traditional tune Y Delyn Newydd (The New Harp). Keep an eye out at 1:07 for a technique I learnt called a “pull off”, plucking with the left hand fingers instead of the plectrum to achieve a slur.

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